Friends, Neighbors, and Fellow Fairbanksans,
I hope everyone is hanging in there during our continued observance of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that you are enjoying the extra sunshine and warmer days that we are finally getting in Fairbanks. We are at a crucial time right now, and although it may seem to some that staying home is just hurting the economy, we really do need to keep this up awhile longer. The hospital in Fairbanks hasn’t been overrun and they are taking all the right steps to stay “ahead of the curve”. The current trajectory could lead to our outbreak getting much worse with many more people admitted to the hospital. To avoid that, we must continue to stay home and away from public places as much as possible. With other communities in the country being overrun, the results of us not following proper precautions are quite scary. In Alaska, we don’t have a lot of resources and what we do have is very spread out. It is imperative that we stay the course, no matter how hard it is.
As the shelter in place order remains in effect for Alaska, there are a lot of questions and concerns that people may have. Many people might be wondering why we can’t take it on a community by community basis and if COVID isn’t a problem here then we ought to be able to go about our business as usual. However, this only works if everyone remains quarantined at home, as the virus spreads incredibly easily. Fairbanks is already a “hot spot” in Alaska in that we have more cases per capita than the rest of the state. Part of this is due to our active testing program, which is good, but if we don’t want it to spread any faster than we must follow the mandate. Our community is working hard to meet this public health and economic challenge, and I want to again thank our health care workers and everyone on the front lines interacting with the public every day. The best thing we can do to protect ourselves and others is to stay home. If you need to go out, please wear a mask, bandanna, or other face protection and take care to stay at least 6 feet away from others and wash your hands frequently. It is also critical that people in Fairbanks pay heed to the mandate, as a new study just released concluded that those exposed to air pollution such as our PM 2.5 problem in Fairbanks are at a greater risk for COVID-19 infection.
In addition to taking public health precautions, we must all try to be flexible and responsive to people's financial and economic needs. Now is the time, if you have the means, to support local businesses by buying gift cards or ordering take-out. You can also make donations to your favorite service organizations online, or call to ask how you can best support them. Support our local food bank and shelters, as you are able. Our help can really make a difference.
If we all stick together and make the right choices to help ourselves and others, we can get through this. Things will get better. Summer is just around the corner, and while there is much uncertainty, there is certainty in brighter days and warmer weather ahead that will hopefully help us stay positive.
The good news is that there are Federal funds coming to help businesses and employees that have been affected. The funds aren’t here yet, but banks are making loans and the unemployment office is working double time to keep up, so please be patient. In fact our local banks are making progress in issuing loans to small businesses in the form of PPP (payroll protection program) loans and allowing businesses to continue to pay people even though they aren't able to work due to Covid affecting their employers. Below you’ll see a list of programs that have been initiated and I am sure there will be more. Please take advantage of the services and programs that are available. Remember, there is no shame in asking for help and in taking the offer of a helping hand when you need it. For now, please continue to be patient, strong, and resilient.
The Carlson Center has been set up with emergency medical beds.
COVID-19 Relief Resources
On the Federal level, The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – Senate Bill 3548 (U.S. Senate) will provide $1.25 billion in direct aid to Alaska. Here are some things to note about the CARES Act:
1.) These funds will be administered by the Governor and municipalities and organizations will need to apply for them. States have the ability to determine how these funds will be disbursed and spent, as well as what the application process will look like.
2.) The CARES ACT provides stimulus payments to individuals who qualify – $1,200 to every adult, $500 for each dependent. Adults who are claimed as dependents on someone else’s tax returns will not receive the $1,200; however, whoever claims them will receive $500 for each dependent, with eligibility based on Federal tax returns. If you have not filed your 2018 tax returns, file them as soon as possible to receive this stimulus check. Additionally, payments phase out for individuals whose income exceed $75,000, heads of household who make more than $112,500, and couples who file a joint return and earn more than $150,000.
3.) The bill extends unemployment insurance benefits – An extra $600 per week for four months, in addition to state unemployment insurance benefits. In effect, this adds 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits.
4.) The bill creates a new program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance – This is for gig-economy workers who don’t normally pay into the unemployment insurance program. Benefits are the same as the state unemployment insurance program, including the $600 additional federal money, with benefits expiring on December 31, 2020. Note that this will take a few weeks to implement as this is a newly established program.
Also on the Federal level, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act – House of Representatives Bill 6021 (U.S. House of Representatives) will help affected individuals with paid sick and emergency leave. This bill creates tax credits for affected employers, as well as expanding food and nutrition services, allowing for emergency state unemployment insurance grants, and increasing Medicaid funding to states. To qualify you must have worked for an employer for at least 30 days.
Other Federal relief help includes the following:
1.) Internal Revenue Service tax filing deadline extension: Extended until July 15, 2020. If you believe you are owed a refund, file sooner! The IRS will process your taxes and issue refunds as usual.
2.) Student loan debt deferment: The federal government has deferred all payments and interest on federally owned student loans through September 30, 2020
3.) Small business help: This includes a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in the CARES Act offering eight weeks of cash-flow assistance in the form of loans to be used to maintain payroll. Low-interest loans are meant to cover payroll costs, paid sick leave, supply-chain disruptions, employee salaries, health-insurance premiums, and mortgage payments. Also,if employers maintain their payrolls until June, the portion of the loans used for payroll costs, interest on mortgage obligations, rent, and utilities will be forgiven – in other words: the loans convert to grants if used for covering employee salaries, rent, paid leave, utility payments, health insurance premiums, or other necessities or worker protections.
On the state level, our Governor and Legislature have taken actions to help soften the impact of the virus. If you can, stay up-to-date on the virus with near-daily updates and health mandates from the Governor. The legislature has passed measures to give him the tools to fight the pandemic and provide Alaskans economic relief. These include the following:
1.) Senate Bill 241 – Economic Relief: This legislation extends the governor’s public health disaster declaration until November 15, 2020, and allows the governor to spend up to $10 million in response to the pandemic from the state disaster relief fund. the bill empowers the state chief medical officer to issue standing orders relating to coronavirus. Importantly, SB 241 establishes moratoriums during this health crisis on evictions, home foreclosures, vehicle repossessions, utility cut-offs due to hardship caused by coronavirus.
SB 241 further provides relief by allowing state grants to small businesses. The bill also bans price-gouging,allows for vote-by-mail, and extends state tax filing deadlines. The governor has until April 17, 2020, to sign or veto this relief bill.
2.) House Bill 308 – Unemployment Benefits: This measure allows workers who have lost their job due to COVID-19 to access unemployment insurance benefits, whether the employer shut down the business, they need to provide care to their children, or they need to self-isolate to stay healthy. It waives the 1-week waiting period, allowing benefits to be paid faster, and increases the dependent allowance from $24 to $75 per dependent, and removes the 3-dependent limit. The Governor signed this bill into law on March 25.
3.) House Bill 205, House Bill 206, and House Bill 234- Budget Bills: These bills provide our regular annual funding for many programs and services, with some notable highlights including:
- $94 million for public health emergency programs
- $680 million for $1,000 permanent fund dividends
- $1 billion to inflation-proof the permanent fund
- $151 million for state troopers
- $14 million for village public safety officers
- $30 million in additional education funding – providing current state spending levels for education of roughly $1.2 billion
- $30 million for community assistance
- $98 million for pioneer homes
- $21 million for senior benefits
- $5 million to help the homeless
4.) Other state relief:
- Small business help: The Alaska Small Business Development Center has developed a resource center for Alaska small businesses affected by COVID-19. They are offering free,on-demand workshops,and you can find the full listing of workshops online.
- Public assistance: While public assistance offices are closed to the public to minimize exposure and transmission of COVID-19, local offices still continue to provide critical services over the phone and via email, as well as accepting hard-copy applications. To apply for public assistance benefits, apply online at my.alaska.gov or print and complete this application and submit it via email (local office emails are listed on the last page of the application) or drop it off in person at any Division of Public Assistance office. To apply for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance (SNAP) benefits, complete the application online. Note that the deadline to renew or re-certify SNAP benefits has been extended for six months for deadlines that were in March-June. To apply for Medicaid, go to healthcare.gov or myalaska.gov to submit an online application.
- Permanent Fund Dividend Application Extension: The PFD application deadline has been extended from March 31, 2020, to 11:59 p.m., April 30, 2020.
- Real ID Deadline Extension: The federal government has extended the deadline to apply for a Real ID from October 1, 2020, to October 1, 2021.
If you have been affected by COVID-19-related closures and lost work, your first step should be to access the state unemployment insurance program online at my.alaska.gov. Click on “Unemployment Insurance Benefits.” For assistance, call these numbers:
- In Anchorage: 269-4700
- In Fairbanks: 451-2871
- In Juneau: 465-5552
- Anywhere else in Alaska: (888) 252-2557
For more information and a comprehensive list of resources and links available, please visit this link: http://akhouse.org/Documents/04.04.20_SUMMARY_OF_COVID-19_BILLS_RESOURCES.pdf.
Additionally, spring is often a difficult time for people's mental health. The need to shelter in place can add to the anxiety and loneliness which are common this time of year and extended isolation, while very important for fighting the pandemic, could exacerbate existing mental health concerns. If you or someone you know is in need of someone to talk to, please call the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-HELP (4357) for immediate crisis intervention or if you are struggling without someone to talk to. Trained callers will be happy to listen to your concerns at any time of the day or night.
Now is the time, if you need to, to file for unemployment insurance
Governor's Budget Vetoes
The governor took action this week to veto many items in the FY21 operating budget, capital budget and FY20 supplemental budget that was passed by the Legislature. $261 million was vetoed from the budget the Legislature passed, impacting the University, k-12 education, the marine highway, public broadcasting, and other important services and function. Some of the major items vetoed by the governor include the following, with many additional vetoes as well:
- - $12.5 million University of Alaska
- - $2 million Public Broadcasting
- - $100 million School Bond Debt Reimbursement
- - $4.3 million pre-k
- - $30 million in Education and Early Childhood Development
- - $15.5 million Alaska Marine Highway
- - $31 million Medicaid
- - $334,000 from Appellate Courts
- - $150,000 Rural Real ID Implementation
- - $2 million Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery Grants
- - $1 million Alaska Recidivism Reduction and Recovery project
- -$.5 million Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks (near UAF Campus)
News of these vetoes is very disappointing. He stated that there will be COVID funding from the Federal Government to replace these funds, but that is not the case for many of the items I mentioned above, including Cold Climate Housing, the University, and public broadcasting in particular. He also vetoed the bond debt reimbursement, so now the school district will incur more expenses (about $4M,) and he vetoed the statewide community assistance fund ($3M hit to the Borough) and the $30M in education (which will affect our school district by $3M). These are going to add to the hardship that our community is feeling right now amidst the COVID pandemic and the uncertainties that we are all reeling from.
Hang in there and try your best to enjoy this extra down time to rest, spend time with family and friends who are in your household or at a distance, and set goals for when we get through this difficult time.