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North Country elected officials share updates on COVID-19 response

PLATTSBURGH — As part of a tele-town hall Friday, North Country elected officials took questions about how federal and state governments are addressing businesses’ and constituents’ concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The North Country Chamber of Commerce hosted the event, which included Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville), State Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) and Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D-Plattsburgh).

Relief packages

From an economic perspective, Stefanik’s priority is making sure relief is provided to small businesses and “Main Street” as quickly as possible.

She explained that the first legislative relief package was comprised of $8.3 billion of supplemental funding to make testing more available and support both treatment and research into finding a vaccine as quickly as possible.

The second package included coverage of COVID-19 testing costs and temporarily increased the federal share of Medicaid payments, reducing the burden on counties.

The next package would include cash payments to individuals; the current proposal is $1,200 for each individual or $2,400 for a couple, based upon 2018 tax filings, the most up-to-date data points the U.S. Treasury Department has, Stefanik said.

And there would be an additional $500 added per child.

“These amounts are reduced as your income level goes up and it phases out when you’re in the higher income levels,” the congresswoman explained.

SBA disaster loans

The Small Business Administration has approved New York State’s disaster declaration, meaning that small businesses in all its counties can now apply for low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

Stefanik added that nonprofits are also eligible.

The next legislative package, she continued, will enhance these loans and expand the eligibility use to include payroll, mortgage payments and other debt obligations.

The North Country Chamber of Commerce will host a webinar on the loan program Tuesday.

State level

Regarding sales tax payments, which were due March 20, Jones said penalties and interest payments from New York state were waived for those who missed the deadline.

He added that the seven-day waiting period to apply for unemployment insurance has been waived, though that agency was swamped when his office called Friday.

And last week, the state legislature passed a bill to make paid sick leave available for all New Yorkers under a mandatory or precautionary quarantine.

For businesses with contracts signed prior to the pandemic that impose penalties for not delivering services or products on time, Little suggested having legal counsel review the contracts to see if an “act of God” clause would apply.

“At this point, I haven’t seen anything from the government regarding private contracts, but it’s something that I certainly will ask about,” she said.

Mental health

Little said additional funding to help with mental health issues has to be addressed, and that the budget would have to be flexible going forward since no one knows what the impact on state revenues will be.

“I’m not good with change so I’m really having a difficult time and I can imagine a lot of people are.

It’s just a very anxious time, not knowing how long this is going to last, what the impact is going to be and not having the ability to be with other people as much as you have been or keep as busy as you always have been.”

Jones agreed, saying there was a great need for this funding even before the pandemic and that this puts more stress on people.

“They will have more issues, more behavioral health issues that will arise out of this. We have been in budget negotiations and certainly that needs to be a part of it as well.”

Stefanik anticipates there will be a robust health care package to support hospitals and increased funding for mental health and beyond at the federal level.

She added that President Donald Trump has waived all federal testing requirements, a move she called for, which will hopefully take some stress off of teachers, parents and students during this “unprecedented year.”

Tourism

Little said it is important to help businesses that depend on tourism with small business and payroll tax credits, and to support them when the pandemic is over.

At that time, Jones said, the North Country needs to be a welcoming community to people from all over the state and country; that will take messaging from the chamber as well as federal, state and local partners.

North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas encouraged tourism businesses to use their social media and databases to continue communicating with customers, letting them know they are missed and that the businesses look forward to having them back.

Shutdown unwanted

There was consensus among the three legislators that no one wants to see a total shutdown of the country.

Little said she looks forward to the day when there are fewer cases than the day before, and Jones emphasized the need to abide by current mandates so that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the president do not have to take more drastic measures.

“The sooner we take this seriously, all of us can pull through this and we can get to the other side of this and go back to business,” Stefanik said.

“All of us can’t wait to go back to our businesses and restaurants and support our local economy, but I do not anticipate this rumor of a national shutdown.”

“Work together”

All three officials said their offices remained available to answer questions via phone or email.

Stefanik continued to encourage everyone in the community to follow the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and county health officials.

“We will get through this together the sooner we act and all of us do our part.”

Little added that it is hard to process the current situation.

“And yet, the more seriously we take it and the more we abide by the stay at home, stay away, keep your distance from everyone, we will overcome this and we’ll put an end to this virus spreading through our district.”

Jones emphasized the importance of consulting factual resources like the CDC and state and local health departments.

“We know how to work together here in the North Country,” he said.

“We know how to partner up and make the best out of a very bad situation and this certainly is an unprecedented situation for our residents, but we will get through this and we will see the other side of this.”