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The government’s failure to provide economic relief is killing people

The lack of funding from Congress is making the pandemic worse.

Mitch McConnell speaks into a microphone.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Tom Williams/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

When Covid-19 began spreading across the United States this spring, the federal government put in place a series of protections to help workers and families weather the economic impact.

Then, one by one, the government took them all away.

Expanded unemployment insurance, which helped keep millions of laid-off workers out of poverty, expired at the end of July. Federal stimulus checks were issued to millions of taxpayers once, beginning in April, but never again. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans meant to keep small businesses afloat expired in August, even as many of those businesses faced a second surge in cases.

And it’s about to get a lot worse, with a host of benefits from student loan forbearance to the federal eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of December.

Many economists agree that the federal government’s insufficient economic protections are driving Americans — especially low-wage workers who have been hard-hit in the pandemic — further into poverty. But something else is also becoming clear: The lack of economic safeguards for Americans is making Covid-19 worse, too.

The latest evidence is a study showing that lifting state-level eviction moratoriums, which allowed landlords to once again kick out renters for nonpayment, was associated with an increase in Covid-19 infections. Between March and September, getting rid of the bans and allowing evictions to continue led to as many as 433,700 excess Covid-19 cases and 10,700 deaths, the researchers found.

Meanwhile, the lack of relief for small-business owners is forcing many to choose between closing their doors forever or staying open during the pandemic — and contributing to transmission rates. “They’re making heartbreaking decisions every day,” Lindsey Leininger, a public health educator and professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, told Vox.

And with unemployment benefits running out, workers are forced to go back to unsafe occupations, even if they have underlying conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the virus. “We have not made it feasible for most people to safely shelter in place,” Camara Phyllis Jones, a family physician, epidemiologist, and past president of the American Public Health Association, told Vox.

Those most affected by the lack of economic protection are those most impacted by Covid-19: Black Americans, other people of color, and people living in poverty. And as the country enters a dark winter, inaction by the Trump administration and Congress isn’t just hurting Americans’ livelihoods — it’s costing them their lives.

The federal government gave Americans some economic relief in the spring. Then it dried up.

Covid-19 caused unprecedented economic devastation when it began spreading in the US earlier this year. As restaurants, hotels, and other businesses shuttered, unemployment reached heights unseen since the Great Depression. In late March, more than 6 million people filed for unemployment in a single week; before the pandemic, the highest number of initial claims in a week was about 700,000 in 1982.

Food banks were overwhelmed with individuals and families unable to afford groceries, and the nonprofit Feeding America projected that one in six Americans — including one in four children — could experience food insecurity in 2020. Meanwhile, 5.6 million workers lost their employer-provided health insurance in March and April, leaving many without a way to pay for medical care during a public health crisis.

To help blunt the pandemic’s economic impact, Congress instituted a number of measures: a $600-per-week addition to unemployment benefits, an expansion of unemployment insurance to cover part-time and gig economy workers, a stimulus check of up to $1,200 paid to many Americans, and PPP loans to help small businesses keep employees on the payroll. Some state and local governments also announced eviction moratoriums, and in September, the federal government ordered its own ban through the end of the year.

The programs were far from perfect, but they helped many Americans stay afloat: Despite skyrocketing unemployment, some estimates found that poverty actually fell in April and May thanks to the availability of federal aid.

But as the virus continued to surge, that aid started to dry up. It’s now been four months since expanded unemployment benefits expired, and Congress hasn’t approved any new relief in that time.

That’s hurting Americans’ ability to pay their bills and provide for their families — especially if they previously worked in low-wage service sector jobs that were disproportionately hard-hit in the spring and have been slow to return. But it’s also hurting the country’s ability to fight the virus.

Small businesses are one example. While experts don’t yet have a complete picture of what’s driving Covid-19 transmission right now, they generally agree that some of the most dangerous venues for spread are places like restaurants, bars, and gyms — venues “where almost by definition, people can’t wear masks and are indoors,” as Brandon Guthrie, a professor of global health and epidemiology at the University of Washington, told Vox. For example, one study found that people who tested positive for Covid-19 were about twice as likely to have recently eaten in a restaurant compared to those who tested negative.

However, many states and cities have been slow to shut down such businesses, even in the face of a devastating third wave this fall. In New York, for example, restaurants remain open for indoor dining while schools are closed, though Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a plan to bring elementary school students back later in December. In much of Florida, restaurants and bars opened at full capacity in September, despite continued spread of the virus.

Many factors (including pressure from the Trump administration to just open everything) have gone into state and local leaders’ decisions about business restrictions. But since the summer, one big factor has been the lack of federal aid to small businesses and workers. Policymakers know that if they institute shutdowns, restaurants and bars will go out of business and workers will lose jobs. This likely factors into their decision-making. “You’ve heard governors saying that the availability of those federal funds has been important,” Guthrie said, and they “are really concerned about what is going to happen if those resources dry up.”

In the absence of those resources, meanwhile, individual businesses can’t easily decide to stay closed — even if their owners know it might be dangerous to remain open. Restaurants and bars “are not high-margin businesses even in the best of times,” Leininger said. Their proprietors often “want to do right by public health, but also want to do right by their families and their workers in terms of livelihoods.”

It’s hard to quantify exactly how much the lack of federal support for businesses and workers has contributed to Covid-19 spread. But clusters of infections have been linked to reopened bars and restaurants, including a Friendly’s in Riverhead, New York, and a brewpub in East Lansing, Michigan. Between March and August, around one-quarter of Louisiana’s Covid-19 cases outside of nursing homes and prisons “stemmed from bars and restaurants,” the New York Times reported; in Colorado, 9 percent of all outbreaks as of August had been traced to such venues.

“Every time we see an outbreak that’s seeded in a bar or from a restaurant establishment with indoor dining, that is something that could have potentially been prevented if those settings weren’t open,” Leininger said.

The lack of aid is forcing Americans to put themselves and others at risk

It’s not just about supporting businesses. Individual Americans haven’t gotten the help they need from their government to keep themselves safe, either. Earlier in the year, expanded unemployment may have helped people reduce their exposure to the virus because they “felt less pressure to have to go back into higher-risk settings” for work, Guthrie said. But the expiration of those benefits, along with the ongoing damage to the job market caused by the pandemic, has forced many people to take any job they can get — even if that means exposing themselves and their families to the virus.

“If you are a waitress, and you managed to get some hours at the place where you work but they’re not doing social distancing and they’re not providing PPE [personal protective equipment], are you going to take the chance to quit and try to go work somewhere else?” asked Janelle Jones, managing director of policy and research at the Groundwork Collaborative. Especially with a lack of help from the federal government, many Americans can’t afford to take that chance.

Others, meanwhile, have been unable to find work or pay their bills — and an increasing number face eviction from their homes. Forty-three states and Washington, DC, passed eviction bans earlier this year, but some lasted as little as 10 weeks and many expired in the summer. As of July, large shares of renters in many states — 58 percent in Tennessee and 59 percent in West Virginia, for example — were at risk of being evicted, according to CNBC.

The authors of a new study found that lifting state-level eviction moratoriums, in addition to costing people their homes, also contributed to the spread of Covid-19. “When people are evicted, they often move in with friends and family, and that increases your number of contacts,” UCLA’s Kathryn Leifheit, one of the study’s co-authors, explained to CNBC. Others may move into a shelter, also increasing their risk.

Whether it’s unemployment or evictions, Black and Latinx Americans, who are less likely than white people to have the accumulated wealth to weather an economic crisis, have been disproportionately affected, likely contributing to the high rates of infection and death in many communities of color. “People of color are more likely to be infected because we’re more exposed and less protected,” Camara Phyllis Jones, the epidemiologist, said.

The lack of economic protections is as important to understand as the lack of PPE and other safety measures. “When you force people to enter into situations that are more dangerous because of an economic need when you could address the economic need,” Jones said, it means “we have prioritized some people’s profit over other people’s lives.”

The situation is about to become even more dire, since a number of programs, including the nationwide moratorium on evictions and the extension of unemployment to part-time and gig economy workers, are slated to expire at the end of the year.

“We’re already in a situation that is like a terror state of economic disasters,” the Groundwork Collaborative’s Jones told Vox, “and it will just get worse at the end of the year.”

Economic relief would help people support their families — and help the country control the virus

Experts are clear that it doesn’t have to be this way. Additional federal support for bars and restaurants would allow these businesses to shut down until it’s safe to reopen. “This is restaurant owners’ and bar owners’ time of need,” Leininger said.

Meanwhile, a continuation of unemployment benefits, along with paid leave and affordable health care, could help ordinary people stay safe at home and help the US control the virus, Jones said. More direct payments like the spring stimulus checks may also be necessary: “We can send people money,” Janelle Jones added. “We know how to do it.”

After months of deadlock in which Republicans opposed more generous proposals by Democrats, Congress may be starting to move on the issue: On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators announced a $908 billion stimulus plan that would include $300 per week in additional unemployment benefits for individuals, as well as support for state and local governments and small businesses, the Washington Post reported. But even this compromise, which leaves out additional stimulus payments to individuals and is significantly slimmer than the $2 trillion package sought by Democrats, will have a difficult road in a Republican-controlled Senate.

And while Congress fights it out, millions of Americans will have to continue living and working through a pandemic without the economic cushion needed to keep themselves and others safe. “It is a choice we’re making every day to leave millions of people this insecure and vulnerable,” Jones said.