White House Hot Spot and Montana Mermaids

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Original story posted on: May 13, 2020

From DC to the nation’s heartland, officials are weighing economic and public health concerns against one another.

As states ponder the financial benefits and the public health risks of reopening workplaces, the White House itself has become something of a COVID-19 hot spot.

In addition to the President’s valet and the Vice President’s press secretary testing positive for COVID-19 last week, a number of administration officials have self-quarantined, including:

  • Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases;
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn;
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield;
  • On the Pentagon side: Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday and Chief of the National Guard Bureau Joseph Lengyel; and
  • S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, after one of his staff members tested positive.

Vice President Mike Pence, who, of course, was in contact with his press secretary that tested positive, reportedly stayed away from the White House this past weekend, but is not self-quarantining himself, and will show up for work this week. However, he is “laying low,” according to one source.

On the legislative side, “bit” and “Rooseveltian” are the words Democrats have been using when talking about the next stimulus package – priced at $3 trillion – which they introduced on Tuesday and are expected to vote on Friday. The package is to provide Americans with vast and wide-ranging economic relief from the coronavirus pandemic.

  • House Democrats intend to include funds for states and local government, as well as more direct payments to Americans and rental and homeowner assistance to stop evictions and foreclosures.
  • The Republican-led Senate, however, is pushing back and taking a “wait-and-see” attitude: wait and see how the stimulus we have passed works, they’re saying, and then do more, if necessary. President Trump seemed to take the Senate’s side this week, when he said that the White House is “in no rush” to pass additional stimulus.
  • Another obstacle is that the House has not decided on when to return to Washington. There are a number of political issues impacting this decision, but there are also health risks: 22 construction workers in the Canon Office Building in D.C. have tested positive for COVID-19. Now, the Canon Office Building is not only where many of the representatives have their offices, it’s also where some lawmakers sleep, in order to save on hotel or rental costs. It’s tough to social distance when you treat your office like a college dorm.

Finally, there was a story from a Montana tiki bar last week that reflects a trend at the national level, with regard to confusing government reopening guidelines. The bar owners were given contradictory instructions from the governor’s office and the county health department when they asked: could mermaids swim in the aquarium that patrons watch from their bar stools, or are schools of swimming mermaids going against social distancing? The governor said yes, health department said no.

Meanwhile, at the national level, the CDC released a draft of guidelines for reopening different types of workplaces on Tuesday of last week. On Thursday, the White House pulled that guidance back and said that it was too strict – and, maybe a little late in the game – so it would never see the light of day. Similarly, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission put out guidance on Wednesday for employers returning to the workplace, and pulled back on it by Thursday.

The state and local government finally agreed that the mermaids of Montana do get to swim – though they have to do it one at a time – but we are still waiting for consistent guidelines from the federal government on how they want to see workplaces reopen in the context of this pandemic.

Programming Note: Matthew Albright is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays. Listen to his live reporting every Monday, 10-10:30 a.m. EST

Matthew Albright

Matthew Albright is the chief legislative affairs officer at Zelis Healthcare. Previously, Albright was senior manager at CAQH CORE, and earlier, he was the acting deputy director of the Office of E-Health and Services for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

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