Shaheen Cautions Against Prematurely Reopening the Economy | New Hampshire Public Radio

Shaheen Cautions Against Prematurely Reopening the Economy

Apr 30, 2020

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Senator Jeanne Shaheen says scientific guidelines suggest it's not yet time to phase out social distancing, despite President Trump's decision to phase it out at the federal level after April.

"The guidelines that were issued earlier by the administration to open up the economy suggested that you need to see 14 consecutive days of numbers of coronavirus cases going down before they reopen their economy," Shaheen said. "What's been reported is that there aren't any states in the country that have reached that milestone."

Governor Chris Sununu has said New Hampshire is likely to reopen its economy in phases, working with public health officials. A task force is expected to recommend the first steps for doing so by end of this week.

In other news, Shaheen said she agrees with a recent Washington Post editorial calling for former Vice President Joe Biden to publicly address Tara Reade's allegations that Biden sexually assaulted her during the 1990s when she worked as a staff assistant in his Senate office. The Biden campaign has denied the accusation but Biden himself has yet to publicly speak about it. Shaheen, who has endorsed Biden,  also said the accusations have not changed her feelings about Biden being the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.  

See below for audio and a transcript of the full conversation with Shaheen. Among the topics she addresses: problems with the Payment Protection Program; what might be in the next coronavirus relief package; and how she views President Trump's decision to order food processing plants to remain open, after several closures and thousands of workers test positive for COVID-19.

Air Date: Thursday, April 30, 2020

GUEST:   U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen has served in the U.S. Senate since 2009 and is running for a third term.  Former  N.H. governor and state lawmaker, Shaheen serves on several committees in the U.S. Senate, including Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Appropriations.

Transcript:

This is a computer-generated transcript and may contain errors.

From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Peter Biello in for Laura Knoy, and this is the exchange. The federal government has been spending a lot of money lately, making loans available to small businesses and sending checks to individuals in hopes that the coronavirus pandemic won't wreak lasting havoc on the American economy. Today, we'll speak with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, former governor of New Hampshire and state lawmaker. The Democratic senator has been in the thick of Corona virus related negotiations these last few months in the U.S. Senate. She's also running for a third term in the Senate. Later in the hour, we're going to talk about how libraries are adapting to life during the pandemic.  Senator Shaheen, welcome to the program.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Good morning, Peter.

Peter Biello:
So President Trump announced yesterday that he will not be extending the federal social distancing guidelines that are set to expire today. The president said the guidelines would be fading out because of the work governors are doing in their states. In your view, is this the right move?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Well, I think whatever we do needs to be governed by the science and what we're seeing from the pandemic. And unfortunately, it doesn't appear that the pandemic has peaked in the country. And so I think, as the president rightly pointed out, it's the governors who've been making these decisions and the governors are going to continue to make those decisions. And here in New Hampshire, as we know, we are still under a state at home order under social distancing measures. And there are several groups that are looking at how to reopen the economy in New Hampshire. And I think hearing from people and going slow and letting what's happening with the pandemic and the science around that govern what we do is important.

Peter Biello:
in your view, is that pointing towards a relaxing of social distancing guidelines?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Well, as I said, not at this point. What we're seeing is that the pandemic has not peaked throughout the country. It's not even peaked here in New Hampshire, as I have seen the numbers and heard from some of the medical experts. We're getting close to that, hopefully, and we will begin to see number of cases diagnosed go down. But overnight, we saw six more deaths announced. Now 50 new cases diagnosed. So that's less than we heard yesterday and the day before, I think. So hopefully that's a good sign. But in the guidelines that were issued earlier by the administration to open up the economy, they suggested that you need to see 14 consecutive days of numbers of coronavirus cases going down before they reopen their economy. What's been reported is that there aren't any states in the country who have reached that milestone. No, I think, again, we need to let the science drive this. We all want to open up the economy. You know, I know everyone is getting tired of staying at home. There are a lot of people who are really hurting, people who have lost their jobs, who are really struggling because of the shutdown. But it's not going to be in anyone's interest if we open things back up. We see a resurgence of the virus. And we then have to reclose for a longer period of time. Right now. There's also some good news. Peter, in that we've heard there, there seem to be some progress on some of the testing, which is positive news. I don't think we've got one quick test yet that the FDA has said can do the job.But there's some real promise in those tests. There's also promise in the drug work that was announced yesterday on Remdesevir, which is a drug that has finished a clinical trial and seems to be helping with reducing the intensity of the virus when people get it. And this. Length of time required to stay in the hospital now. Hopefully that's good news.

Peter Biello:
Well, let me ask you about a few things related to the economy. Last week, a 480 billion dollar corona virus relief bill was signed into law. A lot of that money, an additional 310 billion, was dedicated to replenishing the paycheck protection program. But the program, which reopened on Monday, has had a rocky start. Technical glitches slowing down the application process considerably. According to the president of the New Hampshire Bankers Association, one bank had a team of six people ready to work through the night, but after working a full day, they could not get a single loan approved. What can the federal government do to help fix these problems now?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Well, it's been very disappointing. Peter, we were very hopeful that when we initially developed the paycheck protection program that we could focus it on the businesses most in need, that we could get the money out the door very quickly. We provided some additional funding for the Small Business Administration to upgrade their I.T. systems and to hire people. The story that I have heard, and it hasn't been confirmed, but has been that that money has not been released to the SBA. So they are basically operating without the additional staff and systems upgrades that we had hoped they would be able to get.

Peter Biello:
So is there something the federal government can do to to move things along?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Well, Treasury needs to release the money. Absolutely. And we are going back to Washington on Monday. And one of the first things I'm urging the Small Business Committee to do is to have an oversight hearing on what's happened here, why the money hasn't gone out as quickly as. It should have. Why they haven't gotten the funding to hire more people to make this work, to upgrade systems, to make this work. We need answers to that. And it's been very difficult to get any information from the Small Business Administration about how this program has rolled out.

Worth mentioning that in full disclosure, an NHPR is among the New Hampshire companies that have received a loan through the paycheck protection program.

Sure. Peter, you know, there have been a number of businesses that have been very successful at getting loans through PPP. And so we should point out that this is a two sided story, that there are a number of people who have been helped and are surviving because of that. There are a number of people who have had real trouble because of challenges with the way the program is rolled out. And that's what we need to get to. We need to find out how we make sure this works for everybody.

Peter Biello:
What about state and local governments? Because the Cares Act money that was recently passed can't be used to, quote unquote, backfill state budgets. Is there another round of legislation that's coming that might be used for that to help give states a little more flexibility to to get money where it's most needed?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Well, first of all, one of the reasons the Care's relief package was delayed several days was because there was disagreement about providing additional funding for state and local government. The administration was opposed to that, as was the leadership in the Senate, Mitch McConnell. And so what we were finally able to negotiate was one hundred and fifty billion dollars in that state and local governments fund. New Hampshire is getting one and a quarter billion from those dollars. But we need to provide additional assistance to state and local governments because they are on the frontlines of this crisis. Municipalities need help. I've talked with mayors across the state who are really struggling. And it was my belief and I think a lot of us, when we voted for that 150 billion dollars, that there would be flexibility in how those dollars could be spent. Because obviously, if communities and New Hampshire right now are using money that had been budgeted for something else to address the coronavirus crisis, it would make sense that they would want to be able to replenish those funds. So that's going to continue to be a topic of conversation. I think we've got to allow that flexibility. And I think we've got to provide more help in the next package of legislation that is already being talked about in Washington and about that next package of of of relief.

Peter Biello:
What do you think this one should include? Should it include more money, say, for essential workers.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
I think it should include more money for essential workers. There's actually a proposal for a heroes fund that I support that would identify people who have been on the frontlines of this pandemic, risking their lives. And many of them are very low wage workers. We need to provide some additional help for them. I think we need to include more funding to help with hospitals and health care providers who, again, have taken a huge hit. They've done it because they want to help people and make sure we were able to cover anybody who might be ill with COVID 19. But there's been a huge impact on health care providers and just private doctors offices, on hospitals who are losing millions of dollars a month, on community health centers to provide so much care for people in the state. I had a call with dentists on Monday and talked to them about their challenges because, of course, they've suspended all of their work except for emergencies. And they were talking about the challenges they're facing also with trying to get personal protective equipment so that when they do have someone come in that they can treat them safely. So it's a very big challenge. We need to provide some help for folks who are on the front lines of dealing with the pandemic. And then we need to continue to help small businesses and people who have been laid off. There have been very big challenges with people accessing the unemployment compensation system. I think in New Hampshire, given the challenge that we've had, that they've done a good job, they've gotten the National Guard to help answer phone calls and try and respond to people. But there's been an overwhelming need and not enough people there to answer phones to get the dollars out that people need in order to stay afloat.

Peter Biello:
Listeners we're speaking with Senator Jeanne Shaheen for another 10 minutes or so. So if you've got a question give us a call, one 800 eight nine two six four seven seven or e-mail exchange at NHPR Exchange. We get this question from Ethan, who wanted to know Senator Sheheen, What will you do to ensure that all Granite Staters and Americans had the ability to safely vote in the September and November elections?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Yeah, it's a real challenge, Ethan. And I think a very good question, because there are a lot of concerns about it. We saw several weeks ago in the state of Wisconsin when there was disagreement about voting on that day. People waiting in long lines at risk to their safety in order to exercise their right to vote. We shouldn't have to do that. We need to make sure that people can vote by mail. Here in New Hampshire, the secretary of state has said that anyone can vote absentee. You don't need to have an excuse. But if you're concerned about the safety at your polling place, you can vote absentee. I think the town of Conway is doing something really unique as they're looking at their town meeting. They've set up a drive-by voting system that they're planning to use when they do their town meeting. So you would drive through I think their public garage get your ballot, drive out, fill it out in the parking lot and then drive back in.

Peter Biello:
We saw something similar to that in Bow as well. But, Senator Shaheen, is there anything you could do, any legislation on the federal level that could sort of enshrine some kind of protection, something you would specifically advocate for?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
In fact, Peter, in the last Cares package, there was 400 million dollars to go to states to help with election security, to work on trying to figure out how to make sure people could vote by mail. There was an effort to try and get agreement on vote-by- mail provisions for those states that would like to do that. Unfortunately, there was no agreement on that. But there is an effort as part of that to urge states to look at voting by mail, to look at no-excuse absentee voting, to look at early voting, to look at all of the things that will help people be able to go into the polls and social distance and not have to worry about their health. We need to continue to work on those efforts and provide additional help for states.

Peter Biello:
Let me ask you about the food chain chain, because over the past few weeks, a number of major meat suppliers have announced temporary closures. Workers in these plants have fallen ill, with COVID 19, a chair. The chairman of Tyson Foods warned of a breakdown in the food supply stemming from Coronavirus outbreaks in factories throughout the country. But President Trump is requiring plants to remain open, declaring them a critical infrastructure in the U.S. What's your view of that decision?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
I think it's it's a really tough question, Peter, because what we need to do, we do have essential businesses like those who provide our food, but we need to make sure that if people are working in those essential businesses, that there are guidelines for how they can work safely. And as I listen to some of the employees in several of those plants, that's what they were concerned about. First, that if they were ill or exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus that they be allowed to stay home. We've heard from several employees in those plants that they felt like they were forced to go to work or they were going to lose their job. Well, that should not be. That should not happen. If you're sick, you need to be able to take a sick day and stay home so you don't go in and infect others. We need to do testing in those plants to make sure that people who are coming to work are not exhibiting symptoms. We've seen in some of our long term care facilities where workers there are being tested, where temperatures are being taken, they're answering some questions about how they're feeling. We need to look at those kinds of guidelines for those facilities. Then we need to look at how you set up social distancing in some of those plants. Right now we're not doing any of that, Peter.

Peter Biello:
But the president sort of required a plant to remain open, even though the chairman of Tyson Foods warned about problems there. So is that the proper place for a president to say, hey, no, you have to stay open?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Well, I don't think so. I think, as I said, it's a tough call, but I don't think if workers are at risk and we're unable to ensure their safety or the safety of the food that they're producing, then we shouldn't force those facilities to stay open unless we have ways to ensure that workers are safe and that the products they're producing are going to be safe.

Peter Biello:
The federal government has been pouring out huge sums of money. The Congressional Budget Office recently forecast the national deficit will increase sharply to three point seven trillion in the 2020 fiscal year. To what extent are you concerned about the deficit?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
The deficit is always a concern. And I've done a number of things over my time in the Senate to try and address that. But right now, if you talk to any economist or at least any economists that I've talked to, they will tell you that the most important thing we can do is to help people who are struggling to help keep the economy upright and to try and help people get through this period. We do need to address the debt in the future, but we need to do it after we get the economy moving again.

Peter Biello:
Quick question from Jake in Milford. He writes, As rent here in New Hampshire is pricey, is there any buzz in Congress about a second round of direct payments in the next stimulus bill?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
I think that will be on the table. I haven't been part of any of those discussions, Jake, but there are also discussions about housing because there's a great deal of concern about housing costs. I know for people who are in housing that has federally backed loans, there has been a moratorium on rent and on some of the mortgage payments, but that is going to come due in September under the current guidelines and some people may be facing balloon payments, several months rent that they're not going to be able to pay. So we've really got to take a look at housing and see how we can provide some help.

Peter Biello:
A big expense for some people certainly for some people. Before I let you go, I do want to ask one more more important thing. Senator Shaheen. And this is about Tara Reade, a former staff assistant of former Vice President Joe Biden. She's alleging he sexually assaulted her during his time in the Senate in the early 1990s. The Biden campaign has denied the accusation, but by Biden himself has yet to speak publicly about it. A Washington Post editorial just yesterday said the public deserves to hear directly from the former vice president regarding this allegation. Do you agree?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
I do. I think it would be important for Vice President Biden to respond to those allegations. It was a long time ago. Now the details that she has relayed are details that we all should listen to. I think anytime a woman makes an accusation about sexual assault, it's important to take that very seriously. We've seen both The New York Times and The Washington Post have investigated those allegations and at least The New York Times has responded based on their investigation, that they don't see any pattern of behavior. But this is something that voters are going to have to listen to the information that's out there and make their own decision, just as they did in 2016, when there are a number of allegations, continue to be against President Trump. Voters listened to that and made their own decisions. And that's what we're going to have to do in this election year as well.

Peter Biello:
To these accusations in any way change your feelings about Joe Biden being the presumptive Democratic nominee for president?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
They don't.

Peter Biello:
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, thank you very much for speaking with me. Really appreciate it.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:
Thank you, Peter.