COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress, signed into law

Infographic about COVID-19 relief stimulus package
Jazmine Solorzano/Staff

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The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act — a stimulus package to provide relief to individuals and businesses during the COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, pandemic — was signed into law Friday by President Donald Trump.

“People are trying to figure out how to put food on the table and take care of their loved ones after losing their jobs and health care. Congress had to act quickly because families, small businesses, and hospitals needed immediate help, said U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, in an email.While the CARES Act was a step – much more has to be done, particularly for working families. Urgent next steps (include) recurring payments to individuals and small businesses, strong protections for homeowners and renters, and ensuring those who lost their jobs maintain access to health care.”

The CARES Act includes increased funding for health care, education, businesses and individuals among many other financial supports. The provisions apply to most Americans and only exclude undocumented individuals entirely from its benefits.

Business support comes in the form of loans that can be forgivable up to 100% if the business keeps its full workforce and increased funding in unemployment insurance, which is now accessible to part-time and self-employed individuals, as well as gig workers. There is also a single payment of $1,200 dollars for individuals or $2,400 for couples for those that have an adjusted gross income of up to $75,000, as well as an additional $500 per child or dependent under 16 years old.

Regarding education, the bill defers student loan payments to Sept. 30.

Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson said in an email that he is grateful the CARES Act was put together so quickly but believes the bill has some oversights.

Individuals who are still dependents and are older than 16, including most college students, do not qualify for the additional $500 nor the $1,200, which Robinson said in an email would affect students’ ability to pay bills and rent.

“As grateful as I am that the CARES Act came together as quickly as it did, it leave so many people behind, students especially,” Robinson said in an email.

Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison noted that the bill excludes undocumented individuals, which she alleges is an “intentional oversight.”

Harrison and Robinson also said they both believe the individual check for $1,200 is not enough. Robinson said in an email that the check will likely just be absorbed into rent payments in most cases.

According to UC Office of the President spokesperson Andrew Gordon, there are many provisions that help the UC system. Gordon pointed out funding increases of more than $30 billion for an Education Stabilization Fund and a Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to provide grants and other emergency support to local schools and higher education institutions, with more than $13 billion allocated to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund specifically.

Gordon also highlighted provisions in the CARES Act that increase research funding, such as a grant to the National Institutes of Health toward research on COVID-19’s prevalence, transmission and natural history of infection. The Department of Energy also received funds to increase access to scientific user facilities, according to Gordon.

“The law will also help ensure that UC students receive the necessary financial support to continue pursuing their education, while providing our researchers additional resources to combat this virus by further exploring possible treatments and a vaccine,” said UC President Janet Napolitano in a statement released Friday. “I would like to recognize Congress for working together to pass this emergency spending package, but acknowledge that more will need to be done before this global health crisis passes.”

Another group of focus in the bill is small businesses. Harrison said the funding and support for small businesses is “really important.” According to Harrison, Berkeley businesses are experiencing hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and she wishes to see more funding and support for small businesses.

Stefan Elgstrand, spokesperson for Mayor Jesse Arreguín, echoed this sentiment by saying Berkeley businesses have taken “a big hit” and have seen a 25% to 75% loss in gross receipts in the first half of March.

“The real pain being suffered by our small business community is just so heart-rending,” Harrison said. “Why do we like living in Berkeley? It’s a unique city with lots of interesting stores and restaurants, with places to go and cultural places and just seeing all of them shuttered is so devastating.”

In addition to the federal response to the pandemic through the CARES Act, the state of California and city of Berkeley have responded to the crisis. The city created the Berkeley Relief Fund, which is intended for emergency relief grants for small businesses and rent support, Elgstrand said in an email. According to Elgstrand, the fund includes $3 million from the city and $681,000 in public donations, as of press time.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said she agreed that emergency funding was necessary.

“With mass layoffs, unemployment claims at record highs and the American economy essentially placed on pause, Congress must steady the economy,” Feinstein said in a press release. “That means helping families, bolstering our health care system and assisting companies that employ millions and are suffering substantial losses through no fault of their own.”

Contact Robson Swift at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @swift_robson.