Billings Gazette: Tester calls for 'Montana common sense' during Q&A with constituents

by Tom Lutey

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester called for some “Montana common sense” in responding to the new coronavirus pandemic, telling viewers in a Facebook Live event to be smart about limiting risks.

The Democratic farmer from Big Sandy touched on several Montana issues Thursday related to the federal response to novel coronavirus, including business loans and the need for medical supplies.

“Use good hygiene. Don’t go out unless you really have to. If you’re elderly and you need food, call up your kids, or call up your friends and say ‘go out and pick it up,’ just so it reduces the exposure,” he said. “It’s nothing to panic about. It’s something to be smart about, and if you do that, that will help.”

Congress has passed two COVID-19 response bills in the past three weeks, the first an $8.3 billion bill that directed more than $4.5 million to Montana’s emergency response earlier this week. A second response bill, passed the House last week and cleared the Senate on Wednesday, authorizes an additional $100 billion in spending, including money for paid sick leave and extended family leave. The most recent bill should also make COVID-19 tests free.

“Since that bill was passed yesterday, the tests should be free. And if you’re getting charged for them you need to let us know so we can try to run that down,” Tester said to a question submitted to his Facebook account.

Tester informed the public about the Facebook event Thursday morning and invited people to submit in advance of the session written questions, for which he offered researched responses. There were no live questions.

The next step in the Senate is a $1 trillion response to the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus. As airlines cancel flights, restaurants and bars close and many people limit public interaction, the economy is expected suffer greatly. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned senators this week that unemployment could hit 20% if Congress didn’t pass an economic stimulus bill. The forecast alarmed stock traders, after which Mnuchin said the federal government wouldn’t let the jobless rate nosedive.

Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told lawmakers earlier this week the Senate would remain in session until it passed the economic stimulus bill. Tester told viewers he would remain in Washington, D.C., this weekend. He gave his audience a tour of his empty office, complete with front-desk instructions on how to replace handshakes with elbow bumps.

Tester said the economic stimulus would likely include money for small businesses and workers affected by the coronavirus shutdown. He encouraged businesses to contact the Small Business Administration now.

“If I was in that boat today with my business being a restaurant or a bar, I would call SBA today to find out what’s there. I would also call your local bank and find out if they’ve got any plans to be able the help,” Tester said. “I’ve talked to a number of banks over the last few days that I can tell you I think the want to help. We are pushing the regulators of those banks to make sure that if they go out and help a small business that that loan isn’t classified as a bad loan.”

Tester said he expects businesses will experience a lack of income up front, but pent-up demand in business after the pandemic clears. Tester said he’s advocating for interest-free, government-guaranteed loans.

Montana needs more medical equipment now.

“The bottom line is we do need more tests,” Tester said. “We do need more protective equipment. I’ve been calling folks around the state since Monday, visiting with them about the challenges out there. I know the health care professionals have a lot of challenges right now.”