U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis held a series of virtual town hall meetings recently, to field questions and share information regarding assistance available amid the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Bilirakis took part in a Zoom session with members of the North Tampa Bay Chamber on May 5. He also had other sessions scheduled with other organizations, including The Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce and The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.
The congressman offered practical suggestions, and expressed empathy for the frustrations that local business owners and individuals are experiencing — in the wake of health concerns and the financial meltdown caused by COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 1.3 million positive cases nationally and nearly 79,000 deaths.
Bilirakis told those participating in the virtual town hall that he has heard complaints about the process used for government assistance.
“Since the establishment of the Paycheck Protection Program, I’ve heard from countless small-town constituent business owners that the application process was difficult to navigate and that many lenders were not receptive to their needs. This is what we’ve been hearing, folks.
“It’s very frustrating to know that many well-known business chains received millions of dollars in program funds and that those applications may have been prioritized by lending institutions. I emphasize ‘may,’” Bilirakis said.
He also noted that he has worked to have money specifically set aside in the PPP program to provide help for truly small businesses — those having 25 or fewer employees.
“Our nation’s family owned businesses, mom and pops, and self-proprietors are already competing with national and international competitors — particularly during good times, particularly with the Internet now. So they need the help,” Bilirakis said.
The set-aside, “was a reflection of my work,” the congressman said.
He’s also heard from small businesses who want greater flexibility on the forgiveness side of the loan.
“Some of the businesses haven’t been able to open, obviously, because of the executive order, plus it might not be safe to do so. So, there should be flexibility with that seven or eight weeks,” Bilirakis said.
“As we move forward, we need to find even better ways to ensure that our local businesses get the help they need in this or any future crisis,” Bilirakis said.
The nation needs to be prepared, in case the virus reoccurs in the fall, Bilirakis said.
Bilirakis also noted that he will be introducing legislation “that will do even more to provide direct support to the small businesses.”
“You know, you employ more than 50% of the employees. You create the jobs. You’re the innovators,” he told those listening in.
“Through no fault of your own, you’re not getting business. It’s because of the virus,” Bilirakis said.
“In these times, sometimes you throw out the playbook because people are desperate.
“They’ve invested a lot of their own money in these businesses. We want to save these mom-and-pop businesses, in particular.”
The congressman added: “I think in the next couple of weeks, we’ll have an additional package. What it’s going to look like? We’ll see.”
Bilirakis also addressed a concern that has been expressed about workers being reluctant to go to work because the government is providing a $600 a week federal payment, on top of state unemployment benefits.
He noted: “If you write the letter asking them to come back, then they’re not eligible for further unemployment.”
Summer Robertson, the congressman’s deputy chief of staff, elaborated: “If the employer puts the request for their employee to return to work in writing and the employee refuses it, and the employees continues to claim unemployment, that will be considered fraud and they will be prosecuting fraud.”
She said employers “need to have their employees understand that.”
Others taking part in the town hall expressed concerns about not being able to negotiate with their landlords for temporary relief on their lease payments. Bilirakis suggested they call his office to see if the office can help them find solutions to that problem.
Robertson also touched on the importance of testing to secure data that’s needed to help get the nation reopened.
“The No. 1 thing that the health professionals keep telling us on these calls is that best way that we can help save lives is by identifying who might be impacted.
“The more people who get it, the better criteria that we have, the better decisions we can make, based upon that data,” she said.
Robertson also said: “Just today, Pfizer announced that it is moving into human trials for its possible vaccine for COVID. That process has been ramped up.
“When you have the vaccine available, you’re better to contain the death count,” Robertson said.
Bilirakis also addressed the problems that the state of Florida has been having with its unemployment system.
He noted it’s a state issue, not a federal matter.
But, he added: “It is a huge problem. The governor has recognized that, and there’s an ongoing investigation.”
Although it is a state issue, Bilirakis said his office is helping people by trying to find out the status of specific cases, he said.
Robertson added: “There are a lot of people in terrible situations — haven’t received income in two months, and we’re doing the best we can to communicate those frustrations and those concerns with the state.”
If you’d like additional information about government loans or assistance programs, or have other questions, you can reach Bilirakis’ office at (727) 232-2921.
Published May 13, 2020