WASHINGTON — Unveiling the second major stimulus bill of the pandemic, Congress on Monday approved a $900 billion package aimed at addressing the needs of millions of Americans who have been forced to weather the effects of the coronavirus for months even as many existing federal aid programs ran thin or expired.
The new agreement extends some parts of the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus law passed in March, and borrows others with modifications and reductions.
The full text of the legislation, spanning almost 5,600 pages, was passed by the House and Senate soon after it was released. Here are some of the core features.
Among the most anticipated components of the legislation is the direct payments, with $600 going to individual adults with adjusted gross income of up to $75,000 a year based on 2019 earnings. Heads of households who earn up to $112,500 and a couple (or someone whose spouse died in 2020) who make up to $150,000 a year would get twice that amount.
Eligible families with dependent children would also receive an additional $600 per child.
As with the earlier round of payments of up to $1,200 sent out in the spring, the benefit declines for those who earned more than those income levels. It cuts off entirely for individuals who earned more than $99,000.
In a change from the last round, however, payments will not be denied to citizens married to someone without a social security number, allowing some spouses of undocumented immigrants to claim the benefit this time around.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday that the payments could begin arriving as early as next week.
With as many as 12 million Americans facing the prospect of losing federal unemployment assistance on Dec. 26, Congress acted to extend multiple programs, albeit at less generous levels than in the spring.
The agreement would revive enhanced federal jobless benefits of up to $300 per week for 11 weeks, providing a lifeline for hard-hit workers until March 14. (The new benefit is half the amount provided by the CARES Act in the spring.)
The legislation also extends Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — a program aimed at a broad set of freelancers and independent contractors — for the same period, providing an additional $100 per week. Still, it requires those applying for the benefit to provide proof of unemployment, which could complicate applications.
Targeted aid for small businesses
With a specific focus on aiding small businesses ravaged by the pandemic, the agreement sets aside $285 billion for additional loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, renewing the program created under the CARES Act.
The latest version includes stricter terms that appear intended to correct some of the unpopular elements of the original program, which allowed a significant share of funds to flow to a tiny fraction of borrowers, including professional sports teams, high-income law firms and national restaurant chains. Public outcry over the distribution of funds sparked an audit by the Treasury Department; the program was also criticized for falling prey to widespread fraud.
Among other measures, the new legislation caps loans at $2 million and makes them available only to borrowers with fewer than 300 employees that experienced at least a 25 percent drop in sales from a year earlier in at least one quarter. The agreement also sets aside $12 billion specifically for minority-owned businesses.
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Further focusing on small businesses, publicly traded companies will be ineligible to apply this time around.
The law also provides $15 billion to support a broad category of entertainment-related businesses, including small theaters and live music venues, that have been shuttered for most of the year.
Funding for vaccines and nursing homes
Amid concerns about the pace of vaccine distribution in the United States, the legislation sets aside nearly $70 billion for a range of public health measures, including $20 billion for the purchase of vaccines, $8 billion for vaccine distribution, and an additional $20 billion to help states continue their test-and-trace programs.
The bill also provides money for federal Covid-19 research and will allow a federal program that insures mortgages for nursing homes to dole out emergency loans aimed at helping hard-hit elder care centers cover their costs.
Support for climate measures
In an unusual rebuke of the Trump administration’s climate policy, the deal includes new legislation to regulate hydrofluorocarbons, the powerful greenhouse gases common in air-conditioners and refrigerators.
It also allocates $35 billion to fund wind, solar and other clean energy projects.
Both measures received vocal bipartisan support, with senior senators from both parties hailing the breakthrough as overdue and key to creating jobs of the future.
The inclusion of some climate legislation may be of particular interest to President-elect Joseph R. Biden, whose hopes of enacting even modest reforms on climate change hinge on the support of Republicans such as Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, who threw their support behind the new measures.
A ban on surprise medical bills
Clearing a longstanding legislative impasse, the deal will also help millions of Americans avoid unexpected — and often exorbitant — medical bills that can spawn from visits to hospitals.
The bill will make it illegal for hospitals to charge patients for services like emergency treatment by out-of-network doctors or transport in air ambulances that patients often have no say in accepting.
The new changes, which take effect in 2022, will require that patients only pay the normal in-network deductibles and co-payments they would otherwise under their insurance. The law would then leave it to health providers to negotiate with insurers to settle the difference.
The compromise would protect tenants struggling with rent by extending a moratorium on evictions another month, through Jan. 31. The Department of Housing and Urban Development separately issued a similar moratorium on Monday that also protects homeowners against foreclosures on home mortgages and runs until Feb. 28.
The bill also provides $25 billion in rental assistance, a move that could help take pressure off some state and local housing officials who anticipated forfeiting some of the aid allocated from the CARES Act because they were unable to distribute it all ahead of a Dec. 30 deadline.
Expanding one of the most reliable channels of aid, the agreement increases monthly food stamp benefits — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — by 15 percent for six months, beginning on Jan. 1.
Overall, the legislation provides $13 billion for increased nutrition assistance, $400 million of which will support food banks and food pantries. An additional $175 million is earmarked for nutrition programs under the Older Americans Act, such as Meals on Wheels.
Funding for broadband infrastructure
With millions of families forced to work and attend school remotely and make health appointments online, the legislation includes $7 billion for expanding access to high-speed internet connections.
Nearly half of that — $3.2 billion — will go toward helping cover the cost of monthly internet bills by providing up to $50 per month to low-income families.
The stimulus deal also sets aside $300 million for building out infrastructure in underserved rural areas that have historically suffered from slow internet speeds, as well as $1 billion in grants for tribal broadband programs.