Power Up: Washington in the time of coronavirus, in their own words

with Brent D. Griffiths

Good morning and happy Friday. For planning purposes, tomorrow is Saturday. Followed by Sunday. But we’ll see you again on Monday. Have yourself a quarantini and a great weekend.

The People

FOUR CORNERS OF WASHINGTON: Coronavirus has upended life as we know it across the nation’s capital. 

Power Up asked four people — a lawmaker, a reporter, a lobbyist and a philanthropist — about how their jobs and lives have changed since the start of the pandemic that has so far claimed nearly 17,000 lives in the United States.  

Here are their stories. 

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.)

Porter, like many other Americans, has been in her district in Orange County under a stay-at-home order, figuring out how to take care of her three children as a single parent. She departed Washington last month after getting Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to commit to free coronavirus testing during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing. 

The tense exchange on March 12 went viral. And only a week or so later, Porter herself was tested for coronavirus, after experiencing a fever, fatigue and cold-like symptoms, which ultimately came back negative. 

  • “When I first started coming down with symptoms, I didn’t immediately get tested,” Porter told us. “I called my provider, and I was told to wait and see if my condition worsened. When I got a fever over 100.4, I was directed to come in to get tested. In those conversations, the nurse did not know that I was an elected official. I was a patient, and I’m grateful for the quality care that my provider is giving all its patients.” 

But the experience only made Porter’s earlier warnings on the dangers posed by covid-19 feel even more personal. 

  • On the government’s response: “Both Congress and the White House lost valuable time,” Porter told us in an email. “Orange County had the second confirmed case of the coronavirus in the country, and on January 26, I immediately wrote to the CDC to request a briefing. I attended multiple briefings and my office created a FAQ for constituents about coronavirus, including translating it to make it accessible to our community. Until late February, only a fraction of my colleagues attended the coronavirus briefings. 
  • “I wish leaders in both parties had acted earlier, holding hearings rather than briefings so that we could get answers to the public, not behind closed doors,” Porter told us.
  • She wants to see more pressure on President Trump: “Congress also should have — and should continue — to focus on oversight to get the administration to use the tools it has,” Porter added. “We did not need repeated legislation to get free testing; the administration has that ability. We did not need legislation to invoke the Defense Production Act; the administration had that ability. Instead of focusing on these huge relief packages under difficult and distant conditions in late March, Congress should have done aggressive oversight during the entire month of February. And, of course, the administration should have done its job, using the tools in existing law, not waiting for Congress to push and pass legislative mandates.” 

Paul Kane, congressional correspondent at The Post

At first, there was little expected impact to the Capitol due to coronavirus: P.K. tweeted on March 2 that senators announced no plans to limit public tours and did not anticipate any disruptions to daily life. On March 22, news that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had tested positive for coronavirus — after spending a week at work and using the Senate gym while awaiting his test results — sent shock waves through the Capitol. By March 25, Congress had passed the largest economic relief package in U.S. history — to the tune of $2.2 trillion — the third piece of legislation geared to help struggling Americans, businesses and the overwhelmed health-care system.

  • Reporter’s notebook from the end of that week: “I walked out of the Capitol at 2:30 p.m. Friday, after the crazy voice vote that finished this basically three-week journey to pass [a major relief package] worth more than $2.2 trillion,” P.K. tells Power Up. “It was beautiful out, and I knew I wouldn’t be setting foot inside the Capitol for a while, which was a relief.” 

P.K., like other reporters on Capitol Hill, took on increasingly cautious social distancing measures. The usual press scrums at the Capitol — where reporters tightly crowd around lawmakers to get quotes — grew more dispersed. 

  • “I walked home to my place in Navy Yard and just jumped into the shower, threw my clothes in a trash bag,” P.K. says of his own personal precautions.
  • “I’ve been very careful the past two weeks about staying out of large scrums around lawmakers, and really the last few days there were very few reporters in the Capitol.” 

How reporting plans have changed: “[My colleague] Mike DeBonis and I did a rotation for The Post in the Capitol, trying not to overlap all that much,” P.K. said. 

  • “In a situation where a bill this big was going down to the wire, without the health threat, The Post would’ve had 10-15 reporters and photographers and videographers in the building every day. Instead, we effectively had 1 1/2 people. 

A Republican lobbyist

The lobbyist, speaking to Power Up anonymously to protect the confidentiality of his clients, told us that he first started to catch wind of the virus from his clients in China in early January. These clients were already asking him if the Trump administration understood the severity of the coronavirus that was running rampant in their country. “What do they know? What have they heard?” the lobbyist said he was frequently asked. 

It was about a month later that the lobbyist realized “we have a serious problem on our hands in the U.S. 

  • Warning signs: “There is one conversation I had with an association I’ll leave unnamed — they have to buy a bunch more caskets and they were unprepared for that,” the lobbyist told us. “And it’s a cash flow business, so they were seeking help from the federal government to assist with a line of credit to deal with surge of deaths to be expected. I didn’t take the client. But it was pretty grim. That’s when the reality started setting in.”
  • “The association had gotten a study from a Wall Street firm saying that there was a shortage in caskets and that this was an emerging problem. That would have been in mid-February.” 

There are now at least 11,766 confirmed cases and 280 deaths in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

But the burgeoning crisis also brought an unprecedented surge in business for him and many other lobbyists. A range of companies — from pharmaceuticals to small businesses to international companies — were scrambling for help from Washington.  

  • Some were trying to navigate ways to alleviate the crisis: “There are [pharmaceutical companies] looking to fast-track things through the Food and Drug Administration. There’s a company in Maine that sells medical-grade dividers for holding patients. Another client is an Uber-type platform for emergency medical technicians involved with relieving the pressure on hospitals. So it’s everything.”
  • Others were looking for financial relief after getting slammed by the economic fallout: “Then you got the companies who were left out of the stimulus package that are trying to find a way to get something now — or looking forward to the infrastructure plan that I imagine will have to eventually happen.”
  • A day in the life: “I’ve been up since 3 a.m. dealing with European clients and in bed at 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. — no happy hour now. So it’s dinners at home and wine on the patio.” 

Kim R. Ford, president and chief executive of Martha’s Table

The Washington-based nonprofit that provides low-income individuals and families with food and cash assistance has also seen an unprecedented surge in business. But not the good kind, Ford told us. 

As the unemployment rate surges and workers around the country and in the district are laid off, food banks in town are working overtime to keep people from going hungry. “We are proud to stand alongside the community and have seen an incredible uptick in terms of people who are coming to us for food support,” Ford told us.

  • “We see 1,000 people a day at least,” Ford said. That’s a big jump from the beginning of March, when an average of 200 to 250 bags of food were handed out daily.
  • How the coronavirus threat has changed things: “We’ve moved to a pre-bagged model, so we are pre-bagging around 2,000 bags of groceries a day and go and drop them off throughout our various locations. We are also delivering pre-bagged groceries for senior citizens at their homes.”

“It’s like Groundhog Day every day,” Ford told us about the rush to distribute as much food as possible. 

  • “Frankly, we started seeing the biggest jump in need at the end of the last week, because now people have missed their first paycheck,” Ford said. “A lot of folks are one paycheck away from this being a disaster.” 

HOW THEY’RE GETTING THROUGH IT: But despite the long, labor-intensive days, Ford expressed gratitude for the ability to serve her community during the crisis. She recalled dropping off a bag of groceries at an elderly man’s home last week who was too scared to leave his house to buy food. 

  • “He was in tears and said, ‘was praying for something like this,’” said Ford. “I think this is different in the sense that you have so many people who the bottom is falling out for and they are so appreciative, even as that bottom is falling out. This is different than our usual need — people have done nothing to deserve this. Nobody can try to say, ‘Oh well why didn’t you pull yourself up from the bootstraps.’ This is something that has affected the entire world.” 

Porter, even while quarantining, says she’s working overtime for her constituents and her family.Since the CDC has issued guidance on not having large public gatherings, I’ve moved to doing telephone town halls and Facebook Live town halls, to keep hearing from Orange County families while modeling public health recommendations that will keep us safe,” she said. “We are also working to develop tools to educate the public about the benefits of the Cares Act; I have two whiteboards already in my house that I am putting to good use.” 

And she’s trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life for her kids. 

  • “My family brainstormed creative ways we can continue to live our lives while practicing social distancing,” she told us. “While we usually go to the library together, we recently enrolled in their eBook program. We’re doing things like jump rope competitions and outdoor yoga to keep ourselves healthy as we practice social distancing. We all need to get out of the house — in a safe way — so we dumped our Legos in our driveway and had a build competition. I’ve also been enforcing basic chores to keep a routine. Coronavirus is no excuse for an unmade bed in my house!”
  • There’s also the new responsibility of home schooling: “It’s definitely a challenge to have three kids all in different grades doing remote learning at the same time. I had to email my children’s principal asking them to put grade levels in the emails about downloading this app or testing this system, because I could not keep track of everything when it all came from the same ‘do not reply’ district email address. Overall though, I’m incredibly impressed with the dedication of teachers. Even over spring break, my daughter’s teacher is doing a nightly book reading.”

P.K. says the crisis meant a marathon stretch of congressional coverage I was working as hard or harder than we did during impeachment” but the passage of the massive stimulus gave him a chance to rest. He took some time to sleep, get takeout barbecue from restaurant Due South, watch old classic sports, and reflect. 

  • “I think the thing that is surprising, that is different in this crisis unlike any other of the last 20 years unlike 9/11, Katrina, the Iraq War, 2008 financial crisis, Sandy is this is literally impacting everyone in the nation,” P.K. told us.
  • “[That] Sunday afternoon I got the family text that my elderly father was being rushed to ER with a fever. A chest X-ray revealed some pneumonia and for the next 60 or so hours my siblings and I awaited the test results. By Wednesday they came back: Negative for covid-19, it was just pneumonia and the antibiotics had kicked in. He got discharged Thursday.”
  • “We live in times where I feel lucky that my father only had pneumonia,” P.K. said. “This is impacting all of us, every one. Stay healthy, everyone.”

The Republican lobbyist expressed gratitude, too for the Trump administration’s federal relief spending:

  • “We’re very lucky Trump is president,” he said. “If it was any other president they wouldn’t want to spend the money on the stimulus package. We are very lucky it is this type of Republican president who is following the model of [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt as opposed to the model of George W. Bush. It’s frightening to think about — [some of his 2016 rivals] would never want to spend this kind of cash. They’d never do it.” 

Outside the Beltway

AMERICA IS IN A DEPRESSION NOW: “More than 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past four weeks, a rapid and unprecedented deterioration in the U.S. economy that the nation has decided is necessary to combat the deadly coronavirus by keeping as many people as possible at home,” Heather Long and Andrew Van Dam report.

  • Experts say this magnitude of layoffs and economic contraction hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression: “We have never seen anything like this,” Princeton University economist Alan Blinder told our colleagues. “This looks likely to be deep enough to qualify as a depression.” 
  • JPMorgan Chase, our colleagues add, “predicts the unemployment rate will hit 20 percent and the economy will shrink by 40 percent in the second quarter, which runs from April through June.”

The Fed took action once again: Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell said the economy is deteriorating “with alarming speed.” He urged a national conversation about when the economy can begin to reopen, but warned about worsening the outbreak if actions are taken too hastedly.

  • The details: “[Its] sweeping new loan programs unveiled Thursday will provide $2 trillion in additional loans to small, medium and large companies as well as cash-strapped states and cities. These latest Fed actions are in addition to slashing interest rates to zero in March and buying numerous government bonds in an effort to keep borrowing as cheap as possible for American families and businesses.”

At The White House

TRUMP WANTS COUNTRY REOPENED BY MAY 1: “In phone calls with outside advisers, Trump has even floated trying to reopen much of the country before the end of this month, when the current federal recommendations to avoid social gatherings and work from home expire,” Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey, Jose A. Del Real and William Wan report.

  • The White House can’t reopen the economy unilaterally: “The White House cannot unilaterally reopen the country. Though the [CDC] has issued federal guidance advising people to avoid social gatherings, work from home and use pickup and delivery options for food, it is state officials who have put the force of law behind those suggestions.” The CDC’s guidance also expires on April 30.

But there have been vigorous debates about reopening too soon: “White House advisers have contemplated scenarios in which some ‘hot spot’ states will not be ready to reopen as quickly, the people familiar with the matter said,” our colleagues write. 

  • History shows why that is a big risk: “A 2007 study funded by the CDC examined the fate of several U.S. cities when they eased restrictions too soon during the 1918 flu pandemic. Those cities believed they were on the other side of the peak, and, like the United States today, had residents agitating about the economy and for relaxing restrictions.”
  • “Once they lifted the restrictions, however, the trajectory of those cities soon turned into a double-humped curve with two peaks instead of one. Two peaks means overwhelmed hospitals and many deaths, without the flattening benefit authorities were trying to achieve with arduous restrictions.”

Pelosi is also warning Trump not to move too quickly: “I would hope that the scientific community would weigh in and say, ‘You can’t do this, it is only going to make matters worse if you go out too soon,’” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Politico’s Heather Caygle and John Bresnahan report.

REPUBLICANS TELL TRUMP TO COOL IT WITH THE BRIEFINGS: “As unemployment soars and the death toll skyrockets, and new polls show support for the president’s handling of the crisis sagging, White House allies and Republican lawmakers increasingly believe the briefings are hurting the president more than helping him,” the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman reports.

The president’s rollicking performances are viewed as indicative of the federal response: “Many view the sessions as a kind of original sin from which all of his missteps flow, once he gets through his prepared script and turns to his preferred style of extemporaneous bluster and invective,” the Times reports.

  • Key quote: Trump “sometimes drowns out his own message,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told the Times, adding that he told the president “a once-a-week show” could be more effective.

On The Hill

PHASE 4 WON’T HAPPEN THIS WEEK: “Competing proposals for coronavirus relief failed in the Senate, as Democrats objected to a proposed $250 billion increase in a small business program and Republicans shot down the counter-offer,” Erica Werner and Mike DeBonis report.

  • What happened on the floor: “In a brief floor session, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of treating ‘working Americans as political hostages’ by refusing to add more money to the ‘Paycheck Protection Program,’ a new $350 billion small business loan program that is being overwhelmed by demand,” our colleagues write. “[Sen Chris] Van Hollen (D-Md.) retorted that McConnell was performing ‘a complete political stunt’ by offering a “go-it-alone, take-it-or-leave-it” proposal that was designed to fail.”

It’s uncertain how the standoff will end: “With both the House and Senate out of session, and lawmakers unwilling to return to Washington en masse because of health concerns, nothing can pass either Chamber without bipartisan agreement that has the unanimous support of all lawmakers,” our colleagues write.

The Campaign

BIDEN MOVES TO THE LEFT, TO THE LEFT: “A day after becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former vice president Joe Biden sought to appeal to liberal supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders with a pair of new proposals to expand access to health care and curtail student loan debt,” Sean Sullivan reports.

  • The announcements came after private conversations between Biden and Sanders’s respective camps: “Biden proposed lowering the eligibility age for Medicare coverage from 65 to 60. He also came out in favor of forgiving student loan debt for people who attended public colleges and universities and some private schools and make up to $125,000 a year,” our colleague writes.

VEEP WATCH, “THAT WOMAN FROM MICHIGAN”: “To the untrained eye, Gretchen Esther Whitmer might seem like a pushover. With the suburban-mom hairstyle, the high-pitched giggle, the nasally accent straight out of “Fargo” central casting, she looks like the type of person — OK, the type of woman — that [Trump] would chew up and spit out,” Politico Magazine’s Tim Alberta reports in his lengthy cover story on the governor. “But looks can be deceiving, especially when they are strategically deployed to deceive.”

A few highlights:

  • One of the state’s most powerful Republicans sees her as throwback to another era: “She’s the only Democrat I’ve seen placate the business lobby and the environmentalists. Seriously — nobody else can do it. I’ve seen her sit down with CEOs in suits, then have beers with people from the upper peninsula,” Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield told Alberta. He added that it would be “a missed opportunity” not to consider Whitmer for the ticket.
  • Whitmer wanted a punching bag: So, thanks to her security detail, “a few feet away, next to Whitmer’s desk, is a peach-colored dummy cut off below the torso, the type used by martial arts fighters to practice their assault techniques,” Alberta writes. “Does it have a name? She grins but holds back. ‘It could theoretically change daily.’”
  • She has four of those political prayer candles: They are of her “wise women,” she told Alberta. They are: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Detroit soul legend, Aretha Franklin.

In the Media

WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:

More than half of the nation’s population lives in areas that are less prepared than New York City: That’s just one of the alarming findings from a Post “stress test” of our nations hospitals, Amy Brittain, Dan Keating, Ted Mellnik and Joe Fox report. Our colleagues analyzed data to determine whether hospitals in your area are prepared to deal with the coronavirus. 

Barr says the Russia investigation was “without basis”: “I think the president has every right to be frustrated, because I think what happened to him was one of the greatest travesties in American history,” Attorney General William P. Barr told Fox News host Laura Ingraham about the FBI investigation into Trump that later became former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. The attorney general also defended Trump’s firing of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s watchdog.

  • It’s unclear what evidence the AG was basing his claim on: “Barr offered no support for his assertion that the FBI lacked a basis for opening the investigation and made no mention of the fact that the bureau began its probe after a Trump campaign adviser purported to have early knowledge that Russia had dirt on Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton,” the Associated Press’s Michael Balsamo and Eric Tucker report.

Local news, Montgomery County orders all residents to wear masks while shopping: Starting Monday, the District suburb of 1 million people will require shoppers to wear masks in grocery stores, pharmacies and other retail establishments, Rebecca Tan reports. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced on Wednesday that all grocery stores in the city must instruct all customers to wear a mask or face covering.

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