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Every weekday morning WCAI brings you coverage of local issues, news, and stories that matter. Join us for Morning Edition from 6 a.m. to 9a.m., with Kathryn Eident and Brian Morris.

Cape's Congressman Calls COVID Relief Bill "A Life Line" for Americans

Commercial Street in Provincetown hosts a variety of small businesses, including retail shops and restaurants.

The $900 billion coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress on Monday includes checks to individuals and families, new grants and loans for small businesses and nonprofits, and even mentions the proposed project to build two new bridges on the Cape Cod Canal.
CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Congressman Bill Keating (D-Mass.) of  Bourne about what people along the Cape, the Coast and the Islands can expect from this package. 
Eident Good morning, Congressman, thanks for joining us.

Keating Good morning, and I hope you're well, and happy holidays to everyone who is listening.

Eident Thank you. Happy holidays to you, as well. So first, this $900 billion package has money for individuals and families. Americans will be seeing about half of what they got in relief from the federal government in the spring. From your perspective, is this enough?

Keating Well, this is a lifeline so that this is something that clearly will get us through what is an emergency and a crisis. The House has worked for several months trying to be more expansive, that's true. But the reality is this is what we're able to get through. It addresses the current needs as best we could do it.  It's the second largest type relief bill in the history of Congress, the first being the CARES Act that happened earlier. So, it's just under a trillion dollars.

And, for individuals that make under $75,000 in income, they will get $600 in a direct payment per dependent. So, a family of four would get $2,400 in direct payment. It's, you know, cast down a bit until you reach $90,000 dollars in income and then people over $90,000 won't get that direct payment.

But, importantly for so many people here on Cape Cod, there is a provision to help extend unemployment, which was about to run out. The unemployment also would have an additional $300 for individuals. It was $600 before, but [now it's] $300 for individuals. And, that is something that helped the economy the most, because that money went directly to spending under the CARES Act. And it's critical for people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

As you mentioned, it also helps small businesses a great deal. In fact, almost a third of a trillion dollars that goes to small businesses under the CARES Act, there was 600 billion dollars. So that's almost a trillion dollars that was given for small businesses who are desperately seeking that help.

Eident Congressman, there were some problems, as we know, last time with the money going out to some bigger businesses and corporations. Are there amendments or clauses in this bill that will help ensure that more of this money goes to small businesses like those we see in our region?

Keating Yes, we learned from the first time that this was distributed that the money was going to the people that had great connections with the large banks and had the resources to the accountants, the lawyers to do that. When we did the second CARES Act, we changed it, and we've changed it even more so to make sure that money goes to the smaller businesses. It goes to the smaller lenders, it goes to community organizations, lending organizations that are there to directly go to small business. And, we made it more flexible.

And, one of the things that is critical for our area, the House wanted the American Restaurant Act that we had worked on incorporated as part of this. The White House refused to do that. So, it was a no; it is a game breaker if we didn't do it. However, we were able to do so much to make this more important for restaurants itself. And, that includes making sure that it's flexible, that it can be spread over 24 weeks because we have seasonal restaurants. And if you spend the money as a restaurant that is given to you as a forgivable loan, and retain employees during that period, you don't have to pay it back.

It also provides forgivable, which would really be a grant, monies for restaurants, for outdoor adjustments and seating they had to make. And, it makes sure that money, for instance, that's there to purchase perishable food is a forgivable loan, so it's actually a grant.

So, those are among the things we've done tailored to restaurants in particular, because right now, there's so many restaurants in our region that are going through the cold winter, the off season, and they don't know if they can open again. This will give them, again, a lifeline.

And the other thing was, that's important in our area that wasn't in the other bills, is the fact that other institutions and nonprofits will have the ability to access these small business loans. Movie theaters, the institutions like Cape Cod Symphony, museums, cultural areas, Chambers of Commerce, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, the Falmouth Chamber. They were desperately seeking assistance before, and now this is expanded to allow them to participate, too. So, these are all just a few of the things that are there for businesses. And again, many of the unique needs of Cape Cod are addressed as well.

Eident Well, and speaking of Cape Cod's unique needs, there's news today that there's a commitment in this package to replace the two bridges along the canal. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Keating Well, that's certainly not news; there's nothing in this bill that changes that terms of a commitment. In fact, we were way beyond that. There was already a commitment to replace the bridges. I think we discussed it several months ago with you.

Eident We did, yes.

Keating The commitment to expedite the funding was in place as well. So that indeed, it was so far extended that we've had an agreement with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a joint partnership and eventual transfer.

So, what is in it, though, that's helpful with the bridges? There's a new pot of money that's there for addressing at-risk bridges around the United States and the way it would translate, doing a quick adjustment of the formula for Massachusetts, would be another $60 million. And, I've spoken with the secretary of transportation for the Commonwealth and, you know, asked that at least that money there be used for the two bridges on the Cape Cod Canal.

Eident I see.

Keating So I see part of that funding for the bridges and the bridge replacement at will be federal, part state. But, this federal money can help the state advance their share of the money as they go forward. We still have to address the funding for the actual bridge replacement, which I hope will come in a recovery bill just hopefully months away.

Eident All right. And thank you for clarifying that, because we were a little surprised this morning to look at that and think, well, we thought we had a commitment, but indeed, there is a little money now going toward that bridge project. We only have just a few seconds left. We're hearing this morning the President is not happy with this bill. Do you think he would hold it up?

Keating Well, we're full of surprises for the President right now. The President was part of these discussions through his secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin. It was Republicans who were really causing the scaling down approach. He wants to now expand it to spend more money, something that if we can do to help people in need, certainly we could. But, the practicality of doing that when they were at the table through all these, at least in my opinion, torturous negotiations, back and forth, is a surprise.

I hope that if he can do more to help people and we could do this again, it's fine. But, I think these two bills, our budget for the year and this COVID relief bill, is such that-- it could just fall apart again and nothing will happen. So, welcoming more assistance if he can provide it. But--I'm speechless because he was at the table part of this fighting against things being put into it and not really being a part of it himself. And, now that it's on his desk, he has other ideas, but that's the way it is right now in the White House.

Eident Well, Congressman Bill Keating of Bourne, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk about just some of the pieces of this massive bill. Happy holidays, happy New Year to you. We'll talking to you, I'm sure, in the new year.

Keating Thank you.

This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.