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In WAMC Interview, Gillibrand Discusses Pandemic, Limo Regulations

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

As Congress considers another stimulus package, public health officials say the coronavirus peak is still coming, even after a month of mandatory shutdowns in much of the country. New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand discussed the country's battle with COVID-19, and her disappointment over the federal government's inaction on new regulations for stretch limos in an interview with WAMC Friday.

Senator, I've been asking everybody this question: how is the pandemic affecting your job and your life?

Well, I certainly feel enormous gratitude to our first responders and our frontline workers. I think people now see how important food workers are. And people who work in grocery stores and in pharmacies, as well as our doctors and nurses. For me, it's really put a fine point on how we have to do better in making sure our frontline workers have basic safety nets. We really need universal sick days in this country, and there's no better example than what's happened right now. So I want to make sure every worker in America gets two weeks of sick days. I also want to focus a lot more attention on national paid leave. Because if we had had that, then there would have been a vehicle for people to actually stay home with their children if school get closed for a month, or two, or three. Or for people to stay home if they're sick themselves, or caring for a sick loved one. And so what this epidemic and pandemic has really done for me is focused my attention on where we should be focusing our advocacy, that it is these frontline workers, the care givers, the people who feed our children, create food for our whole economy, and country. People who are doing just low wage, but urgent and essential work, that they actually needed to be lifted up as and valued more because they are the ones who are saving people from dying right now.

Those are not new issues for you. How do you get Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in your chamber to go along with them?

Well, I think using this example to explain to them that without these kinds of safety nets, we don't have the tools we need to defend against something like an epidemic or a pandemic virus like this. It also shows that their ideology in some respects doesn't reflect who the parts of the economy that really do have the greatest value. And so, as opposed to just tax cuts for the wealthy, we really need the social safety nets for the people who are doing the real work that keeps our communities alive and thriving.

Almost as soon as Congress passed the first $2.2 trillion package, there was talk about the need for another COVID bill, which is now being discussed. Beyond the things you've mentioned so far, what else would you like to see in another stimulus bill?

So for the next bill, we're hoping that we can fix some of the small business divisions before we add more money to it. A lot of restaurants haven't been able to use the Small Business provisions because they have no revenue coming in so no ability to pay their employees or get up and running while the economy is shut down. It's also highlighted that not all of the banks are servicing some of our community small businesses. So the urgency of getting more community banks, more credit unions involved and getting them access to the SBA lending program. And those are some things we want to change. I also want to make sure we actually add paid leave for the rest of the workforce in America. The second bill only covered about 25% of workers. Same with the sick days. So we want to make those two things universal if we can. We also need more money for food. People are finding when they don't have a paycheck. It's very hard to pay for food and the food banks are getting overwhelmed, so getting more resources into feeding our communities will be a priority for me.

In the current bill, the CARES Act, you've raised concern that the stimulus checks, which are supposed to go out beginning Monday, $1,200 for people making under $75,000 a year, won't reach people A) in a timely manner, and B) if they don't have a permanent address. In other words, if they've been homeless, that money will won't be able to get to them. How do you ensure that people actually get these checks?

First of all, anyone who's ever paid their taxes online will get it directly into their bank account. People who pay their taxes through the mail will get it in the mail. But then for people who will have no address, so homeless, people living in shelters, it's going to be urgent to be able to work with social services to get money to the most out need at risk. And I think that's going to take a real investment by the cities and states and localities to make sure those people aren't left behind.

Governor Cuomo has been saying that he is speaking to you on the phone. He's had a lot of complaints about that first bill. He says it, you know, gave New York state short shrift, while the state is dealing with its own budget shortfall. What do you say to that?

Well, I appreciate the very good work that the governor is doing. He's providing excellent leadership during this crisis, far better leadership than President Trump. And he has a real challenge because he cannot close his budget gap, because he has no revenues coming into the state. The bill that we passed, which was actually a third bill, so we call it COVID 3, was not meant to be one that could make all budgets whole because it wasn't enough money for that; what it was intended to do is triage. We needed to get money immediately to the hospital, so they didn't collapse. We needed to get money immediately to individuals so they, as families could provide for their kids and actually have food on the table and the medicine they need. So that was urgent money for small businesses, and then money for states and local governments. We sent a lot of money to New York state in many forms, through all the different forms about $40 billion is going to the state. And so that's just the first step. It's not intended to be everything. So the next step is going to be equally as important. Getting more money to the state and localities. We’ll try to do another $150 billion, which is double what we, last time we did $150 billion too, so we're doubling the amount into the state. And hopefully, the governor will begin to see some of the benefits of where money is going to mass transit, MTA, to Port Authority money to all businesses around the state, small and large, money to people, money to localities and cities, money for other supply chain issues. We put several billion dollars into the stockpile. $16 billion. So again, that’ll be more resources for the governor to get more masks, and more ventilators, and more PPE. Again, it's not nearly enough and we'll keep fighting for more. We appreciate all the work he's doing, but this was just our first effort to do triage.

Senator, are you worried that President Trump, because he sees what's happening to the economy and potentially, you know, the polling on his performance, is going to move to reopen the country before it's safe to do that?

I hope he doesn't. I hope he doesn't project we should reopen before it is safe. I hope he listens to his medical experts. I think it's gonna take us a lot longer than people want. Because, unfortunately, this is a rolling epidemic. And so while New York might be spiking now, some places in upstate New York won't be spiking until end of April or mid-May. And parts of the country probably won't have their most cases till mid-May, June or even July. So, the truth is, we don't know how long it's going to take to eradicate or can contain COVID-19. But we do know, it's been a lot harder to contain it than I think certainly the President ever estimated. So we just have to keep working hard and try to protect our communities as best we can try to limit the number of people who are exposed, and try to limit the number of people who are dying. And that's the best we can do for our country right now. And that's going to take a lot more medical support, a lot more resources for our first responders, more personal protective equipment, more ventilators. The president needs to utilize the Defense Production Act more effectively that he has been, which is getting our manufacturers to create a supply chain of what we need. We also need our drug makers to finish their testing on the vaccine as well as finish their testing on therapeutics. We need the regulators to do expedited review so that we can have these vaccines available by the end of the year. It is not 18 months from now, but by the end of the year. And frankly, we need the manufacturers of the rapid test manufacturer more quickly and find other manufacturers to assist because we need testing. I really think we should be able to test every school child before they go back to school. Before we expose classmates and teachers in our communities, to perhaps people who have it who are asymptomatic. We need universal testing. And we're a long way from that. So I think we just have to keep investing in the resources and first responders and healthcare providers as well as the drug companies that are creating the therapeutic vaccines and testing kits.

Why was the U.S. so unprepared for this?

You know, I think there'll be a lot of investigation of that over the weeks and months to come. I think we don't know right now why our supply chain wasn't quickly utilized to get PPE. Some of the decisions the Trump administration made were mistakes. They did not take this epidemic seriously until was very much too late. They should have been stockpiling and getting manufacturing up and running in January. They waited till March. I would have used the Defense Production Act starting in January, and really built up our critical supplies and get them distributed all across the country. We waited too long to have stay-home orders. And I think that's a mistake, by the president. You know, this is the first pandemic we've had a certainly in my lifetime, and will be lots of time to Monday morning quarterback it but those are the few things that I think are pretty obvious that we should have done differently.

I want to change gears and ask you about the statement you recently put out about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which decided not to enact enhanced safety regulations for stretch limousines. Those changes were recommended by the NTSB and that followed the 2018 crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people, as we all remember. What’s behind that decision? And obviously you would like them to change course. How do you get that to happen?

Well NHTSA, which is the oversight organization, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration declined to put forward the regulations that were recommended by the NTSB, which is the National Transportation Safety Board. They made two really common sense recommendation to require lap shoulder belts for each passenger seating and for all new vehicles to be modified to be used as limousines to require that lap shoulder belts. We also they recommended that they require seating systems and stretch limousines to meet minimum performance standards to ensure their integrity during a crash. Those two recommendations unfortunately were ignored by NHTSA. And basically the Trump administration decided not to protect public safety. The fact that they are unwilling to put these common sense regulations in place means that the legislation that I've been working on with Senator Schumer, and some of our Capital Region delegation should be actually voted on. We have three or four common sense bills that could fix this problem. So we want to get this legislation included in the next surface transportation reauthorization bill, which hopefully we will get to negotiate this year. But we don't know if that'll happen. The bottom line is, it's a failure to protect safety. It's an outrage given how many people have died because of the lack of safety standards. And I'm deeply concerned that President Trump's administration just wants to deregulate at all costs, even if the cost is the lives of our loved ones

Have you been in touch at all with the families of the Schoharie victims about this?

Not this most recent insult, but I will reach out

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York. Thank you so much, Senator, for taking this time for us at this time. We appreciate it.

Well, God bless all your listeners and I hope everyone stays home and stays safe. And every time we block a transmission of this virus, we are doing good for others and saving lives. So I hope everyone realizes that they have a big role to play themselves.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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