Congressmembers talk coronavirus in Silicon Valley, stalled funding bill
Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (center, pink) sits during a week of marathon bill markup sessions. The energy and commerce committee debated 18 different bills between Tuesday and Wednesday.

Silicon Valley residents are hungry for answers about the fast-spreading coronavirus as Congress fights over bills to fund America’s response to the pandemic.

But on Tuesday, residents got a chance to question four U.S. House of Representative members representing parts of Silicon Valley during a “virtual town hall” to talk about Washington’s response to the virus. Congressmembers Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, Jimmy Panetta and Ro Khanna fielded questions from a handful of the more than 7,000 residents who jumped on the call.

Santa Clara County has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, accounting for about 22 percent of the state’s confirmed infections and nearly 60 percent of the deaths due to the virus in California as of Tuesday.

As of Wednesday, 17 people have died and 459 people had fallen ill with the virus in the county.

Multiple Bay Area counties and cities have been under a “shelter-in-place” order since March 17, an order expanded by Newsom to the entire state days later. As businesses shutter due to the order and many residents lose their income as industries slow or halt, U.S. leaders are trying to agree on a bill to fund the country’s response to the outbreak.

So far, the Republican-run Senate and the Democrat-run House have drawn up separate bills and are debating what should be included in the relief package. The four congressmembers Tuesday focused on the details of the House bill.

The questions below were asked during Tuesday’s call and have been shortened. The answers have been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Regarding the current bills in Congress, what funding for small business, workers, unemployment and social security are in the bills?

Lofgren: The House has a bill … (with) more expansive benefits for small businesses as well as individuals. It would allow small businesses not only to get SBA (Small Business Administration) loans, but also there are grants available for small businesses. It would allow sole proprietors who do not have employees to also be eligible for the SBA program, but also unemployment insurance. We have provisions to make sure that contractors, for example, at the airport who are not employees of the airlines are also included in the benefit package, as well as the paid leave package.

Now having said that, there’s an argument going on right now. Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi is in the middle of negotiating with Senators (Mitch) McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate to try and have the most expansive plan possible that benefits individuals, regular people, working people.

Is it possible to open up the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. in response to the virus?

Eshoo: We have many parts of this bill to deal with exactly what you’re talking about. An expansion of Medicaid, which is really the foundation of the Affordable Care Act, but it also expands on it. Enrollment in the Affordable Care Act has been extended. There’ll be more dollars for people not only to be tested for free, but that they have backup medical care — should they need it — because if they are uninsured and contract the virus, you have to take care of people beyond a positive test.

What can citizens do to advocate for the Defense Production Act in the United States to quickly get medical protective supplies and equipment to frontline workers? 

Khanna: There is no doubt that we need the invocation of the Defense Production Act to have ventilators made, to have N-95 masks made. … The idea that we could rely on voluntary compliance for this, or voluntary initiatives, is just not going to be sufficient. It requires extraordinary resources from a company to be producing ventilators, and while they may do some based on a voluntary good community spirit, the reality is that they need that investment.

(President Trump has) signed the Defense Production Act, but so far he’s not saying that he’s going to fund it, or tell companies to do it.

Lofgren: I would urge citizens to call into the White House and urge the president to act.

What, if anything, can or will be done about harassment or assault toward Asian Americans due to coronavirus? 

Lofgren: On the issue of the stupidity of targeting our Asian American fellow citizens for this virus, we do have hate crime laws in California, and I know our district attorney is looking at that as an opportunity.

But really there are two things I would urge: One that each of us, in our individual capacities, speak out and make it completely unacceptable for people to turn on each other.

And (two) that we might also ask those, including political leaders, who are calling this the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘Wuhan virus’ to just stop it — stop it. That is encouraging people to divide along ethnic lines. It’s the last thing we need in this country right now.

Have you considered allowing people to withdraw from their 401K penalty and tax free to help bridge the income gap for people who have few other assets?

Panetta: I think in regards to the House bill that Speaker Pelosi is negotiating right now, our bill waives all penalties for early withdrawals when it comes to 401K. I think we have taken that into account and going forward, hopefully the Senate does, too.

What is being done about our immigrant community in detention centers and our low-risk inmates that are highly susceptible to infection? 

Lofgren: We have urged that individuals who are in civil detention who do not pose a threat in terms of criminal law measures — which is 99 percent — to be released on an ankle bracelet or some other provision that would require their attendance at their later immigration hearing, so that we do not have transmission of the disease in those facilities. We have not yet received that commitment.

Follow along with San José Spotlight’s real-time coronavirus coverage on our LIVE BLOG here.

Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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