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Focus on Regulation

Coronavirus: The Hill and the Headlines – COVID-19 D.C. Update – May 20, 2020

Your guide to the latest Hill developments, news narratives, and media headlines provided by the Hogan Lovells Government Relations and Public Affairs team.

In Washington:

  • President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday directing federal agencies to ease up on businesses that make good-faith attempts to follow agency guidance and regulations during the coronavirus pandemic.  The extent to which the order would provide protection for businesses against pandemic-related liability would be limited.  The order also directs agencies to consider what sort of deregulatory action they might take that could spur economic growth.  Several GOP lawmakers are also drafting legislation to expand business liability protections against lawsuits as many Democrats oppose blanket protections that would disincentivize employers from protecting workers and consumers.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a 60-page detailed guidance for reopening schools, mass transit, and nonessential businesses.  The document was posted on the website without a formal announcement and the CDC has remained largely quiet on the pandemic.  The plan outlines a “three-phased approach” for reducing social distancing and proposes the use of six “gating” indicators to assess when to move through another phase.  The gating indicators include decreases in newly reported COVID-19 cases and emergency room visits as well as a “robust” testing program.  “While some communities will progress sequentially through the reopening phases, there is the possibility of recrudescence in some areas,” the CDC wrote in its guidance.  Noticeably missing from the document was any guidance on faith-based communities.  Earlier this month, The Associated Press reported that the Trump administration shelved a document created by the CDC that was meant to help business owners and educators as they begin to reopen.  
  • President Donald Trump attended the Senate’s Republican lunch meeting Tuesday and expressed opposition to extending unemployment insurance that expires in July which House Democrats are looking to extend through January 2021.  As far as an additional aid, the President didn’t ask Republicans for potential ideas for a relief package.  They are counting on state lockdowns lifting to propel an economic rebound that will ease the pressure for another round of stimulus.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said, “there is only one way out of this dilemma: America has to grow again, to open up again and I am pleased that is beginning to happen in my state and other states.”
  • The fate of CDC Director Robert Redfield has come into question as tensions between the CDC and the White House increase.  Reports of Redfield being possibly replaced come amid several agency staffers saying that they are being “muzzled” and accuse the White House of driving its policy by politics rather than science.  The reports also come after the President continues to dismiss doctors and scientists in the media and behind closed doors.  Tuesday, the President referred to the studies that showed hydroxychloroquine as doing little and producing unsafe side effects as “false” and “phony.”  He claims the studies results were “simply political” and described one study as a “Trump-enemy statement.”
  • House leaders have agreed to hold a vote next week on bipartisan legislation to ease restrictions on how businesses use the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  The loans can be forgiven if employers agree to maintain their payroll and avert layoffs during the coronavirus pandemic.  However, shutdown restaurants and other industries have lasted longer than lawmakers first expected when they created the program in March, creating fear in business owners that they will be stuck with the debt if changes aren’t made.
  • Yesterday, the Senate Banking Committee heard virtual testimonies from  Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.  They said June is going to be another rough month for employment numbers and questioned if the stimulus packages Congress has passed are enough. The Congressional Budget Office forecast that the U.S. economy will expand more in 2021 than it previously projected — 4.2 percent on a fourth quarter-to-fourth quarter basis from an April 24 estimate for a 2.8 percent increase. But it also said the economic fallout from the pandemic will linger, with the unemployment averaging 11.5 percent this year and only improving marginally in 2021 to 9.3 percent, just under the high reached in the 2007-2009 recession.
  • Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, appearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, defended his agenda as the agency faces legal challenges and criticism for rolling back enforcement on car standards, toxic mercury air emissions and other regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic.  
  • Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rep. Cynthia Axne (D-IA), sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, asking the agency to issue guidance on the “critical” human capital information companies should disclose to investors and the public.  The letter noted “critical information including employee engagement and sick leave policies, workplace cleaning practices, varying work schedules, and protective equipment for workers.” 
  • A new GAO report released today found 82 percent of nursing homes failed to meet federal safety standards and have “persistent problems” when it came to infection prevention.   “Many of these practices can be critical to preventing the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19,” the GAO wrote.
  • The Trump administration slashed royalty payments for 76 oil and gas companies to aid major producers as the pandemic continues to hit the beleaguered industry. Energy companies pay royalties for oil and gas produced on public lands. Critics of reducing the royalties to a fraction of their pre-pandemic levels say it will encourage production in an already over-supplied market.
  • President Trump said he’s considering a ban on Brazilians traveling to the U.S. as the country takes over third place globally in the number of COVID-19 cases overtaking Spain and Italy in the past few days in confirmed infections.
  • The Department of Homeland Security said non-essential travel restrictions will be extended until June 22 along the U.S borders in an effort to contain coronavirus outbreaks.   Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement, “non-essential travel will not be permitted until this administration is convinced that doing so is safe and secure.”

In the News:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has agreed to begin an inquiry into the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  It comes after President Trump threatened to permanently pull funding for the WHO unless it committed to “substantive improvements within the next 30 days” and accused the organization of being overly dependent on China. 
  • The lockdowns due to the coronavirus have resulted in a significant fall in worldwide carbon emissions, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The research found that compared to mean daily levels in 2019, daily emissions declined by 17 percent at the beginning of April, when confinement measures were at their peak. Researchers say the decline is expected to be temporary.
  • Amazon.com Inc., Kroger Co., and Rite Aid Corp. are ending the extra pay they gave to front-line workers.  Workers and unions are pushing back, saying they still face extra risk at work.
  • A Florida Department of Health data manager lost her role in maintaining the state’s COVID-19 data because she objected to removing records showing people had symptoms or positive tests before the cases were announced.
  • Clorox is partnering with United Airlines and the Cleveland Clinic to bring its products to airplanes and airports and make its cleaning products more accessible to travelers, the companies announced Wednesday. 
  • The number of newly reported coronavirus cases worldwide hit a daily record this week with more than 100,000 new cases over the last 24 hours, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  The majority of new confirmed cases are coming from the Americas, followed by Europe, according to WHO’s daily report.