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News Brief: Coronavirus' Economic Effects, Testing For COVID-19


The Senate has passed a bill to inject around $2 trillion of emergency relief into the U.S. economy.


That vote brings Americans a little closer to receiving cash from the government, some compensation for the economic disaster of fighting the pandemic. Here is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.


CHUCK SCHUMER: There are millions of Americans watching us right now at home on their televisions, separated from friends and family, fearful for their children and their livelihoods, unsure of when the time will come when all of our lives may return to normal. Let us tell them tonight that help is on the way.

KING: How is that help going to work?

NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is on the line. Good morning, Kelsey.


KING: So when should people start to expect checks in the mail? And how much should they expect to be getting?

SNELL: Well, the question of how much kind of depends on whether or not the IRS has already access to your bank account information because then they can do an electronic transfer, and that's something that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says could take place in the next couple of weeks, maybe three weeks. Now, when it comes to paper checks, people who don't have that information on file, we don't really know the answer to that. And we're waiting for more information.

When it comes to how much - now, individuals earning less than $75,000 would get a $1,200 check. That goes for both parts of a married couple. So if a married couple is making $150,000, they would each get $1,200. And it would start to phase out after that and go away completely for people making under $99,000. And parents would get $500 per child.

KING: How soon could people see the money? And it sounds like what you're saying is there could be delays on when you see the money if the federal government doesn't already have your address on file.

SNELL: If they don't have your bank account information on file...


SNELL: ...Because these electronic transfers can be done more quickly than printing checks and sending them out to people directly.

KING: And Kelsey, we should point out that this is not just about individuals, right? This is also about businesses.

SNELL: Right. Actually, the largest portion of this bill is focused on getting money to big businesses. And then there's another separate pot of money for small businesses. When it comes to big businesses, the money is focused on loans primarily with some really interesting strings attached.

There would not be an opportunity for large corporations to do stock buybacks for the entirety of a loan plus one year if they accept the money from the federal government. But also, there's a provision in here that prevents the president, the vice president, Cabinet members and members of Congress from accessing any funds from this relief package.

KING: OK. So some things we learned from the financial crisis, if you ask an economist about that. Every senator that voted - and there were 96 of them, right?

SNELL: Yeah. So every senator who was present for this vote voted "yes" on this.

KING: Yeah.

SNELL: And I think that is a really important message because it will head over to the House for that vote on Friday. And it sends a message to House members that this is an effort that supersedes partisanship in a way that we haven't seen before. If you think about it, $2 trillion is a massive piece of legislation. And I have never seen a vote this large on a spending bill, really, of any size.

KING: When is the House expected to take up the bill?

SNELL: The House is scheduled to take that up on Friday. And the expectation is that the White House could receive it that day. It's possible that the president could sign it into law before the end of the week. The goal is to get the money out to people as quickly as possible.

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thanks so much.

SNELL: Thank you.

KING: We do not know exactly how many people have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus, but responsible estimates suggest it is millions of people.

INSKEEP: In California alone, more than 1 million people have filed for unemployment in less than two weeks. Today we get a national picture. The Labor Department releases the number of unemployment claims from last week, which was a week in which large parts of America began to shut down.

KING: NPR's Jim Zarroli has been watching this from New York City. Good morning, Jim.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what are you expecting when these numbers come out today?

ZARROLI: I mean, it's going to be brutal. We are going to see record numbers of people filing for unemployment. The estimates from economists that we've seen so far are just enormous. I mean, the Economic Policy Institute says as many as 3.4 million people filed for claims last week. Just for comparison's sake, I mean, even during the worst weeks of the Great Recession, the number never topped 665,000.


ZARROLI: And in California alone last week, we saw almost that many - 639,000 jobs lost. And that was just last week. So the number of jobs lost overall in the country last week is just way more than we have ever seen before. And of course, that's just last week. We're going to continue to be losing jobs for a while.

KING: And we know, Jim, that some sectors of the economy are looking especially grim, right?

ZARROLI: Right, yeah. Well, I mean, the losses will eventually affect every part of the economy. But a few industries have been really hard hit like transportation, airlines, for instance, energy, restaurants, hotels, anything connected to tourism. I mean, we're seeing places like Florida and Nevada that depend on tourism really heavily hit very hard because nobody wants to travel right now.

A trade group for the hotel industry says it probably has lost a million jobs since the crisis began. Also seeing a big drop in energy prices - so you know, energy states like Texas, where the oil and gas market is really important, have seen a lot of layoffs. But we're seeing layoffs everywhere.

KING: One of the remarkable things here is how quickly this happened. I mean, it might seem long because of how much coverage everyone has done and how long we feel like we've been stuck behind closed doors. But it has not been that long. Compare where we are today to where we were, say, a month ago.

ZARROLI: Well, you remember, just before the virus struck, we were still in the middle of a really strong job market. We had a 3.5% unemployment rate in February. Now, the St. Louis Fed estimated earlier this week that we could see unemployment go above 30% in the next month or so, although it should come down pretty quickly. So a lot of people are just feeling whiplash right now.

I talked to a guy named Adam Hill (ph) from Worcester, Mass., who worked recently until - a graphic designer - as (ph) a company that does trade shows. And he says, as recently as a few weeks ago, the company was having a really good year. Then all of a sudden, trade shows began to cancel one after another. Then within two weeks, 155 shows had canceled. So now he has been told he's going to be rehired once the economy rebounds. He's now been laid off. And you know, the company can afford to bring him back, but no one knows when that will be.

KING: A lot of people, though, will be waiting for that moment. NPR's Jim Zarroli. Thanks, Jim.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

KING: All right. So what is the truth about COVID-19 testing?

INSKEEP: There are almost 70,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in this country. And we know that because of expanded testing. But there's also a lot we do not know, again, because of testing.

KING: There is still a lot of confusion over this. And NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to try and help us suss some of it out. Hi, Allison.


KING: OK. So part of the confusion here - a big part of the confusion - is that we are getting mixed messages about testing. At this point, are tests widely available?

AUBREY: Well, you know, we heard Vice President Pence last night say, we're adding thousands of tests a day. But he also said this week, if you don't have symptoms, don't get a test. So for now, priority is given to health care workers and people with symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath.

KING: So when you hear Mike Pence say, if you don't have symptoms, don't get a test, that sounds like a suggestion. But it sounds like what you're saying is there are actual restrictions on who can be tested.

AUBREY: That's right. That's the reality now, and things are evolving quickly. But decisions are being made without much data here. That's the downside of not having the testing. I mean, everyone in the country is being asked to hunker down because we know the virus is out there. But we don't know enough about who has it, where it's spreading. One way to determine when and where to relax these social distancing measures and the lockdown is to do much more testing.

I spoke to Aaron Carroll. He's a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine.

AARON CARROLL: We have to know who's infected and who's not. And there's too many people in the community who are infected and don't know it or who aren't showing symptoms. We have no idea who they are. And if we just lift the rules of shelter-in-place and let all of those people go out, we'll just snap right back into the growing curve of where we were before.

KING: What is the best strategy, then, to get us out of this at this point?

AUBREY: Well, in really simplistic terms, there are two options here. Option A - lift the restrictions, go back to life as normal. This way, lots more people get infected. The upside, we get to what scientists call herd immunity, where many of us are exposed and then protected against the virus. We get there quickly. The downside, more people die. Hospitals could be overloaded.

Or - option B - keep up the social distancing to flatten the curve, fewer people get sick at any one time. It may take longer to get through this, but fewer people die and the health care system won't be overloaded.

KING: OK. So option B is social distancing, flattening the curve. Clearly, a lot of government leaders, local and state, are choosing that option. Is it possible, then, that we'll end up with a situation where some parts of the country will go back to normal sooner than other parts?

AUBREY: Absolutely. We heard Dr. Deborah Birx of the task force articulate that. She says, we are getting a better picture of where there's a lot of spread and where there's very little. Right now, more than half of all the cases are coming from the New York metro area. So the way forward for New York is going to look a lot different than the way forward in other cities.

CARROLL: I'm in Indianapolis. We're not having the same kind of difficulties that New York City is having. But right now, everyone is sheltering in place in Indiana because we don't want to get there. And we don't have a sense of where the infection is and who's at risk.

AUBREY: You know, and testing can help solve the problem to help us figure this out. People who are positive could be quarantined and socially distanced. Broader restrictions could be softened in other places where there's not a lot of virus spreading.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks so much for your reporting.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.