Smaller stimulus checks, targeted aid for small businesses, and funding to buy and distribute vaccines are among the main components of the latest pandemic relief package.

By Zach Montague

WASHINGTON (The New York Times @2020) — Unveiling the second major stimulus bill of the pandemic, Congress on Monday approved a $900 billion package aimed at addressing the needs of millions of Americans who have been forced to weather the effects of the coronavirus for months even as many existing federal aid programs ran thin or expired.

The new agreement extends some parts of the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus law passed in March, and borrows others with modifications and reductions.

The full text of the legislation, spanning almost 5,600 pages, was passed by the House and Senate soon after it was released. Here are some of the core features.

Individual payments

Among the most anticipated components of the legislation is the direct payments, with $600 going to individual adults with adjusted gross income of up to $75,000 a year based on 2019 earnings. Heads of households who earn up to $112,500 and a couple (or someone whose spouse died in 2020) who make up to $150,000 a year would get twice that amount.

Eligible families with dependent children would also receive an additional $600 per child.

As with the earlier round of payments of up to $1,200 sent out in the spring, the benefit declines for those who earned more than those income levels. It cuts off entirely for individuals who earned more than $99,000.

In a change from the last round, however, payments will not be denied to citizens married to someone without a social security number, allowing some spouses of undocumented immigrants to claim the benefit this time around.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday that the payments could begin arriving as early as next week.

Unemployment benefits

With as many as 12 million Americans facing the prospect of losing federal unemployment assistance on Dec. 26, Congress acted to extend multiple programs, albeit at less generous levels than in the spring.

The agreement would revive enhanced federal jobless benefits of up to $300 per week for 11 weeks, providing a lifeline for hard-hit workers until March 14. (The new benefit is half the amount provided by the CARES Act in the spring.)

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 The legislation also extends Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — a program aimed at a broad set of freelancers and independent contractors — for the same period, providing an additional $100 per week. Still, it requires those applying for the benefit to provide proof of unemployment, which could complicate applications.

Targeted aid for small businesses

With a specific focus on aiding small businesses ravaged by the pandemic, the agreement sets aside $285 billion for additional loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, renewing the program created under the CARES Act.

The latest version includes stricter terms that appear intended to correct some of the unpopular elements of the original program, which allowed a significant share of funds to flow to a tiny fraction of borrowers, including professional sports teams, high-income law firms and national restaurant chains. Public outcry over the distribution of funds sparked an audit by the Treasury Department; the program was also criticized for falling prey to widespread fraud.

Among other measures, the new legislation caps loans at $2 million and makes them available only to borrowers with fewer than 300 employees that experienced at least a 25 percent drop in sales from a year earlier in at least one quarter. The agreement also sets aside $12 billion specifically for minority-owned businesses.

Further focusing on small businesses, publicly traded companies will be ineligible to apply this time around.

The law also provides $15 billion to support a broad category of entertainment-related businesses, including small theaters and live music venues, that have been shuttered for most of the year.

Funding for vaccines and nursing homes

Amid concerns about the pace of vaccine distribution in the United States, the legislation sets aside nearly $70 billion for a range of public health measures, including $20 billion for the purchase of vaccines, $8 billion for vaccine distribution, and an additional $20 billion to help states continue their test-and-trace programs.

The bill also provides money for federal Covid-19 research and will allow a federal program that insures mortgages for nursing homes to dole out emergency loans aimed at helping hard-hit elder care centers cover their costs.

Support for climate measures

In an unusual rebuke of the Trump administration’s climate policy, the deal includes new legislation to regulate hydrofluorocarbons, the powerful greenhouse gases common in air-conditioners and refrigerators.

It also allocates $35 billion to fund wind, solar and other clean energy projects.

Both measures received vocal bipartisan support, with senior senators from both parties hailing the breakthrough as overdue and key to creating jobs of the future.

The inclusion of some climate legislation may be of particular interest to President-elect Joseph R. Biden, whose hopes of enacting even modest reforms on climate change hinge on the support of Republicans such as Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, who threw their support behind the new measures.

A ban on surprise medical bills

Clearing a longstanding legislative impasse, the deal will also help millions of Americans avoid unexpected — and often exorbitant — medical bills that can spawn from visits to hospitals.

The bill will make it illegal for hospitals to charge patients for services like emergency treatment by out-of-network doctors or transport in air ambulances that patients often have no say in accepting.

The new changes, which take effect in 2022, will require that patients only pay the normal in-network deductibles and co-payments they would otherwise under their insurance. The law would then leave it to health providers to negotiate with insurers to settle the difference.

Rental protections

The compromise would protect tenants struggling with rent by extending a moratorium on evictions another month, through Jan. 31. The Department of Housing and Urban Development separately issued a similar moratorium on Monday that also protects homeowners against foreclosures on home mortgages and runs until Feb. 28.

The bill also provides $25 billion in rental assistance, a move that could help take pressure off some state and local housing officials who anticipated forfeiting some of the aid allocated from the CARES Act because they were unable to distribute it all ahead of a Dec. 30 deadline.

Food security

Expanding one of the most reliable channels of aid, the agreement increases monthly food stamp benefits — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — by 15 percent for six months, beginning on Jan. 1.

Overall, the legislation provides $13 billion for increased nutrition assistance, $400 million of which will support food banks and food pantries. An additional $175 million is earmarked for nutrition programs under the Older Americans Act, such as Meals on Wheels.

Funding for broadband infrastructure

With millions of families forced to work and attend school remotely and make health appointments online, the legislation includes $7 billion for expanding access to high-speed internet connections.

Nearly half of that — $3.2 billion — will go toward helping cover the cost of monthly internet bills by providing up to $50 per month to low-income families.

The stimulus deal also sets aside $300 million for building out infrastructure in underserved rural areas that have historically suffered from slow internet speeds, as well as $1 billion in grants for tribal broadband programs.

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