America’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been a failure in large part thanks to our national impatience. We allowed businesses to reopen and nudged people back to work before successfully containing the disease, leading it to flare up all across the South and West, even as it subsided in the original hot spots along the Northeast.
Now, with 151,000 dead, the economy in tatters, and unemployment benefits for millions about to officially expire, Republicans have finally introduced their last-minute stab at a new relief bill. And what would it do? Despite its name, the HEALS Act largely aims to help businesses reopen and nudge people back to work, whether or not we have successfully curtailed the coronavirus’s spread. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, and the GOP appears to have embraced the most hackneyed definition of insanity—doing the same thing over again, and hoping for different results—as its governing philosophy.
In ways large and small, the bill is designed to herd people back to work. It slashes unemployment benefits. It gives companies liability protections, so they don’t have to worry about lawsuits if they want to call back staff. It includes a new round of small-business subsidies that are mostly designed for outfits that stay open, whether or not it’s a good idea for public health. It encourages more people to eat out (and more restaurants to open their dining rooms) by letting companies fully expense business meals. Barron’s economics writer Matthew C. Klein joked Monday that it was effectively a “pro-virus tax plan.” But really, you could say the same of the whole economic side of the GOP’s proposal. The legislation is so pathogen-friendly it reads like it was brought to us by the lobbyists at Big COVID.
To be fair, McConnell & Co. haven’t quite gone full death cult on us. Their legislation does include a number of measures designed to actually combat the virus, which is nice, since it means that Democrats don’t have to spend time bargaining for those. There’s money to protect nursing homes, increase testing so that people don’t need to wait a week for results, and build out contact tracing (which hasn’t gone well so far); it also provides tax credits for businesses that want to make themselves a little more sanitary for employees and customers.
On the other hand, Republicans have also decided to use education funding as a cudgel to force schools to physically reopen, whether it seems prudent or not, since that will make it easier for parents to go back to work. As Israel has shown, sending kids back to class too quickly could easily fuel another resurgence of the virus.
The fundamental problem with the bill is that conservatives are still laboring under the delusion that we can quell the pandemic while simultaneously going back to some semblance of our old lives—one where families can still pack into their local Olive Garden as long as the tables are wiped down often enough, and children can get back on their school buses every morning while their parents head to their jobs. Our entire experience so far suggests that’s really not possible. There are simply too many spaces—offices, indoor bars and restaurants, theaters, gyms, nightclubs, and, in some places, schools—that probably cannot open safely. The sensible approach would be to pay to keep those places closed and to support people who can’t work as a result, both for their sake and for the wider economy’s. The frustrating reality is that we failed to quash this virus when we had a real chance in the spring, and the country doesn’t seem to have the appetite for another full lockdown—and so our only option is to muddle through until there’s a vaccine. We can pay money, and be patient, to do that somewhat safely. Or we can rush back into another disaster. Right now, the GOP is pushing us toward the latter.
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