During an interview with The Opinion-Tribune last Wednesday following a teleconference meeting with Mills County business and economic development leaders, U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa District 3) said she has concerns about whether Iowa will have the necessary medical supplies, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and hospital beds in place if the state’s forecasted peak in COVID-19 cases occurs in late April or early May. The key, Axne said, is for Iowans to follow the advice of the medical community and public health officials.
“If we can start flattening the curve and people stay at home, then yes, I would feel comfortable because that’s what it’s going to take,” Axne said. “If we don’t start flattening the curve and continue to see increases in cases, I do fear we won’t have the PPE.”
On Friday, two days after Axne was asked to address the topic, the Iowa Department of Public Health issued a personal protective equipment shortage order, which requires hospitals and health care workers to preserve PPE, such as face masks, gloves and gowns, by minimizing contact with patients, reusing equipment and wearing expired products. The order applies to all health care providers, hospitals, medical clinics, local public health agencies, medical and response organizations and any others that use PPE for treatment of patients or residents at care facilities.
Iowa’s COVID-19 numbers for positive tests and deaths has continually climbed over the past three weeks. As of Monday, the state had 1,710 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 43 related deaths.
Axne said Iowa is in competition with other states for medical supplies and PPE items, like masks and protective gowns.
“Unfortunately, this is every state fighting for their own,” she said. “The (Trump) administration did not do what needed to be done early on to ensure there was a good system put in place for a federal approach to PPE distribution. What’s happened as a result of that, states are fighting for what they need.”
Axne said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and the state’s public health officials are trying to ensure Iowa is prepared should there be a spike in cases in the coming weeks. She added that the top priority for all citizens and elected officials during the pandemic should be public safety.
“The most important thing we need to be doing right now, first and foremost, is to ensure that we’re keeping people healthy,” Axne said. “We should be staying at home and making sure we’re not putting ourselves in harm’s way and using those appropriate precautions and getting the testing here and Personal Protective Equipment.”
The first-term congresswoman said she’s been “fighting” since mid-March to get testing and PPE for Iowa. She said now that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act has passed, it’s important to make sure the various programs included in the legislation are doing what they were designed to do and funds are being distributed and utilized properly.
“We’re working on getting that funding that is allocated into people’s hands and into the local communities,” she said.
Axne, Business Leaders Discuss Economic Viability
Keeping small businesses economically viable during the state-mandated COVID-19 public health emergency declaration was the focus of discussion during a half-hour teleconference meeting on April 8 between Axne and Mills County business and economic development leaders.
“The majority of businesses in Glenwood and Malvern have shut their doors completely because they were closed by the governor, which we understand is necessary to stop the spread (of COVID-19),” Glenwood Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rachel Reis said. “The issue is how do we make sure they can reopen because they haven’t had revenue for 30 days? When a business doesn’t have revenue for 30 days, that’s like going without a paycheck for 30 days.
“You don’t have money coming in to pay the bills and the bills don’t stop. Some of them (businesses) might not be able to reopen.”
Reis noted that before they were forced to deal with social distancing closures and restrictions, many Mills County businesses were already struggling to bounce back from the financial hit they took in 2019 as a result of flooding that devastated southwest Iowa.
Axne said the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act recently passed by Congress and signed by President Trump, will provide some funding and temporary relief to small business owners, but it’s clear more needs to be done to keep businesses going, particularly in rural communities.
“We are consistently working towards trying to fill in the gaps where we may have missed in some of the previous legislation. That’s what we hope the CARES Act would do, but we still see there are pockets of things that we need to get done,” Axne said. “The latest conversation with the caucus really was focused around rural communities and understanding that our state’s small towns and cities really need our support.”
A major component of the CARES Act is the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) - loans provided through the Small Business Administration (SBA) that may be used to cover payroll costs and most mortgage interest, rent, and utility costs over the 8-week period after the loan is made. The loans, made through local banks and lending institutions, are forgivable if at least 75 percent of the borrowed funds are used for payroll. Under current guidelines, if the 75 percent for payroll requirement isn’t met, the payback is over two years with a 1 percent interest rate.
Glenwood State Bank President Larry Winum said there is heavy interest in the Paycheck Protection Program.
“Our loan applications haven’t stopped,” Winum said. “We’ve had all kinds of people in here applying for those Paycheck Protection loans.”
Winum said lenders are just waiting on guidelines for loan approval and a timeline for distribution of funds. He said the PPP is a good short-term fix that will help businesses make their payroll and pay utilities and mortgage interest for a couple months, but if no revenue is coming in, the business is going to struggle to cover other debt and the owner may have to look at other long-term loan options that go directly through the SBA.
Axne said she appreciated the input she received during the teleconference meeting and said she’s optimistic future coronavirus-related legislation will address more needs of rural communities, like Mills County.
On Monday, after a week of conducting virtual meetings with constituents and business leaders throughout the Third District, Axne wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the SBA to ask for updates to the Paycheck Protection Program to facilitate faster and more appropriate lending to Iowa’s small businesses.
“As a small business owner, I know how crucial it is to have these funds available as quickly as possible for Iowa’s businesses to ensure they can keep their employees on payroll and their bills paid this month,” Axne said. “I’m hearing from Iowa’s businesses during this crisis – they’re approaching one month of no revenue. The federal agencies that control this program need to make adjustments that heed the concerns we are hearing from our local businesses and lenders.”
Axne said the rule that requires 75 percent of the PPP funds be allocated for payroll to qualify for loan forgiveness discriminates against smaller businesses, particularly those with a small number of employees. She said for Iowa businesses that have lease and utility expenses that outweigh a smaller payroll, the rule lowers the amount of their PPP loan that can be forgiven.
In the letter, Axne also requested immediate guidance to lenders so they can begin distributing PPP funds to qualifying businesses.