‘Science-based’ plan to reopen states proposed in Congress

A sign in the hallway outside the House Chamber gives social distancing guidelines to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Congressional Democrats are proposing what they call a “science-based” national plan to reopen the economy that would guard against new COVID-19 outbreaks and rely on improved collaboration between the federal government and the states.

The legislation was outlined by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and other lawmakers on Friday as some individual states allowed businesses to reopen despite concerns about the continued spread of the new coronavirus.

The legislation, called the Reopen America Act, was recently introduced by Raskin and is co-sponsored by dozens of Democrats. They include Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., who served as Health and Human Services secretary in the Clinton administration.

The lawmakers are critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis and say more needs to be done than provide general guidance to states as they consider reopening.

“What we’re afraid of is that if we go with this Helter Skelter, chaotic approach that the administration is overseeing, we’re going to be thrust immediately into further outbreaks and shutdowns and that’s exactly what we want to avoid,” Raskin said in a conference call with reporters.

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“We want a methodical, science-based plan, based on federal-state cooperation,” Raskin said. “That will really allow us to reopen America.”

The legislation states that two public health conditions would need to be met as states consider reopening. Social distancing would need to have lowered infection rates “sufficiently to allow hospitals to properly care for the infected population.” Also, public health safeguards would need to keep transmission rates below one — in other words, the likelihood of an individual infecting others would need to be one-to-one or less.

The legislation would encourage states, as well as D.C., to submit detailed reopening plans to the HHS secretary. The agency would be responsible for approval of the plans and could determine whether the states receive federal funding for costs associated with reopening.

Raskin and Shalala said that coalitions of states could submit regional reopening plans as well. For example, D.C., Maryland and Virginia would be able to submit a proposal together.

Raskin said it would be a “natural move” for that to happen, since so many people in the D.C. area work in one state and live in another.

The legislation would also create a federal Health Equipment Production Board to help states get tests, protective equipment, ventilators and medical supplies. Many states, including Virginia and Maryland, have complained that efforts to get supplies from the federal government left them frustrated.

Though Raskin said there has been limited discussion about the proposal with Republican lawmakers, it’s not clear whether the proposal would get political traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been raising concerns about the costs of recently passed legislation related to the pandemic. He has also come under fire from governors of both parties for suggesting that states might file for bankruptcy if they can’t balance their budgets.

Asked if there was a specific cost for the proposal, Raskin said no specific estimate had been made, and HHS would need to work with Congress. But, Raskin noted, it would likely be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Congress this week passed a $484 billion measure to provide money for small businesses, hospitals and testing. Lawmakers have begun work on another major piece of legislation, but there is already considerable disagreement about exactly what it will include.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that the legislation must have more funding for states and local governments.

The National Governors Association, which is headed by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, is seeking an additional $500 billion for states. The association has released its own report on how states can recover from COVID-19.

Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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