Mid-Week Update: Where Things Stand on COVID Relief and Omnibus Spending Negotiations

December 16, 2020

By Terence Huie, NGA Manager of Grassroots and PAC

Congressional negotiators continue to work towards a deal on both a COVID-19 relief deal and a 2021 omnibus funding measure. Last Friday, Congress and President Trump agreed to a one-week stopgap funding measure – giving Congress until December 18 to agree to a full omnibus funding bill. Federal government operations will stop at midnight Friday if negotiators do not reach agreement. There has been discussion that Congress – if a full-year deal is not agreed – passes an additional stopgap measure before end of this week that would prevent a shutdown and push the deadline out until sometime in late February.

Regarding the COVID relief measure, a bipartisan group of negotiators released their long-awaited compromise package yesterday as two separate bills: a $748 billion package boosting PPP, nutrition programs, unemployment, and other funding, and a more controversial $160 billion add-on of state and local funding married with a liability protection provision. At this point, it is unclear how Congressional leadership will approach the bill, but the legislation is an encouraging sign after months of deadlock. NGA and almost 700 of our members sent a letter to Congressional leadership and all Hill offices last week urging them to include independent grocers’ priorities in end-of-year legislation and we are pleased most of these policies made it into the bipartisan proposal. We are particularly encouraged by the strong liability protections included in the compromise.

Below are the highlights of key provisions that impact the independent supermarket industry:

  • Unemployment Compensation – Extension of unemployment compensation for 16 weeks with supplemental $300/week
  • PPP $300 billion in funding for the SBA to conduct second round of PPP for small businesses:
    • Expanded eligibility – Includes 501c6 associations as eligible borrows.
    • Loan Forgiveness – Includes a simplified process for loan forgiveness for borrowers with PPP loans of $150K or less.
    • Forgivable expenses – expanded to include supplier costs and investments in facility modifications and PPE.
    • Deductibility – Business expenses paid for with the proceeds of PPP are tax deductible.
  • Nutrition Programs
    • SNAP – temporary 15 percent increase in individual monthly SNAP benefits for four months.
    • P-EBT – Expands the P-EBT program to cover families with children in childcare.
    • WIC – Temporarily increases the value of WIC benefits to allow participants to purchase additional fruits and vegetables.
    • Puerto Rico – Additional food assistance to US territories.
    • Nutrition Incentives – The bill includes $100 million to reduce the non-federal matching requirement from 50 to 10 percent for the GusNIP program during the public health emergency.
  • Liability Protections (included in separate $160 billion bill)
    • Gross Negligence Standard – Establishes a federal pre-emptive gross negligence standard for COVID-19 exposure claims. Claims can be filed in state or federal court.
    • Covered Period – Extends protections from injuries occurring from December 2019 until a year after enactment or the end of the public health emergency.
    • Demand letter deterrence – US AG given authority to investigate and bring civil actions against entities sending frivolous demand letters.
  • Family and Medical LeaveNo extensions of the FFCRA FMLA paid-leave provisions for small businesses with less than 500 employees.

Congressional leaders are planning to attach the COVID relief package to the government funding bill regardless of whether a full-year funding measure or an extended stopgap measure is agreed to this week. However, large obstacles remain before this occurs. Notably, there has yet to be agreement on liability protections and aid to state and local governments.

Democrats are pushing for state and local aid while Republicans want liability protections for essential businesses. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) urged Congress to agree to a relief package without these contentious policies but Democratic leadership dismissed his proposal, leaving negotiations at a standstill. Adding to the uncertainty, Senate Republicans are not supportive of state and local funding regardless of whether liability protections are included as a trade-off. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have thrown their support behind the bipartisan framework in hopes that the bicameral group of rank and file members will find a solution. But without buy-in from McConnell, it does not seem like Congress is any closer to a COVID aid agreement.

There is still a chance that Congress could agree to a full-year government funding bill and a COVID relief package this week and NGA continues to monitor developments on the Hill and advocate for our members’ priorities. We are actively encouraging Members of Congress to protect independent grocers from frivolous lawsuits by including liability protection in any final COVID relief package.