Will I get a check? Where do I find peanut butter? What crisis-hit Americans are asking lawmakers amid coronavirus

WASHINGTON – An aide to Rep. Jim Banks was trying to find personal protective equipment for area health workers last month when a neighborhood health clinic in Fort Wayne, Ind., shared another concern.

Low-income mothers with federal food vouchers  for themselves and their young children were finding that many eligible products – peanut butter, canned fish, eggs, frozen fruits and vegetables – were gone from shelves as regular shoppers stocked up on goods they needed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kathie Green, Banks’ liaison to his constituents, contacted Kroger, Walmart and Meijer to see if they could restock those items faster or set some aside for mothers in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children which serves about half of all infants born in the United States.

This week, Green’s days – and many nights – are consumed by answering constituents’ questions about unemployment assistance. Working from home as the rest of the staff is, she’d already fielded dozens of calls on Tuesday when she took an afternoon break to describe how her office is responding to the pandemic. Traffic to Banks’ website has more than doubled.

“Our whole staff is on the phone, everyday, calling, calling, calling,” she said.

Members of John Vellinger's family wait for a flight home from Guatemala where they were stranded in March before Sen. Todd Young's office helped them find a way home.

Congressional offices across the country say their incoming calls, emails and letters have soared as have visits to their websites where many have posted information on help available in the historic $2 trillion rescue package Congress passed.

Thousands are tuning in to virtual town hall meetings that lawmakers are holding during their recess. They discuss the aid package, host local health officials and field questions.

“There’s a desperate desire to get information about what’s going on,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. His office is getting two-and-a-half times the calls as it received in February and aides have put aside their usual duties to focus on responding to constituents.

“That has been overwhelming,” he told USA TODAY. “Essentially, our office is being repurposed so that all of us are doing casework.”

During a virtual town hall Monday, a constituent asked Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., why Congress was taking a three-week recess in the middle of a pandemic.

“I’m working as hard, and harder, than I ever have in this job,” Murphy responded.

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Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., conducts a Facebook Live event on coronavirus.

Predictions that the virus could kill 100,000 to 240,000 Americans while ravaging the economy explain the pressure on lawmakers.

A record 6.65 million Americans filed first-time jobless claims last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. A stunning 10 million workers have sought unemployment benefits in just two weeks, exceeding the nearly 9 million who lost jobs from 2008 to 2010 amid the Great Recession.

About four in ten U.S. residents have already lost a job or income due to the crisis, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted March 25-30. Nearly half said that worry and stress over the coronavirus is affecting their mental health.

Freshman Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., has tweeted out his cell phone number, encouraging anyone feeling overwhelmed or scared to call.

“If you want to just talk about what’s going on around you, I don’t even need to know your name. You don’t even have to live in my congressional district,” the Knoxville Republican said. “Please, I’d appreciate that call.”

Some constituents vent about politics at the virtual town halls. While some are urging stronger government action, others decry what they see as an overreaction to the crisis.

“President Trump said early in his briefings that what he didn’t want is for the solution to be worse than the problem,” said one woman in at a session Tuesday hosted by Sen. Tom Tillis, R-N.C., where she said her husband’s pay had been slashed. “Your one-time check to my family isn’t going to help us recover from what we are suffering right now.…I just find this extended lock down to be outrageous.”

But Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., heard from a retail employee upset that many people seem to be shopping out of boredom, putting himself and others at risk.

“While they’re coming out maybe to look for essential items, they’re hanging out and looking at redoing their kitchen or their bathroom,” said the man, identified on Peters’ telephone town hall by his first name, Jason. “Is there any implementation of anything by law or coming down the pipeline that will allow people to understand, you cannot do this if you want to curb this whole process?”

Lawmakers are having a hard time keeping up with the fast-moving situation.

Near the beginning of Peters’ hour-long telephone town hall Tuesday, he told listeners that Michigan banks he’d spoken with the day before were optimistic they would soon get the information from the federal government to help small business. Shortly before the call ended, the Small Business Administration had issued some guidance.

“That just came out while we’ve been on the call here,” Peters told a man with a banquet business who said the banks he’d contacted said they couldn’t process loans yet.

Welch said his Vermont constituents are, right now, looking for basic information.

“What’s going to come next is addressing the obstacles that are in people’s way,” he said. “We passed a $2.2 trillion bill in a week. Are their details that weren’t foreseen? Well, of course. We know that’s coming. And, in fact, I think that’s going to be the real surge in demand on us for case work. We’ll be getting calls from people not asking, `Do I qualify?’ They’ll be calling saying,` I thought I did qualify but where’s my check?’”

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Lawmakers are also helping stranded travelers.

John Vellinger and his family were in Guatemala in March when the country closed its borders.

John Vellinger, president of an aerospace engineering firm in Indiana, had barely arrived in Guatemala with his family for mission work last month when the country shut its borders.

Vellinger, 55, reached out to the U.S. embassy for help but the staff seemed overwhelmed. So he started figuring out options with Sen. Todd Young’s office.

Maybe his family could get to Belize and fly home from there? But then Belize closed its borders. What about charting a plane? Young’s office determined the flight wouldn’t be allowed to land.

“They would investigate a new opportunity and then the door would get closed,” Vellinger said. “It was very scary.”

The Vellingers considered traveling to Mexico with help from Guatemalan police arranged by Young’s staff. Then, the senator’s office discovered an airline had gotten permission to land in Guatemala City.

So Vellinger’s family headed to the airport for a 10:30 p.m. flight that eventually left at 3:30 a.m.

“I’m thinking, any second they’re going to shut this plane down and say `You can’t go,’” Vellinger said. “Everybody cheered when the plane took off. Everybody cheered when the plane landed in America.”

Other types of help congressional offices are giving may be less challenging but are just as significant.

When Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office in Washington state got a call last week from a woman on a fixed income desperate for food but unable to leave her home, Beutler’s staff called food banks to find one that was making home deliveries.

“She was overjoyed when a box of food showed up on her doorstep,” said Craig Wheeler, Beutler’s communications director.

When California Rep. Eric Swalwell put out a call on social media for local builders to share any N95 masks they could spare, his district director arranged for 150 masks to be delivered to a local hospital.

Such small victories that Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence has likewise helped facilitate in her own hard-hit district are usually enough to keep her going in a crisis.

But Lawrence said she woke up Wednesday feeling the enormity of the situation.

“Every day I’m getting a new name of a death,” Lawrence said in a weary voice.

In the two counties that her district runs through, there were more than 4,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Friday morning and more than 200 deaths.

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Still, she was getting ready for a town hall to connect small businesses with bankers and another one next week focused on unemployment insurance. Her office has taken in the most emails and letters since she came to Congress in 2015. Lawrence said she’s been on the phone nonstop, including listening to the owner of a home health care business explain how it’s impossible to get personal protective equipment for nurses treating patients who can’t leave their homes.

“It was strange for me to wake up this morning and have a heavy heart. I usually wake up, take a deep breath, and say, `What do I need to do?’” Lawrence said. “I’ll take a deep breath tomorrow and I’m going to find those small victories and keep working.”

Contributing: Paul Davidson, USA TODAY.

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