‘When can we open up?’: At town hall, Pa.’s Casey finds constituents weary of lockdown life

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey questions witnesses at the Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing Feb. 12 (Screen Capture).

His name was Jared. He was a small business owner. And on Thursday night, he had just one question for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey: When would the government let him go back to work?

“My business was forcibly closed … and my only help is coming through a loan,” said the businessman, who was one of many who called into a tele-town hall the Pennsylvania Democrat held on Thursday night. “I work hard to keep debt out of my business. When can we open up? And when does the solution become a problem?”

The frustration voiced by Casey’s constituent mirrored that of small business owners across Pennsylvania, and across the nation, who are looking for elected leaders in Harrisburg and Washington to help them ride out the coronavirus-induced tailspin of the American economy.

Casey talked up the Paycheck Protection Program, a $350 billion, low-interest loan program, authorized in the first round of COVID-19 relief, that offers full forgiveness if businesses with 500 employees or less don’t lay off workers.

But the program ran out of money this week, after officials approved 1.6 million loan applications, totaling more than $339 billion, CBS News reported, citing U.S. Small Business Administration data. And Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are deadlocked on how to replenish the loan fund.

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Casey acknowledged the program’s flaws on Thursday, as constituents peppered him, and Dr. Mark Goedecker, the vice president and regional medical director for WellSpan Medical Group, with questions ranging from the proper use of face masks and the availability of testing, to rural broadband expansion and what might be in a future COVID-19 stimulus bill.

Pressed by one caller, Casey declined to commit for passing a “clean” reauthorization of the Paycheck Protection program, meaning that the bill would not be weighted down with other programs or initiatives. Lawmakers have talked about a fresh infusion of $250 billion. But Casey said other constituencies, such as hospitals would have to receive consideration.

“Getting money for Paycheck Protection will not be the end of the crisis,” Casey said. “It will require a lot more legislating, a lot more policy. I will not support a clean bill on one program and one funding amount.”

Casey echoed such public health experts as infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying he could not give his caller a firm date on when the economy might reopen. President Donald Trump has suggested some states could open as soon as May 1. Fauci and other experts have said the data and the virus will determine any reopening date, not policymakers.

“We have to get this right,” Casey said.

A caller from Elk County, where there were just two confirmed COVID-19 cases as of midday Wednesday, complained about the lack of access to testing.

“My sister’s mother-in-law passed away, and we couldn’t find out if she died from COVID,” the woman said. “Will we have it [testing] soon?”

Healthcare experts across the country have bemoaned the lack of testing, the New York Times reported, because it has made it difficult to “track the path and penetration of the coronavirus in a way that would allow Americans to safely return to work.”

Goedecker offered a similar sentiment, saying that “when we look at testing, it’s so important …  As we go forward and the number of cases drop, it’s so important to be able to do contact tracing. So we can isolate that group of people and have it not spread to more [people].”

In a briefing with journalists earlier this week, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said it could take into the summer months before the state is able to do the kind of widespread testing that’s needed to safely send Pennsylvanians back to work.

Another caller pointed out the issue that had affected her granddaughter, who relies on federal the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children program to buy food for her family. At a time of social distancing, those federal programs do not allow food to be delivered, the caller said, which means that her granddaughter has to go shopping in person for basic staples.

“Isn’t there a way to relax this?” she asked. “They’re lower income, more vulnerable, and have less resources for medical care.”

The call “had pointed to a real problem on food insecurity,” Casey said, adding that the program needed to be updated to reflect more contemporary needs.

“We haven’t adapted existing programs to be aligned with the needs that people have for food delivery,” he said. “In some communities, it’s solved by volunteers helping out, but in other places don’t have the resources you need.”

Casey offered a similar answer to caller from rural Pennsylvania, who, along with his wife is telecommuting, and found that their home internet connection, a DSL line, isn’t up to their needs.

“There’s been a lot of new dollars, whether through FCC or other parts of the government to deploy broadband,” Casey said. “The deployment has been as slow as can be. In next bill, we should try to address this very fundamental infrastructure deficit.”

At the state level, Gov. Tom Wolf has pressed for similar broadband expansion through a $4.5 billion, bond-funded initiative known as Restore PA. The proposal has run into opposition and some of Wolf’s fellow Democrats, for different reasons, because of its reliance on a severance tax on natural gas drillers.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press