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Lamont Welcomes Pandemic Relief As 'Better Late Than Never'

Gov. Ned Lamont talking about the election outside the Executive Residence.
Mark Pazniokas

Did President Donald J. Trump’s delay in signing the latest COVID-19 relief bill cause the loss of a week’s payments to 35,000 Connecticut residents who have been getting unemployment benefits under the temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program?

That was one of the questions state officials were trying to answer Monday, a day after the president backed away from a veto threat and signed a $900 billion measure expected to produce $9 billion in benefits to Connecticut businesses and residents.

“I’m confident of nothing down there,” Gov. Ned Lamont said of Washington, D.C., during his late-afternoon televised briefing. Noting that state labor officials were still consulting with the U.S. Department of Labor, he added, “We’ll let you know as soon as we hear.”

In the first release of COVID-19 data since Thursday, the state reported 113 fatalities, bringing the death toll since March to 5,904. Hospitalizations remained stable, and Connecticut’s per-capita caseload of 39.9 per 100,000 over the past seven days was lower than all but 14 other states. The U.S. per-capita rate was 54.5.

“Progress is not a straight line,” Lamont said. “But I do think we’re making progress. I think we’re making progress on the economic front, and more importantly, on the public health front. Let’s hang in there a little longer.”

Lamont characterized Trump’s bill signing as “better late than never,” a substantive step toward stabilizing small businesses and preserving benefits for tens of thousands of unemployed residents. Last week, he called Trump’s unexpected threat to veto a deal that his administration had accepted dangerous and “erratic behavior.”

“I just thought it was unnecessary, a bit of grandstanding, and put a lot of people on edge during a very desperate time,” Lamont said Monday, then quickly moved on. “But all’s well that ends well, and I’m glad we got it solved.”

The wording of the relief legislation and its interpretation by the U.S. Department of Labor likely will determine if unemployment benefits will be paid retroactively to the day after Christmas, when certain jobless benefits expired.

At issue is Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program that temporarily provides unemployment insurance to persons generally ineligible, including the self-employed, independent contractors and so-called “gig workers.”

In Connecticut, the pandemic assistance has meant up to 39 weeks of benefits for 35,000 people. The assistance could replace roughly half of weekly income, up to a weekly maximum of $667, plus $15 for each dependent, up to $75.

Regular unemployment insurance coverage, including extended benefits due to Connecticut’s jobless rate, was not affected by Trump’s delay.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is one piece of a relief package aimed at stabilizing an economy battered by waves of layoffs and business closures and slowdowns due to the pandemic.

Overall, Connecticut most likely can expect about $9 billion, about 1% of the $900 billion relief package. On Monday, his administration identified more than $4 billion in direct aid to Connecticut, including $41 million to assist in funeral and burial expenses.

Aid will come to the state in direct payments to residents, forgivable loans to businesses through a renewed Paycheck Protection Program, aid to school systems, money for COVID-19 vaccinations and extended unemployment benefits.

When the president was initially expected to sign the bill quickly, direct payments to families were expected to go out by the end of the month. As in the current law, the direct payments will be $600, not the $2,000 sought by House Democrats and, eventually, the president.

Individuals who earned up to $75,000 in adjusted gross income on their 2019 tax returns will get a $600 payment, with $1,200 to a married couple earning up to $150,000 and $600 for each dependent child under 17.

Lamont said he still was optimistic the direct payment would go out in the next week or so.

“So those should be pretty prompt, a big help,” Lamont said.

The Paycheck Protection Program, which provided Connecticut businesses with about $7 billion in forgivable loans in the first round of funding, will be getting nearly one-third of the $900 billion in new funding. Those loans are administered by the Small Business Administration.

Glendowlyn Thames, the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, urged small businesses to begin moving to compete for the Paycheck Protection funds. They are available to businesses with no more than 300 employees, and companies can participate even if they received money in the first round.

“Contact your current bank to determine if they will be participating in the next round. Visit the SBA website to get a listing of SBA-approved lenders or credit unions and the online FinTech lenders at www.sba.gov. And get connected to one of our partners,” she said.

Information on webinars helping with applications can be found on the Connecticut Small Business Development Center website: ctsbdc.com

Thames said the small business center and other groups, including the Connecticut Women’s Business Development Center, the Black Business Alliance, and the Spanish American Merchants Association “are all on standby, ready to help you.”

The state is providing $5,000 grants to 10,000 small businesses. About 6,000 businesses and non-profits have been informed they will be getting into program, while the remaining applications are being evaluated. The state received 18,000 requests for aid.

An additional $35 million soon will be paid out to 2,000 businesses in the hardest-hit industries. No application is necessary; the payments will go out based on revenue data routinely collected by the state.

“We’re heavily focused on accommodations, retail and other hardest-hit industries. The grant sizes will range from $10,000 to $30,000,” she said.

Lamont said the vaccinations for COVID-19 are on schedule, with more than 35,000 doses administered. All nursing home residents and staff will have been offered the vaccine by early next month. The state will be ready to offer guidance on who will be eligible for vaccinations in the next phase.

The governor’s office disclosed that another member of the staff has tested positive for COVID-19 and has minor symptoms, but the person was not in close enough contact to require the governor or anyone else to self-quarantine.

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