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COVID-19 Public Policy Update: March 20, 2020

Published Mar 20, 2020 by Taylor Landin

In response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Partnership will provide a daily update on public policies and other newsworthy items from local, state and national levels of government.

Executive Summary

All levels of government continue to focus on strategies to contain and respond to COVID-19. At the federal level, legislation addressing COVID-19 continues to move forward. President Trump signed the “Phase 2 Stimulus Package,” (the Families First Coronavirus Response Act) Wednesday night which provides free testing, expanded funding for food security programs and paid sick, family and medical leave for workers at companies with 500 employees or fewer. The phase three legislative package was released in the Senate. At the state level, Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars and restaurants to provide only take-out, delivery or drive-through service. Social gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. Schools must close but may continue distance learning. These rules will be in effect through April 3rd. State Health Commissioner John Hellerstedt issued a formal public health disaster declaration for the entire state of Texas. At the local level, the first private, free COVID-19 drive-through testing center opened in the Houston area.

Federal

President Trump's Press Conference

  • President Trump reiterated his position that the responsibility to secure enough ventilators, masks and tests lies with governors rather than the federal government.
  • President Trump has enabled the Defense Production Act, but he has not yet implemented it.
  • Vice President Pence stated they are “increasingly confident they will have the number of ventilators that are needed.”
  • President Trump said he has directed the FDA to “cut the red tape” to develop therapies and vaccines.

Two Congressmen test positive for COVID-19

  • There are now two known cases of COVID-19 in Congress. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla) and Ben McAdams (D-Utah) have both tested positive. The news has led many other Members of Congress to self-quarantine due to extended interactions with the two Congressmen, including Steve Scalise, Minority Whip – the number 2 Republican in the House.
  • It is assumed dozens of lawmakers and aides were in contact with the virus given the close proximity the members find themselves in during the day-to-day work around the Capitol.
  • Many members have come back to their districts for the current work week.
  • This will have impact on how the House returns to vote on the Phase 3 stimulus package.
  • Democratic leadership has ruled out use of mobile voting as a bill would need to be passed to allow it.

Phase 2 Stimulus Package

  • Last night, President Trump signed the “Phase 2 Stimulus Package,” (the Families First Coronavirus Response Act) which provides free testing, expanded funding for food security programs and paid sick, family and medical leave for workers at companies with 500 employees or fewer.

Phase 3 Stimulus Package

  • The phase three bill was released today by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
  • With the release of the Senate Republican plan for direct financial help for Americans, relief for small businesses, help for impacted industries like airlines and efforts to bolster the health care system, negotiations with Minority Leader Schumer and the Senate Democrats have begun.

Other Points of Interest

  • HHS Secretary Alex Azar stated that it is not the responsibility of the federal government to ensure localities and states have enough swabs and face masks. This appears to be consistent with the Administration’s stance on the role of the federal government on calls with governors over the past week as well, where it was made clear state governments are on their own in handling this crisis.
  • The FCC granted U.S Cellular special temporary authority to use more airwaves to help meet increased consumer demand for broadband during the pandemic.
  • HUD Secretary Ben Carson authorized the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to implement an immediate foreclosure and eviction moratorium for single-family homeowners with FHA-insured mortgages for the next 60 days.
  • Good news from China as they reported no new locally transmitted cases for the first time since the pandemic began.

Numbers

  • Note – public health officials have been warning that we will see a large increase in these numbers very quickly as more testing is beginning to occur.
  • CDC official numbers (3/19/20): 10,442 cases; 150 deaths
  • For comparison - CDC numbers as of 3/18/20: 7,038 confirmed cases; 97 deaths

State

  • State Health Commissioner John Hellerstedt issued a formal public health disaster declaration for the entire state of Texas. Simultaneously, Governor Abbott issued an executive order for the following:
    • Prohibiting any social gathering of more than 10 people.
    • Closing all gyms and massage parlors, and limiting bars and restaurants to serving take-out, drive-through or delivery options only.
    • Prohibiting any non-critical assistance visits to nursing homes, retirement homes or long-term care facilities.
    • Closing all schools across the state.
  • The executive orders go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday, March 20, 2020, and last until 11:59 p.m. April 3, 2020.

Local

  • United Memorial Medical Center announced the opening of the first private, free COVID-19 drive-through testing center in the Houston area today. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia attended the opening located at 510 West Tidwell, Houston, TX, 77091.
  • Mayor Turner announced that the City of Houston will open the first of two public, free COVID-19 drive-through testing centers in the City tomorrow. The center will be located at Butler Stadium and first will test first responders and healthcare workers.
  • Prior to the Governor's announcement regarding bar and restaurant operations today, Montgomery County implemented new guidance regarding the operation of bars and restaurants, similar to rules in place in the City of Houston, Harris County and Fort Bend County. Montgomery County ordered local bars, nightclubs, gyms and movie theaters to cease operations. Restaurants may only provide catering, take-out, delivery or drive-through. These rules will be in effect through April 2nd.

Higher Education

  • Federal legislation passed to ensure full GI bill benefits remain in effect. Under the current post-9/11 rule, those taking online courses receive 50% of the benefits of on-campus students.
  • American Council of Education is seeking guidance from the Department of Homeland Security on the impact this will have on the status of current and potential student visas (F-1, J-1, M-1).

Other Updates

  • College Board cancelled May SAT tests.

Public Education

School Closures

  • Per Governor Abbott’s executive order, all schools will close effective at midnight on March 20, 2020 through April 3, 2020. This order does not impact distance learning.

Distance Learning

  • Governor Abbott directed the Texas Education Agency to assist school districts with distance learning opportunities, and the agency is in the process of creating a distance learning task force to further assist school districts statewide.
  • There is no statewide timeline requiring distance learning programs to come online by a specific date.
  • The HISD Board of Education met this afternoon and discussed plans to launch an online distance learning portal on March 31st. District staff will survey families’ distance learning technology needs next week

Meet Us at an Upcoming Event

COVID-19 Business Forums

COVID-19 Business Forum - Making Sense of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

The Partnership's COVID-19 Business Forum continues with a discussion around the Families First Coronavirus Response Act On April 2, 2020, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) went into effect, changing the legal requirements related to employee benefits and leaves of absence. As employers work to respond to the ever-changing work environment caused by COVID-19, they are faced with new questions each day. This webinar will focus on how to effectively implement FFCRA and will provide guidance on potential scenarios employers might face. Confirmed speakers include:  Bonnie Monych, CPC, CM, Performance Specialist Houston Region, Insperity Jeff Sorrells, PHR, Senior Human Resources Specialist, Insperity Michael Gutierrez, Human Resources Consultant Manager, Workforce Solutions  A moderated conversation will follow the discussion. Please pre-submit questions to sroberts@houston.org. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. The Greater Houston Partnership's COVID-19 Houston Business Forum is a digital series providing the latest information and analysis on the crisis and its economic impact through teleconferences with local experts. The Partnership will continue to provide updates and resources to our members throughout this ongoing situation. A reminder to bookmark our COVID-19 Resources page which is being updated daily. 

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