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Senate unanimously passes virus relief package; House likely to vote Friday

WASHINGTON — The Senate late Wednesday passed an unparalleled $2.2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The unanimous vote came despite misgivings on both sides about whether it goes too far or not far enough and capped days of difficult negotiations as Washington confronted a national challenge unlike it has ever faced.

The 880-page measure is the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared somber and exhausted as he announced the vote — and he released senators from Washington until April 20, though he promised to recall them if needed.

“The legislation now before us now is historic because it is meant to match a historic crisis,”said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Our health care system is not prepared to care for the sick. Our workers are without work. Our businesses cannot do business. Our factories lie idle. The gears of the American economy have ground to a halt.”

The package is intended as relief for an economy spiraling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that’s killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asked how long the aid would keep the economy afloat, said: “We’ve anticipated three months. Hopefully, we won’t need this for three months.”

Underscoring the effort’s sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget.

Insistently optimistic, President Donald Trump said of the greatest public-health emergency in anyone’s lifetime, “I don’t think its going to end up being such a rough patch” and anticipated the economy soaring “like a rocket ship” when it’s over.

The drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators from states who economies are dominated by low-wage jobs demanded changes, saying the legislation as written might give workers like store clerks incentives to stay on unemployment instead of returning return to their jobs since they may earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working. They settled for a failed vote to modify the provision.

Other objections floated in from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene as the country battles the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other, said, “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”

Ardent liberals like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were restless as well, but top Washington Democrats assured them that a additional coronavirus legislation will follow this spring and signaled that delaying the pending measure would be foolish.

The sprawling measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swung behind the bipartisan agreement, saying it “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people.”

Senate passage delivered the legislation to the Democratic-controlled House, which will most likely pass it Friday. House members are scattered around the country and the timetable for votes in that chamber was unclear.

House Democratic and Republican leaders have hoped to clear the measure for Trump’s signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington.

The package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

It includes a controversial, heavily negotiated $500 billion program for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well. Six days of arduous talks produced the bill, creating tensions among Congress’ top leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they maneuvered and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure is not an option, nor is starting over, which permitted both sides to include their priorities.

“That Washington drama does not matter any more,” McConnell said. “The Senate is going to stand together, act together, and pass this historic relief package today.”

The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child.A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks to an estimated $130 billion. Another $45 billion would fund additional relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency for local response efforts and community services.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salaries of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600 per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.

Businesses controlled by members of Congress and top administration officials — including Trump and his immediate family members — would be ineligible for the bill’s business assistance.

Schumer boasted of negotiating wins for transit systems, hospitals and cash-hungry state governments that were cemented after Democrats blocked the measure in votes held Sunday and Monday.

But Cuomo said the Senate package would send less than $4 billion to New York, far short of his estimate that the crisis will cost his state up to $15 billion over the next year. More than 280 New Yorkers have died from the virus, a death toll more than double that of any other state.

Still, Pelosi said the need for more money for New York is “no reason to stop the step we are taking.”

Pelosi was a force behind $400 million in grants to states to expand voting by mail and other steps that Democrats billed as making voting safer but Republican critics called political opportunism. The package also contains $15.5 billion more for a surge in demand for food stamps as part of a massive $330 billion title for agency operations.

Republicans won inclusion of an “employee retention” tax credit that’s estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that retain employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers’ paycheck up to $10,000. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.

A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to $330 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters — including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

Europe is enacting its own economic recovery packages, with huge amounts of credit guarantees, government spending and other support.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, has agreed to commit over 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) in fiscal stimulus and support — roughly 30% of that nation’s entire annual output. France, Spain and Italy have launched similar programs.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

In the United States, more than 55,000 people have been sickened and more than 1,000 have died.

'He represents us all': Body of Owasso guardsman killed in Iraq returned to Oklahoma

The state’s ongoing COVID-19 concerns didn’t prevent a fallen Oklahoma serviceman from receiving a stirring welcome home Wednesday.

Family members of late Air National Guardsman Staff Sgt. Marshal D. Roberts of Owasso, who was killed two weeks ago in Iraq, were joined Wednesday morning by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, along with many friends and supporters, at the Tulsa Air National Guard Base for the return of his body.

After the transfer ceremony there, Roberts’ casket was transported to Floral Haven Funeral Home in Broken Arrow.

One of around 50 Patriot Guard riders who provided escort for the body, Ron Moseley said he was “thrilled” by the turnout of riders.

Ride commander for the outing, the Owasso resident said he hadn’t known how many to expect after issuing the call. The Patriot Guard has suspended operations due to the virus, and special permission was needed to accompany Roberts’ procession, he said.

Like their fellow riders on Wednesday, both Moseley and his wife, Cherry, were determined to be there.

“I know the emotional exhaustion of having a son overseas,” Cherry Moseley said, adding that they have two sons who both are veterans, one of whom like Roberts served in the Middle East.

What Roberts’ family is experiencing now “is the worst thing to ever go through,” she said.

“We just want to let them know there’s still people who care,” her husband added.

Moseley said he instructed all the riders to observe COVID-19 protocol, including keeping a safe distance. “And I brought extra hand sanitizer,” he said.

The procession to Broken Arrow was led by around 20 Tulsa Police Department motorcycle officers, with a host of law enforcement representatives from multiple agencies following behind.

A member of the Tulsa-based 138th Fighter Wing, Roberts, 28, died March 11 in a rocket attack at Camp Taji in Iraq.

At the time of his death, Roberts had been in Iraq for two months.

Among his survivors are his wife and fellow 138th Fighter Wing member Kristie Roberts, and his daughter, Paityn.

Speaking after the transfer ceremony, Stitt said he met and prayed with Roberts’ family, and looked on as they greeted the casket.

“We just wanted to pay our respects and honor this Oklahoman who paid the ultimate sacrifice. It’s the least we can do,” said the governor, adding that it was a reminder of the “real consequences” of warfare.

“It was really emotional,” Stitt added of seeing Roberts’ wife, 8-year-old daughter, his mother and other survivors.

“I just told them that my heart is breaking for them,” he said.

Col. Michael Meason, commander of the 138th Fighter Wing, said it was a “tough day for everyone, including our Guard family.”

“Our focus is supporting his family,” he said. “We have our charge — to remember him and his service.”

Like the Patriot Guard riders, community members weren’t deterred by COVID-19 concerns. Leading up to the base gates, 46th Street North was lined with supporters and flags.

Nancy Lytal and Al Waugh parked across from the gates with their three dogs.

Both are Air Force veterans, and Lytal once was stationed at the base.

“This man deserves to be honored,” Lytal said of Roberts. “He represents us all — the best we can ever be.”

Stitt said the family will hold a private burial service, but is postponing a public memorial due to the current coronavirus situation.

“I told them to let us know and we’re ready to come together and celebrate his life like he deserves,” Stitt said. “As Oklahomans we stand beside each other.”

Gallery: Owasso serviceman’s body returns home. A community showed up to honor him

Gallery: Owasso serviceman's body returns home. A community showed up to honor him

Gloria Fletcher: 'Thank you for reading the Tulsa World'

Thank you for reading the Tulsa World.

Your support of local journalism is both necessary and appreciated. Credible and meaningful local news and information is important every day, but of course it is even more paramount in times of crisis.

I have had several questions, over the past few days, regarding how the Tulsa World is positioned should the state have orders to shelter in place.

Rest assured the Tulsa World leadership team, as well as the team at large, has been quite proactive in our approach to this pandemic and is doing everything possible to ensure the continued production and delivery of your daily newspaper.

As always, our journalists are working full-time continuing to provide the most up-to-date, accurate information for both our print and digital platforms. Some of our team are working from home, others are still in the field as necessary.

All have been encouraged to think first of their own health and safety and to take extensive precautions to avoid any scenarios that could spread the virus.

The details surrounding the health crisis are ever-changing. Literally minute by minute. But a constant you can rely on is our dedication to keeping Oklahomans informed.

I long for the day where we can meet face-to-face and the words “pandemic” and “social distancing” are no longer common in our daily conversations. I want us to be able communicate our care and respect for one another with a handshake or even a hug.

I have faith … this too shall pass.

Until then, please take care and stay safe.

— Gloria

Featured Gallery: How coronavirus has affected life around Tulsa

Gallery: How coronavirus has affected life around Tulsa

35 in Oklahoma ICUs with COVID-19; report counts those awaiting test results while hospitalized or self-quarantined at home

The coronavirus has hospitalized at least 35 patients in Oklahoma intensive care units as of Wednesday, with 93 more ICU patients’ test results pending, according to government data.

The state’s COVID-19 death toll rose to five on Wednesday after two more patients succumbed to the novel respiratory illness that is without treatment or vaccination.

There were 326 inpatients awaiting coronavirus test results in Oklahoma, while 373 individuals are self-quarantined after being sent home by medical facilities within the past 14 days.

The medical data released in a state report Wednesday are a first look at a broader and more detailed snapshot of what Oklahoma is dealing with beyond just positive or negative test results. Statewide, hospitals and physician clinics now provide these data and other metrics to the state Health Department by noon each day, with 88% reporting compliance Wednesday.

“I think there’s still a lot of questions from people because the nature of this disease presentation is that some people get really, really sick and some people don’t get very sick, which I think can be confusing for people,” said Dr. Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department. “To see numbers of people in ICUs and quarantine, hopefully it helps really paint the picture of why we’re doing all the things that we’re doing and why our decision-makers are supporting aggressive movement to break the chain of transmission.”

Given the dearth of testing capacity, a key question with no clear answer is how many people sent home or who haven’t received results yet have or had contracted COVID-19 as the outbreak spreads.

Hospitalized patients awaiting test results, and the self-quarantined individuals well outnumber Oklahoma’s 164 positive test totals reported Wednesday, which included 59 hospitalizations and five deaths.

Gov. Kevin Stitt on Tuesday told reporters he thought the number of positive cases was “closer to over 500 right now.” There were 109 positives at that moment, jumping by 50% the next day to 164. The governor added that the positives will climb into the thousands.

Dr. Timothy Young, Ascension St. John chief clinical officer, on Wednesday said that roughly 15% of tests his hospital has been able to perform came back positive. Young emphasized the percentage is preliminary, unsure of how it might turn out in two weeks.

“I think we can expect the number of cases to continue to increase over the next few days, but the important point is we expect that to happen,” Young said. “It doesn’t mean things are out of control; it shouldn’t cause people to get upset about it. It’s just kind of the natural part as this spreads.”

Dr. Jeff Johnson, an emergency medicine physician with Hillcrest Medical Center, said he thinks the only true number on which to judge the respiratory illness’s reach is actual positive test results. He, in part, cited gray areas in state guidelines for who should be tested.

“We have such a high number of negatives in the state, especially locally here in Tulsa, that I don’t put a lot of faith in the PUIs (persons under investigation) or the people at home as a marker,” Johnson said.

Self-quarantine numbers nearly tripled in six days to 492 on Tuesday from 169 on March 19. PUIs almost doubled to 399 from 206. Similarly, positive tests in that span rose by 1.5 times.

Persons in self-quarantine dropped by 119 from Tuesday to Wednesday, or 33%. Hospital PUIs dropped by 73 people as positive tests rose by 58 in the same time frame.

The state’s report also notes that there is an average of 9.7 days of personal protective equipment — or PPE — available in Oklahoma. Statewide, hospitals and clinics have reported a wide range from zero to 148 days of PPE on hand.

In Tulsa and Oklahoma counties, the median PPE available is two or three days.

Johnson said that at Hillcrest Medical Center the phrase to describe its PPE supply is “lean but stable,” with employees exercising caution with such an “important and precious resource.” He said there is an approved process for sterilizing N-95 masks to re-use them on a limited basis.

“We’re counting the numbers of re-use to make sure we don’t go too much,” he said.

Johnson likened the feel inside of the hospital to that of the calm before the storm. He said the administration and staff have time to prep, with Tulsa and Oklahoma not seeing the higher volumes reported on the coasts.

He said he believes media outlets have done well to spread the word to socially distance and, if sick, stay home. The overall numbers now are less than what would be a normal flu season, he said, but the potential for people to become sicker than typical influenza is “very high.”

“We’re prepared for a large influx of severely ill respiratory patients, but as of now we’re not having them,” Johnson said. “We’re definitely getting people who are sick, but I would say that our resources at Hillcrest aren’t overwhelmed, which is good.”

Young said he has walked around St. John Medical Center regularly to check on personnel and found himself to be pleasantly surprised by their attitudes. He said staff appear to be doing well and that he feels OK for now about medical supplies stock.

“The governor ordered a stop to elective surgical procedures, so that helps gives us space and clear things out a little bit,” Young said. “But things seem fine right now as far as workload goes.”

Featured video

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What is an 'essential business'? Cities following guidance of governor’s office, Homeland Security to decide

When Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order closing all nonessential businesses in the 19 counties with COVID-19 cases effective 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, the question that rang out across the state was: What is an “essential business”?

There is no simple answer. But federal guidelines and information provided by the state help clarify what businesses won’t be closing: pharmacies, banks, grocery stores, convenience stores, veterinarians, pet stores, and restaurants offering take-out service.

And your local liquor store.

“We have been crazy busy,” said Clay Bird, co-owner of Bird’s Liquor and Wine, 3135 E. 15th St.

Bird said he thinks the spike in business is directly related to the fact that people can’t go out to eat and drink.

“I had a couple come in here Sunday, they were gathering things to have a virtual brunch with friends,” Bird said.

Southwood Landscape and Garden Center, 9025 S. Lewis Ave., wasted no time assuring its customers that the business plans to stay open. In an email sent out Wednesday, the company said it is considered an essential business by the federal government.

“Federal guidelines include agriculture as essential business, and Southwood provides essential plants, including vegetables and herbs, plus the tools and materials people need to maintain their homes and gardens,” an email sent to customers states. “As an essential part of the local food and agriculture supply chain, our plan is to remain open for as long as possible.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides a list of 16 “critical infrastructure sectors” that includes emergency services, health care, transportation and government, but ultimately it’s up to local jurisdictions to determine what is essential.

“This guidance is not binding and is primarily a decision support construct to assist state and local officials,” Homeland Security’s website states. “It should not be confused as official executive action by the United States Government.”

In addition to the federal guidelines, Stitt issued his own list of essential businesses in the health care, public safety and government sectors. Those include medical marijuana dispensaries, animal control officers and manufacturers of personal care and hygiene products.

The governor’s list also includes workers supporting child care facilities and other educational providers “for the purposes of distance learning, provision of school meals, or care and supervision of minors to support essential workforce across all sectors.”

Businesses not already deemed essential by the state can apply for that designation online at cisa.gov.

Michelle Brooks, spokeswoman for the Tulsa Mayor’s Office, said the city is following the guidance of the Governor’s Office and Homeland Security.

Sand Springs City Manager Elizabeth Gray said she’s heard from business owners and other residents looking for clarity on the issue.

“We are just following the chart to the best of our ability that was put on the governor’s website.” she said. “We weren’t necessarily given a list, so we’re just talking to the individuals and seeing what category they might fall under, and if they don’t fall under one of those categories, then they wouldn’t be open for business.”

List of essential businesses from Gov. Stitt

Health care

• Health care providers, such as doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, physical and occupational therapists and assistants

• Behavioral health workers that help people in need of mental health/substance use disorder services

• Workers at veterinary hospitals and clinics

• Medical marijuana dispensaries and medical marijuana companies that help stock dispensaries

• Manufacturers, technicians, logistics and warehouse operators and distributors of personal care/hygiene products

• Family care providers and workers who provide support for vulnerable populations

Public safety

• Law enforcement, Emergency Management Systems, firefighters, Department of Corrections workers and search and rescue and tactical teams

• Private security, fire departments and emergency medical personnel

• Animal control officers

• State and county workers responding to reports of abuse or neglect of children, elders and dependent adults

• Employees at emergency call centers


• Taxis, Uber, Lyft

• Postal service

• Delivery services


• Hotels

• Grocery stores

• Pharmacies

• Gas stations

• Public and private golf courses

• Public parks

• Convenience stores

• Hardware stores, farm stores and garden centers

• Liquor stores

• Tag agencies

• Courts

• Executive, legislative services and other government support

• Faith-based services provided through streaming or other technology services

• Critical government workers as defined by their employer

• Construction workers

• Workers at public and private childcare facilities, pre-kindergarten facilities, K-12 schools, colleges and universities for the purposes of distance learning, providing meals to students or supervision of minors

• Plumbers, electricians and exterminators

• Workers that do home repairs

• Dry cleaning and laundry services

• Death/funeral services

• Many energy workers in the wind, coal, solar, natural gas and petroleum fields

• Farmers markets, greenhouses, vineyards, nurseries

• Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting

• Financial planning services

Click here for a list of nonessential businesses.

Featured video

Gallery: How coronavirus has affected life around Tulsa

Gallery: How coronavirus has affected life around Tulsa

Send your questions for Tulsa World's virtual forum with Mayor Bynum, Dr. Clancy on COVID-19

Mayor G.T. Bynum and Dr. Gerard Clancy will speak Friday at a Tulsa World “Let’s Talk” virtual forum, sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa. 

The focus is on local response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The mayor and Dr. Clancy, professor of Community Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Tulsa, will be joined by host Wayne Greene, editorial pages editor of the Tulsa World.

The forum, will be posted on tulsaworld.com on Friday evening.

A story on the discussion will appear in print editions Saturday morning.

To participate, please email your question by noon on Friday to wayne.greene@tulsaworld.com

Tulsa restaurants offering curbside service and other options following closures

110 Tulsa restaurants offering curbside service and other options following closures