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Politics and Policy

Sen. Cortez Masto On What Congress Can Do To Combat COVID-19

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As of March 21, Nevada has more than 150 cases of coronavirus.

As many Nevadans face hardships ahead due to restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, some are looking to the government for relief. Nevada U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto has been involved in some of the decision-making regarding these federal relief packages. She spoke Friday with KUNR's Bree Zender.

ZENDER: A lot of places around the country have been having trouble with access to testing kits, including here in Nevada. What does Congress need to do to ease the access to these testing kits?

CORTEZ MASTO: We are doing it. We are, actually, I've been on the phone with the governor's office, with our local government, really talking to them about what the need is, right? So, we don't have enough test kits, we don't have the swabs we need. We don't have the agent that is necessary for the testing, enough of it. And we need more of the, what they call the KN95 respiratory masks. 

And so, not only has the governor been on the phone with the president, we literally as a delegation have been talking with the administration. Just last Wednesday, the entire delegation of Congress here, we worked together to send a letter to Congress to really support not only our hospitality industry, but focus on getting the medical supplies that are necessary. So, I have been on the phone lately with our secretary of labor, along with HHS, asking them why we don't have the medical equipment and who is taking charge of this.

I think the challenge that I see right now, that I'm hearing from some of our local governments is, let me just give you an example: One local government I talked to regularly purchases these KN95 respiratory masks, and they need 2,000. Well, the normal vendor that they go to, basically, has told them, 'Well, you can't just purchase [the] 2,000 that you normally did. You have to purchase 200,000 now. And, by the way, they're not 31 cents anymore. They're $4 now or $5 now.'

To me, that's price gouging and taking advantage of the situation, so my call is on the federal government now to come in and say, 'Enough. No more silos.' We've got to take control of the supply and demand nationally and make sure that the equipment gets to the states and local governments where it is needed right now.

ZENDER: So, there's been some talk on the federal level about payments directly to Americans. What's your approach with that?

CORTEZ MASTO: I think there's a combination of things that need to be done right now and let's put this in perspective. This is the third legislative package we have been working on here in Congress. The first one was to really focus on getting out, as quickly as possible, $8 billion in supplemental funding that went towards that healthcare piece; three billion [dollars] for research development and review of vaccines and therapeutics; two billion [dollars] to help our federal, state, local and tribal governments prevent, prepare and respond to the crisis. And so that was the goal without that initial money.

The second kind of package that we have voted on is what we call the Family First Coronavirus Response Act. We just voted on that to guarantee free coronavirus testing to really look at how we can guarantee and ensure that individuals get paid sick leave to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act for workers, to provide money for emergency grants to states for processing unemployment insurance, to expand food assistance. I mean, that focus was really on how we look to the worker, the families who are struggling at this point in time, and get the money to them.

This third package that we are working on now, continues to focus on workers and families. It focuses on small businesses, how we can get them liquidity and access to capital to keep them open. And then because Nevada has such a strong, robust hospitality industry, we want to make sure everybody is supported through this tough time.

That includes our gaming facilities, ensuring that not only are they taking care of the workers, which many are, and covering their salaries, covering their benefits as they close their doors, but making sure these businesses can then access, kind of, federal guaranteed business interruption loans so that they have liquidity so that they can move through this crisis much quicker and come out of it—the economic challenges that we are seeing—much faster. And so the goal here, is a kind of a balance of workers and families first [and then] small businesses and our businesses so that they have access to liquidity.

ZENDER: The infection has been moving into Congress. At the time that we're recording this, two congressmen have been tested positive for the coronavirus. What are you and the people who work for you doing to protect yourselves?

CORTEZ MASTO: Same thing. My office is closed down. I have my staff working from home. We have the ability to continue to work on behalf of the state of Nevada in a kind of self-contained [way] in our homes, and we will continue to work that way. I am actually in the office right now. I'm the only one, but I am going through the package that the Republicans just released. Their first offer for this third package that they would like to see. I'm going through it now to make sure that Nevada is a beneficiary of what we have moving through this third stimulus package or this third economic package that we're looking to pass.

ZENDER: On a separate note, your name has been floated around by news outlets, like the New York Times and POLITICO, as a possible vice presidential candidate pick for [presidential candidate] Joe Biden. Has the Biden campaign reached out to you at all, and if an offer came, would you accept?

CORTEZ MASTO: Well, let me just say I'm very honored and flattered, but my focus right now is the state of Nevada. I have made a commitment to my state that I love [and] was born and raised in. We are in the middle of a crisis right now, and that really is my focus: to make sure that I am working with the governor, with our local leaders, with our businesses to really focus on stopping the spread of this coronavirus, getting medical supplies and healthcare to the individuals in need, and then taking care of them through their economic challenges that we're facing right now.

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