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Officials urge feds to end jobless bonus

Commerce reps say reopening rules worry some businesses

Multiple business and tourism officials on a conference call with U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik on Thursday called for Congress to let unemployment benefits expire for those without a job because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The push comes as federal lawmakers debate whether to extend a $600-per-week unemployment benefit granted to those without a job as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law on March 27. The benefit is set to expire on July 31.

More than 40 million people across the U.S. have filed unemployment claims since mid-March. In New York, more than 2.4 million people have filed unemployment claims since March 8, according to the state Department of Labor.

“Federal unemployment insurance should not be extended beyond July 31,” Michael Bittel, president of the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce in Glens Falls, told Stefanik. “If we extend it beyond July 31, it’s certainly going to impact seasonal workers and morale.”

Later asked by the Enterprise to elaborate on why he believes the benefits should be allowed to expire, Bittel did not respond for comment by deadline.

Both state and federal representatives for this region said Thursday that they are in favor of letting the CARES Act benefit expire.

“My focus is on getting people back to work as soon as possible,” said Stefanik, R-Schuylerville.

Republicans have argued that the additional unemployment benefits should have been capped at 100% of what a worker earned before the coronavirus pandemic, rather than a blanket $600-per-week benefit, which leaves some workers getting paid more on unemployment than while having a job and disincentivizing them from looking for work.

Trump’s chosen liaison for stimulus negotiations, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, ultimately agreed to Democrats’ suggested approach of the $600 benefit across the board, according to the New York Times.

Democrats have sought to expand coronavirus relief while pushing for billions in additional aid for voting-by-mail elections, states, cities and the U.S. Postal Service.

State Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, agreed with Stefanik’s focus on getting residents back to work.

“I think we need to get our people back to work, and our businesses, as soon as possible,” he said. “Not that we don’t want people without money, but we want to get people back to work and our businesses up and running.”

On Friday, Jones’ office announced that he had co-sponsored legislation that would allow industrial development agencies to offer short-term loans of up to $25,000 to not-for-profit organizations and small businesses impacted by COVID-19. The bill, if signed into law, would also allow IDAs to award grants to businesses specifically for purchasing personal protective equipment or installing safety fixtures.

Business concerns

Stefanik’s conference call on Thursday brought together more than 30 business owners, tourism officials and representatives of regional chambers of commerce for a discussion about tourism, special events and reopening the economy.

Tourism officials outlined plans to first encourage locals to visit small businesses before slowly transitioning to marketing to regional and out-of-town travelers. These officials included Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, based in Lake Placid.

Special events coordinators expressed frustration over state guidance rapidly changing, making it difficult to plan events in advance.

A representative of the Adirondack Coast Visitors Bureau in Plattsburgh spoke about concerns that a decline in U.S.-Canada border crossings this year would have a lasting impact, both in terms of lost revenue and deterring Canadians from visiting New York border communities. The border has been closed to nonessential travel since March 21 and is expected to remain closed at least through June 21.

“Our biggest concern, at least in Clinton County, is the border crossings,” said Kristy Kennedy, vice president of marketing for the Adirondack Coast Visitors Bureau. “How do we ease fears that you can go to the U.S. and it won’t be a (COVID-19) hot spot?”

Kennedy also said she’s heard from business owners who are hesitant to open their doors again right now.

“They’re scared to open their doors because they’re not sure if they’re meeting the (state) guidance,” she said. “More information is needed.”

After meeting all state-imposed criteria, the seven-county North Country region was slated to move into Phase 2 reopening on Friday, effectively green-lighting in-store retail, office-based jobs, finance and insurance services, barbershops and salons. But on Thursday evening, the state pumped the brakes on the next phase of reopening as it seeks guidance from international health experts on whether it’s safe to move forward. On Friday afternoon, the state changed its guidance again, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo then saying the North Country region was in Phase 2 effective immediately.

Business owners can visit forward.ny.gov to see guidance that’s currently available from the state.

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