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Editorial | Our View

Editorial: Tighten belts and wait for coronavirus aid

To heap more tragedy onto this pandemic marathon we’re in, it had to happen in a big election year. That overlap of crisis with politics complicated the national response to the coronavirus, not the least of it being a woefully delayed replenishment of federal aid for desperate businesses and their workers.

And in the absence of immediate help, the state and county governments here will have to develop a contingency plan: belt-tightening, essentially.

Hawaii, with economic wounds even more painful than those borne by other states, has needs for support that grow with each passing day. Even with the restart of tourism that finally began last week, the recovery of lost jobs and revenue at all the businesses that depend on some visitor dollars is expected to take a long time.

A renewal of COVID-19 economic assistance has stalled in Congress for many months, following what was touted as a fulsome and timely bipartisan response in the CARES Act funding. Hawaii continued to struggle throughout, due to its reliance on tourism and service-industry employment, while many other states initially bounced back fairly well.

This may have caused a false sense of security for influential members of the U.S. House and Senate, who variously thought they could play hardball in negotiations or saw no reason for accepting a deal involving even more deficit spending than the $2 trillion in CARES Act money that’s already out the door.

Now, with a crucial election around the corner, lawmakers appear to have missed the curve. Negotiations have continued between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, apparently bridging a divide over funds for testing, contact tracing and other critical needs for front-line workers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has been hesitant over the sticker shock — something approaching another $2 trillion — over which many of his members have balked.

Those in Hawaii hoping that the money may come before the election shouldn’t hold their breath. Hawaii’s U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz last week gave that prospect nearly no chance of success, and he’s likely correct.

The limited remaining days on the Senate calendar are booked solid with the confirmation process for President Donald Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. It’s unconscionable that the relief deal wasn’t settled much sooner, and a crushing blow to the voters that the high premium placed on filling the court vacancy overwhelmed all else.

Further, there’s the inescapable yet galling reality that the aid has now become the object of a political game of keep-away. Neither party wants the other to claim credit for a settlement that could up-end the election.

Yet, the imperative of providing relief must take top priority as soon as possible. Regardless of who wins in the presidential and legislative races, the economic news is dire. Jobless claims nationally jumped to nearly 900,000 last week, and economists see more signs that the economy is stalling.

“Stimulus,” as it’s broadly described, should not be seen as an explosion in the welfare state. It’s disaster aid — for a disaster of epic proportions.

Most prominent economists have argued that the impact of the huge deficit spending must be a problem for another time — once the U.S. ensures that there can be a healthy national product again. Without this intervention, they say, the economic pilot light could go out.

That said, even after the election, an accord on a huge package will be hard to reach. As much as the solution must be at a scale equal to the problem, negotiators urgently need to settle on which priorities come first, and get those through the portal quickly.

Top among the most pressing needs are those critical needs on the medical front line. A national strategy is needed to handle the personal protective equipment shortages and the horrific lag in testing and tracing protocols.

A new round of the Paycheck Protection Program is next, to help businesses get back on their feet. And this time, there needs to be much better oversight to direct the funds where they’re needed most and can produce the biggest economic boost.

The list goes on, but the cost item for which agreement will be most elusive is the package of aid for state and local governments. They should get federal assistance with providing basic services, but delivery won’t be quick. In Hawaii, each county’s mayoral candidates should be talking about how they plan to shape budgets for the recovery process ahead.

And lawmakers statewide will have to sharpen pencils to determine how best to save on labor costs and scale back capital projects.

But first things first. It was back in June that a study released by Aloha United Way outlined how more isle households have begun to slip below the poverty line, and the way ahead looks bleak. Helping these people to back away from the economic precipice is where the focus belongs — across the U.S. and here at home.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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