How federal funds helped Washington communities and families fight COVID-19 realities

Over the past nine months, Washington state has distributed more than $2.1 billion to orchestrate ongoing, significant relief efforts across multiple sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic — a public health crisis affecting more aspects of life than most people have ever experienced.

This funding was Washington’s share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES). It is just a portion of the roughly $7.6 billion the federal government has sent to help the state respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and recover from the economic fallout. The federal government has provided grants directly to state and local governments, hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term care providers, health care providers, colleges and universities, food assistance programs and many other programs.

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“Families, businesses and communities have and will continue to benefit from state and federal dollars that bolster economic and financial relief for millions. We know more is coming from the federal government which is great news and I am pleased that our state agencies worked so hard to get this money into communities throughout Washington,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “This funding has buoyed businesses and supported those whose finances and health have been deeply impacted by this virus. We know the need is great and will continue well into the coming year, but these funds are helping right now.”

Lisa Brown, director of the Department of Commerce, said this money has funded critical areas across the state.

“There’s no question COVID-19 has impacted certain communities and sectors especially hard,” Brown said. “Commerce is working with our local partners to make sure funding and support is getting to the families and businesses that need it most. At the same time we’re responding to the urgent needs facing us now, we’re also planning for a strong and equitable recovery into the future.”

State agencies have used the funds to provide support services that include housing, food, grants, business assistance and medical needs across Washington.

Inslee’s budget office worked with legislative leaders to decide how to best distribute the state’s CARES Act funding. Here is a breakdown of some of the largest distributions:

Medical/health response

A large portion of the funding went toward buying personal protective equipment for state responders in health care, local communities and the public health system. This included tracking all the activities that needed a statewide response, communication and media responses, preparing messages and material for the public, setting up a toll-free line for questions, tracking hospital capacity, communicating guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and developing guidance specific to Washington.

The agency used federal funds to establish teams to assist local communities in responding to outbreaks and increase the state’s capacity for COVID-19 testing — something the CDC had initially provided. As part of the testing, the agency purchased testing equipment and supplies, increased staffing for the state public health laboratory to run tests and partnered with other labs across the state to build this capacity beyond the state’s public health lab.

DOH also enhanced its technology to collect data and report on COVID-19 test results. Over the past few months, the agency built contact-tracing systems to keep those potentially exposed to COVID-19 informed and potentially reduce the spread. State workers also analyzed data to determine the continuous impact to Washington and its health care system. Finally, the agency partnered with communities to keep people informed and continually reviewed the latest COVID-19 literature as experts released more conclusive data.

Food insecurity and assistance

As the need for hunger relief grew with the pandemic, the state Department of Agriculture (WSDA) secured $64.2 million in CARES funding to help food pantries statewide. The federal dollars helped beef up the agency’s efforts to buy food, personal protective equipment for food bank volunteers, boxes to package food for distribution and expand the overall capacity at hunger relief organizations. This included storage expansion and purchasing refrigerators, freezers, forklifts, trucks and pallet jacks, among other items. The funds also helped the department create a grant program to help small meat processing operations.

Federal funding recently helped Malden residents after the local food pantry was lost when the town burned down during horrific wildfires. Not only were many Whitman County residents displaced from their homes, but they were simultaneously affected by COVID-19 impacts. With CARES funding, the state’s Emergency Food Assistance Program helped the local EFAP contractor (Council on Aging and Human Services) purchase a new refrigerated van to safely transport food to Malden residents. The van is now being used to make weekly food distributions to help residents feed themselves as they focus on rebuilding.

The Kalispel Tribe in Pend Oreille County reached out to WSDA for food assistance when the pandemic hit. The tribe had not participated in the Emergency Food Assistance Program before. But with CARES funding, WSDA Food Assistance brought the tribe on as a food distribution contractor and expanded the food cupboard into a true food pantry. They built refrigeration capacity and bought food for their tribal members who were facing food insecurity.

CARES funding also helped Coastal Harvest, a Hoquiam food bank, launch a mobile food market to serve Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. The specially designed trailer will give people open access to shop for their own food. Clients can pick from frozen, refrigerated, dry and fresh food products.

Funding helped support Bellingham Food Bank in their collaborative farm-to-freezer pilot project to purchase local foods from farmers in Whatcom County and turn them into frozen soups they can distribute to families needing food assistance. They have provided over 40,000 quarts of soups, stews and sauces since July, while supporting more than 20 local farms. CARES funding also helped the Community Services of Moses Lake nonprofit remodel a large warehouse and add nearly 4,000 square feet of dry storage space. This increased their capacity to accept and distribute emergency food throughout the region.

Business and economic assistance

The department awarded $100 million in rent assistance funding to prevent evictions, including funds specifically for vulnerable youth. The governor recently authorized another $20 million for rental assistance. So far, funds from the Eviction Prevention Rent Assistance Program have helped support an estimated 16,000 households throughout the state. Commerce also provided more than $23 million in CARES Act funds to assist low-income households with their energy bills through the LIHEAP Program.

One family in Stevens County fell two months behind in their rent after COVID-19 business impacts reduced their work hours. The family of seven included a grandparent and three small children. The rent assistance helped them catch up on their rent so they could adjust their budget and stay in their home.

A single mother in Lewis County recently visited The Salvation Army in Centralia to get help through the program as well. The mother lost her job when COVID-19 hit and she fell behind on bills. Through the program, she secured money for past-due rent and told a case worker that she could now buy Christmas presents for her children.

Another single mom who owned a salon in Kitsap had to close down for several months due to COVID-19 restrictions. Without the steady income, she fell behind on rent. Commerce used ERAP funding to get her caught up on the three months she owed, and one future month.

Business support has also been a significant focus of Commerce’s COVID-19 efforts. Some of the pandemic’s impacts are greatly different from past recessions and vary widely between counties, sectors and demographic groups. It’s one reason the agency developed an Economic Recovery Dashboard that allows state and local leaders to track a variety of economic indicators and make sure the agency’s assistance efforts are designed to target the hardest-hit sectors, counties and communities.

Among other grants, Commerce provided an emergency grant program for shellfish growers to help them purchase seed for next season. The department also funded a resiliency network to provide in-language, culturally-appropriate technical assistance to businesses that face barriers understanding the process and paperwork associated with applying for financial assistance.

The Spokane-based Gilded Lily floral business, owned by an elder member of the local Vietnamese community, is one of the businesses that received a business grant. Owner Toi Mulligan experienced technological challenges while filling out the online application and initially felt discouraged. Spokane Independent Metro Business Alliance, a member of the resiliency network, explained the intent of application questions, helped Mulligan understand the context of the grant, and helped her submit the application for review. These resources helped her business stay open and resilient.

A restaurant in downtown Vancouver experienced similar success when it applied for a business grant from The Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber. Amaro’s Table, a Latinx-owned and -operated restaurant, experienced a 75% drop in sales because of COVID-19 restrictions. With the help of the chamber, Amaro’s Table received a $10,000 grant. To date, they are open and remain committed to serving as a meeting place for their community.

Business support grants received an additional $70 million this November that focused on the hardest-hit industries. The newest round will go to businesses such as restaurants and fitness centers, as well as those with significant cumulative impacts, such as music venues. An additional $30 million went to a new business recovery loan fund. The loan program will allow Commerce to leverage private investment and provide financing that can serve as a bridge for small- to medium-sized businesses that have trouble accessing traditional financing during these uncertain times. The loan program is a longer-term recovery tool that will launch before the end of winter.

The state distributed more than $500 million to cities, counties and local health jurisdictions for COVID-19 response efforts, and the state’s largest municipalities received nearly $800 million directly from the federal government. Cities and counties could use these funds for additional business support efforts as well as public health measures, emergency housing and more.

Washington provided COVID-19 grants from disaster cash assistance, and the grants continue as long as the governor declares the pandemic a state of emergency. To date, nearly 62,000 households have received grants; the average grant was $326. The majority of applications come from people who live alone and who are struggling to feed themselves and pay their bills during the pandemic.

Federal funding also helped establish DSHS’ COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund. The state used $40 million to set up a one-time $1,000 cash grant for workers who can’t access federal stimulus programs and other social supports due to their immigration status. DSHS’ Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance also established the COVID-19 Emergency Support Services for Refugees Fund with $500,000 of federal funding to support refugee individuals and families impacted by the pandemic.

Civil legal aid

The governor recognized these problems would be disproportionately experienced by Black, brown, and Indigenous people, who serve as essential health care, hospitality, agricultural and meat packing, food service, and gig economy workers, and who would experience — and have experienced — the greatest negative health and economic consequences of the pandemic.

In partnership with the state Office of Civil Legal Aid, the governor directed federal CARES Act funding to support front-line civil legal aid services to thousands of COVID-19 affected individuals and families across Washington state, many of whom had never had to look to governmental programs for help before the pandemic.

These funds are underwriting legal help to domestic violence victims who have experienced greater levels of violence during the pandemic secure legal safety, as well as legal aid to enforce tenant and homeowner rights, promote prompt resolution of rental housing disputes, secure timely resolution of claims for unemployment insurance, enforce health and safety protections for essential workers, and prevent a range of pandemic-related crises that would, if unaddressed, lead to greater demands on over-taxed local and state public services and resources.

Long-term care

Additional CARES funding provided personal protective equipment for in-home providers and testing for nursing home staff and patients. Strike teams of nursing staff were funded to relieve staff impacted by COVID-19 at private facilities throughout the state. Keeping hospital beds open for pandemic patients became vital. In addition, enhanced rates for Medicaid clients discharging from acute care hospitals to the community were funded so patients could be moved to facilities that could provide the appropriate level of care and free up acute care beds.

Child care and child welfare

To help with unpredictable attendance during the pandemic, the state also provided $56 million from CARES Act to pay subsidized child care rates based on pre-pandemic attendance levels.

Many low-income families stopped using child care because they could not afford the monthly family copay. The state provided $59 million in one-time grants to child care businesses — regardless of whether the provider offered subsidized child care or not. The grants did three things: helped temporarily-closed providers to reopen, helped providers stay open and helped the providers expand. Expansion included accepting more subsidized child care slots or adding school-age children.

The state also provided $32 million to implement several copay relief policies that eased the financial hardship of monthly child care copayments for low-income families. Policies included full monthly copay waivers and capping the copay at a more affordable amount. For low-income families and foster families with school-age children, the state provided $31 million to deliver full-day care after the statewide school closure and continued distance learning.

When schools first closed, many emergency workers had challenges finding child care for their school-age children. The state provided $13 million in one-time grants to help providers absorb the influx of school-age children into a system that did not ordinarily serve school-age children during school hours.

In addition to supporting child care needs across the state, the state used CARES Act funding to support the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, the state’s preschool program for low-income families. While the classes and family support services traditionally end each May, the state provided $8 million to continue the family support services over the summer months. This included case management, food delivery, virtual support groups, in-home visits and mental health consultation.

The state also provided $4 million of CARES funding to foster families who help school-aged foster children with distance learning. Foster families may receive tutors or case aids to help foster children with learning challenges that are heightened with virtual learning. One-time grants of $1,000 helped foster families afford new technology devices and expand internet capabilities for distance learning.

Nonprofit and tribal support

CARES funding helped all 29 tribes across the state maintain social distancing, relieve food insecurity and provide remote access to education and mental health care. Working alongside tribes to protect their communities from the devastating impacts of the pandemic led to creative strategies for supporting public health solutions. For example, the partnership between the Hoh Tribe and StarLink to bring broadband to the remote Olympic Peninsula tribal community though low-earth orbit satellites unlocked crucial online resources for Hoh Tribal membership.

To support public health efforts during COVID-19, this funding specifically helped the Jamestown S’klallam Tribe employ dedicated delivery services to bring tribal elders meals, groceries and other essential goods for maintaining physical and mental health.

Remote learning

“CARES Act funding has helped Washington mitigate the some of the worst impacts of this pandemic and has provided a lifeline for many individuals, businesses and families,” Inslee said. “I am proud that our state agencies and partners have moved quickly to get this money out the door. I look forward to continued relief and recovery in the new year.”

Congress recently passed an additional relief package to bring much needed resources into communities throughout the country.

Inslee’s 2021–2023 budget proposal makes significant state investments in Washington’s ongoing relief, resilience and recovery work including support for the state’s public health system, assistance to businesses and workers, education, housing and job supports.

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