DC Council Passes Second COVID-19 Emergency Bill

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DC Council held their first virtual meeting in its 45-year history Tuesday, April 7. Screenshot: Facebook Live

During the moment of silence at the beginning of Tuesday’s legislative meeting, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked council to remember those 24 DC residents and 165 residents of the Metro area who were lost to the Coronavirus.

The moment came during the first virtual meeting of DC Council, held Tuesday morning, at which DC Council unanimously passed its second piece of COVID-19 emergency legislation. The first such legislation was passed March 17. The bill passed the morning of April 7 extends the period of public emergency by 45 days, or into mid-June, and provides additional government flexibility, funding, and consumer protections.

The bill puts a freeze on rent increases for the duration of the public health emergency and obligates lenders to create a process by which borrowers can arrange a 90-day deferment of mortgage payments with no penalty or fees. Missed payments should not be reported to credit bureaus, and arrangements to pay the missed amounts can be spread over the next five years.

Those savings should be proportionately passed to any tenants (residential or commerical) of a mortgaged property for the period of the public heath emergency. Rents may not be increased during the emergency, and those tenants who have given notice to leave a unit can delay their departure.

The bill provides additional protection for consumers. Notably, it creates a requirment for a funeral Bill of Rights providing transparency for funeral pricing, and allows residents to execute wills electronically, without requiring in-person witnessing. It also creates limitations on debt collection, prohibiting the seizure of property such as vehicles, and adds phone and internet service to the list of utilities that cannot be cut off during the period of public emergency.

The bill also helps address government financial concerns as the District faces a loss of revenue due to reduced tourism and the closure of non-essential business. It authorizes the DC Chief Financial Officer to borrow up to 500 million dollars. It would be the first time that the District has borrowed money in at least five years, said Chairman Phil Mendelson. The District has not had to borrow through bridge loans, necessary to fill the gap between spring and fall tax payments. It’s a needed safety measure now because the District is spending money from emergency reserves.

It provides some immediate funding to local hospitals, giving authorization to a $25 million grant fund for hospitals to meet the surge of COVID-19 patients. Mendelson said those funds are expected to be reimbursed from federal government.

The bill allows for safe release of some individuals incarcerated for offenses under the DC Code, providing for up to 54 days good time credits. It also allows for the compassionate release of prisoners who are 60 years or older and have served 25 years or more, or who have a terminal or chronic illness or other compelling conditions.

Additionally, legislative flexibility is given to ensure the business of government can continue including provisions so that the DC Board of Elections (DCBOE) can conduct primary and special elections in June. DCBOE can also send pre-stamped envelopes together with forms requesting mail-in ballots to every registered DC voter.

The bill makes changes to local unemployment law to take advantage of federal funds and extends privileges to more employees, including those who have just started jobs. Chair of the Council Committee on Labor and Workplace Development Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) encouraged small business to take advantage of the Work Share program by reducing hours and having the federal government fill in gaps to full-time pay with unemployment insurance.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) is pictured in this screenshot from the April 7 meeting. Screenshot: DC Granicus

Help for Undocumented Workers Removed

There was some discussion about a provision not included in the bill. An early draft included funding through unemployment insurance for workers that are usually excluded from benefits, including for day laborers, street vendors and undocumented workers. That provision was removed due to the cost, Mendelson said, noting that ‘rather energetic discussions’ continue between council and the executive on how to find relief for those residents.

Silverman expressed disappointment that the people who she said have built the city in a period of economic plenty would not get any help from the bill. “We need our working families –all of our working families– to have access to key resources, such as cash assistance so they can keep food on the table and not go deeper and deeper into a financial hole.”

Silverman said that restaurant workers, child care providers and construction workers will hardly get any help in the bill because they are excluded from the federally-funded programs. “This is the time when our DC values of being a sanctuary city, of being a city that cares about racial equity, really needs to come to the forefront,” she said, adding that the data shows that COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on the health and economic security of people of color.

Councilmembers agreed that such a program was critically needed and Silverman said that Mayor Muriel Bowser has committed to finding funding for such a program moving forward, and she would continue to work on the program. In his remarks, Council member Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) said that it was important that council figure the matter out in the coming weeks.

Council members noted that, in addition to finding a way to fund that assistance, there was much additional work to do. In particular, Council members Vincent Gray (Ward 7-D) and Mary Cheh (Ward 3-D) expressed hope that additional protections would be instituted for the grocery workers ensuring that shelves remain fully stocked. Cheh said she understood that the Mayor was working on an order to put requirements in place for forward-facing employees and expressed hope that it would move quickly.

Council member Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5-D) said that he is concerned about whether the relief and recovery from the epidemic will be uneven. He asked council to consider measures of support and recovery from the pandemic through the lens of racial equity. “When we look at history, it demonstrates that communities of color are typically the ones left out,” he said, “and are the ones who find themselves worse off than they were before they experienced crisis like this.”

“This is not something that is a perfect bill or that everyone of us supports as being perfect or complete, but it is a consensus document, and that is important,” Mendelson said, adding that residents want to see representatives working together through this trying time.

You can see the full draft of the bill as debated on the DC Council Chairperson’s website at  chairmanmendelson.com

This article has been updated to correct the individual authorized to borrow money on behalf of the District and to clarify the type of loan which the District has not sought in five years. The District has borrowed money for capital projects by issuing bonds.