Gov. Roy Cooper signed two COVID-19 relief bills totaling over $1.5 billion into law Monday, following unanimous passage of the bills over the weekend in both houses of the General Assembly.
In the 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Act, the state allocated funds from the CARES Act, the federal COVID-19 relief package totaling over $2 trillion dollars that President Donald Trump signed into law in March.
In a press briefing Monday, Cooper said he was pleased with how fast General Assembly leaders from both parties were able to come together and draft the legislation.
“I appreciate these leaders reaching consensus with each other and our office, moving quickly so we can test and trace this disease while we also get relief to people and businesses that need it,” Cooper said.
Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Caswell, Orange, said the bill focused on four key elements of response: healthcare, education, economic security and government operations. Meyer, who worked on the education side of the bill, said he was pleased with the flexibility given to schools in the bill.
“We’ve given a lot of flexibility to schools to be able to respond to the crisis and not have to meet the typical state mandates that you have for testing and teacher certification so that schools can do what they need to do to focus on students and support teachers,” Meyer said.
The bill includes $75 million for student nutrition, as well as $12 million for school-related internet connectivity, $35 million for devices to facilitate remote learning and $70 million to provide summer curriculum for students who have fallen behind due to COVID-19.
“Schools’ two biggest concerns right now are how do they feed hungry kids and how do they make sure kids have access to distance education,” Meyer said. “We have significant appropriations in the bill for both of those items.”
In addition to student nutritional resource funds, the bill allocates $19 million to be sent to food banks and homeless shelters that may be struggling to handle influxes due to COVID-19, which Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said may fill a critical need in the coming months.
“Hunger is going to be a really big issue here because a lot of people who qualify for unemployment have not received any checks yet,” she said. “So some people are really worried about having enough food to eat.”
Insko said she was especially appreciative of the $50 million allocation for rural communities, as well as the $20 million allocation for rural healthcare providers.
Through the bill, UNC-CH will receive some of the $15 million for teaching hospitals, which will go to the UNC Medical Center, as well as part of the $44.4 million appropriation for the entire UNC System.
UNC is also set to receive $29 million for COVID-19 treatment research through the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory.
In a statement sent out Sunday, UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said this appropriation would help UNC continue to lead coronavirus research in the state.
“We were recently named the top university in the nation for coronavirus research, and will continue this fight with the same focus and resolve that led our scientists to help develop the first effective treatment for COVID-19,” Guskiewicz said.
Despite what they said was an overall satisfaction with the bill, Meyer and Insko both said they would have liked to see some changes.
Inkso said although she was happy the bill included Medicaid coverage for COVID-19 testing, she was displeased this coverage didn’t extend to COVID-19 treatment.
Meyer said he would have liked to see extensions to the state’s unemployment provisions.
“There’s nothing in the bill about unemployment insurance, and we really need to extend the duration of unemployment benefits for people in North Carolina,” Meyer said. “It would also really help people if we could increase the amount of those benefits after the federal benefits go away.”
Insko said she would like to see more money allocated to support county and local government needs in future COVID-19 legislation.
“There are some needs there, and tax dollars are not coming in now because so many people are out of work, so there are going to be some local government needs,” Insko said.
In the press briefing, Cooper said he is hopeful that the state will be able to move into Phase One of COVID-19 recovery as soon as this weekend. However, he said for these bills to be most effective, it is crucial North Carolinians continue to practice social distancing.
“This relief package is just a first step. There will be more work ahead,” Cooper said. “We need it to repair the damage that has been done by this virus and to look ahead at how we can prevent illness in the future.”
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