School, sports and politics are all being disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. In Massachusetts, next Wednesday’s debate in Springfield between two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates is postponed. Congressman Joe Kennedy of the 4th District is challenging Senator Ed Markey in the primary, but Friday his campaign said it’s suspending activities for now. Kennedy spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus from Washington as the House worked on a new COVID-19 bill.
Joining us now from Congress is Congressman Joe Kennedy of the Massachusetts Fourth district. Congressman, can you give us the latest on what the federal government and the Congress's response to the coronavirus outbreak is?
Yeah. So first off, thanks for having me. And let me and call in and I've been trying to mix calls those folks around the state just to one check in, give everybody an update as to where we stand and, and try to make sure that the communication is being spread clearly from D.C. out about across our commonwealth, which I also recognize hasn't been as smooth and as consistent as it probably needs to be. So thanks for having me.
Where we stand at the moment is, we are in the midst of a very serious circumstance. We've seen the number of cases increased markedly across our commonwealth particularly centered in Boston, but in many corners of the state as of now. The lack of a broad consensus that those numbers are actually well below what the overall infection rate is due to the lack of testing and the way in which the Centers for Disease Control have, unfortunately, limited their ability to get these tests want to make enough tests to get them out to the public and then through process them and efficient manner so that people can that need tests actually get them and we're pushing very hard on our federal government to rectify that immediately, we continue to press on them.
The big package that we're working on today is focused on American families. So recognizing that we got to keep people healthy. And the way a pandemic you keep people healthy is you enable them to be able to stay home to stay home or if you're sick, even to stay home if you're healthy so that you don't necessarily have to come to places where you have a higher likelihood of getting coming in contact with somebody who's contaminated or contaminated surface or something else. So we're moving a bill. We were hoping to do this yesterday. And then open the door this morning. It's been tied up with some disputes with the administration. But the in the big pieces to this kind of come down into five different buckets. The first is making sure and guaranteeing that every single person that needs a test will be able to get it free of charge. And that's a big deal. The administration had had not guaranteed that before. But what this ensures is that people who particularly lower income folks that might be facing a significant cost at getting that test because they're uninsured or underinsured are able to go in and get that test without for free. The second is paid emergency leave. So both 14 days of paid sick leave, and up to three months of family and medical leave. And that's critically important to that one. If you're sick even stay home and not feel like you're gonna put your own financial future in jeopardy. And to if you're a parent, you got a sick child or a sick spouse or a parent yourself that you have the ability to care for your family member and not feel like you're going to put your financial future in jeopardy.
Three is enhanced unemployment insurance, we do expect that there's going to be a significant financial hit for small businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industries, bed and breakfasts, small hotels, restaurants, that if you happen to lose your job that you're going to get an enhanced unemployment insurance. So you're still able to make payments on your car, on your rent on your home. For is strengthened food security. So that includes food stamps, SNAP, senior nutrition, food banks, and also student meals. I think one thing that not a lot of people know is just how many millions of students across our country rely on school meals for both breakfast and lunch. We're seeing states across the country cancel school for weeks, if not a month. If that's the case, those students still need access that nutrition and we need to make sure that they do get access to it so you don't put that burden on families that can't afford it.
And the last is increasing federal funds for Medicaid. And Medicaid, as you probably know is the way in which we ensure that it’s a social safety net for healthcare safety net for lower income families. That system is going to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, as a pandemic can often run rampant through lower income communities, communities that don't have the ability to self-isolate, that are in more densely populated areas rely on public transit, etc. Medicaid needs to make sure that they have, we need to make sure that netiquette Medicaid has the resources they need to be able to reimburse these health care facilities and expand to most services. One of the big ones here is telemedicine, so that if you start feeling sick, you can actually get evaluated by a phone call or you know, even some FaceTime app or something like that, and not have to come into a hospital where we just might not have the capacity or you risk getting other people sick. Doctors need to be able to get paid for that because otherwise they're gonna people are still gonna come in and get to get evaluated because they don't have hospitals. Don't have resources to make all this work. So we're pushing really hard to make sure that Medicaid set those resources as well.
Now, President Trump is supposed to announce a national emergency at 3 o'clock today. It's a couple hours before that, as we speak, and he's named a new czar to run the administration's oversight of testing, which, as you mentioned, has been lagging behind other countries so far. What else do you want to see from the administration here as this coronavirus outbreak continues?
I want to see the administration finally get in front of these issues here. I want to see them put in clearly communicating with the American public about what the challenges with the testing has been and how they're going to fix it. I want them to clearly communicate not just how you're going to make these tests, but then how you're going to get them out to facilities and then how those facilities can then test them and how they're going to process them so that we can actually get accurate numbers. I want them to articulate how the federal government is going to mobilize those resources to prepare help communities as best we possibly can. There's that means everything from making sure that providers have the personal protective equipment, masks, gowns, etc, that they need to stay safe first responders you can imagine if there's a 911 call and firefighters or paramedics run into a house, they need to make sure that they're protected beds, etc. Like this is a, that's a big challenge. But lay that plan out. I want you to focus on what this is going to mean for individual families. I would hope the President would come out by that time in that press conference is not beforehand for the package that we've been negotiating here understanding the massive economic impact that this can have on families and the need to get in front of this so that people can in fact have their anxiety level brought down. I think a lot of the issues that you're seeing across the country in our stock markets are just the uncertainty of how are we going to deal with this, if that happens, well, it's happening and we need to deal with it. And so clear communication, calm communication that is aggressively dealing with and getting in front of this challenge. And that's what I think has been missing so far.
One of the holdups, at least, according to published reports, has been that the Republicans are pushing for a payroll tax cut to be in this particular package that you all are working on today. Is that something you would support? Should that be handled later?
I don't think a payroll tax cut, if you look at the challenges we're up against, I don't think a payroll tax cut is the most effective way to ensure that Americans get access to the funds that they need. So first off, a payroll tax cut works if you currently have a job for seniors that are retired for lower income families, for folks that might be working predominantly on lower incomes. That payroll tax cut isn't necessarily…first of all, it's not working, it doesn't matter at all. You don't get it to the impact of that doesn't have the same kind of effect throughout our economy as something like a direct cash infusion What if you were just to give every family or middle income lower income family $1,000 credit towards or thousand dollars is injected back into their pocketbooks. That means that they can pay their car payment, they can make their rent payment, they can make their payment for prescription drugs and a far more in a way that is going to be tailored to their own economic needs and reassure that the Greek system to make sure the system doesn't collapse. So I don't think a payroll tax cut is or payroll tax credit is the right place to actually ensure that this financial stimulus gets injected across our community.
It's no secret, Congressman, you're running for Senate and your campaign has suspended activities amid the COVID-19 outbreak, including next Wednesday's scheduled Western Massachusetts debate against Senator Markey. Practically, what does that mean?
So we were in contact with Senator Markey’s team about that debate and the organizers. The Senate schedule has changed. And I think he's either expecting or it might have already been announced that he's expecting to be back in Washington on Wednesday. Anyway. So that debate wasn't going to be able to, we believe that that debate wasn't gonna be able to take place. And so what it means is, we want to do that debate, we proposed six debates several months ago, we just need to reschedule it to a time that is convenient for everybody, obviously, when the senator can be there, and I think when American families are willing to kind of engage in a robust political discourse, and that I don't think you're going to get when people are scared about what's going on in the middle of a pandemic. And so we suspended all campaign activities. I hope to be back home this weekend at some point, hopefully today, and we'll be focusing on official responsibilities, official capacity about trying to get answer questions getting in front of these challenges as best we can and use that to help inform our policy response here in Washington.
Last thing, Congressman: You know, in New York, Governor Cuomo said gatherings of more than 500 people are now effectively banned. You've got schools across Massachusetts, colleges sending their kids home for extended periods. Now, the Vermont legislature today is taking a one-week break from their calendar. And I know that there have been some limitations put in place in Washington, but is it is it a good idea for 435 people from all over the U.S., you know, to be coming to a central location like the capitol with their staffs and so on at this point?
Probably not. So if you if you actually think about it, as you start to articulate if you could think of a better vector for… we're channeling contagious diseases than a bunch of folks that go to every corner of this country to shake a whole bunch of hands, get on airplanes come to one central place, take a whole bunch of each other's hands and then get back on airplanes and go back out to all of those corners of the country. And when we're here, shake a whole bunch of hands here and have visitors from all over the country here. That's probably not. That's probably not great. So this is a point that's been brought up repeatedly to leadership, I think both in the House and the Senate, about what not only members here and our staff have to do to stay safe, but to make sure that we're also not spreading the disease. And so there is without question, a need for Congress to continue to operate to that we can respond to the needs of the American public that was without question, but we need to also be smart to make sure we're not we're not contributing to the perpetuation of the coronavirus. And then we're doing our part too. So I would not be surprised to see some additional measures put in place to alter either schedule or policies or procedures to make sure that we stay safe and keep the public safe.
Have you been tested?
No. Just so I am very clear on that. No, I, I feel great, which is nice. The tests have been pretty severely restricted to even for members of Congress, for folks that are know that they've been exposed and are exhibiting symptoms. And there was one case, though of a Trump ally and a member of Congress who does seem to have gotten a test even though he is not exhibiting symptoms. But my understanding is for the rest of us, it would be we fall into the same guidelines and same policies and same procedures as anybody else. Right, you would get a test if you are in a circumstance where there's been a presumed exposure and you are exhibiting those simple And if you're not, we don't have the test at the moment to just test you to just to make you feel better, right and lower that anxiety. There's not we don't have those. We don't have the sufficient number of kits out there and available to do that. So no, I haven't.
Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy, I wish you continued good health and everyone listening to this. He's a Democrat from the Fourth district, and he's also running for the U.S. Senate. Thanks for your time, Congressman.
Thanks, guys. Take care.