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Welcome to the Pandemic Cliff

The end of the year is a month away, and remaining relief programs are expiring. We are desperately unprepared for what waits on the other side.


Members of Congress reconvened this week, facing a December 11 deadline to come up with a temporary spending bill to avoid a shutdown and increasingly dire pressure to pass some version of a stimulus package as the fates of millions of people hang in the balance.

The political debates we’ll be subject to over the next few weeks will sound familiar. Since the first stimulus, the Republican-controlled Senate has thus far blocked Democratic-led efforts to pass a bill at the scale of the crisis, instead countering with smaller packages and liability giveaways for businesses. The difference between the legislative debates that were had in August and the ones Congress is engaging in now is that there is no longer any time left to waste. This is not hyperbole or fearmongering. Without more aid, a vast swath of the country’s working class will be forced off several cliffs created by Congress and the White House. As remaining federal relief programs are set to expire at the end of the year, we are now staring down an eviction crisis, a sick leave crisis, and an unemployment crisis. All while the pandemic is surging across the country.

A brief list of the stakes includes: emergency unemployment compensation, which gave people an additional 13 weeks of unemployment payments if they’d exhausted their state options; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium, which helps protect tenants from being evicted for unpaid rent; Economic Injury Disaster Loans, a program that provided low-interest loans to small business owners to help them weather the cost of closing up shop (the Paycheck Protection Program, which paid business not to lay people off, stopped accepting applications in August). These are some of the programs keeping things together—barely.

The Cares Act, passed in March, provided a $600 weekly unemployment supplement to laid-off workers in addition to the somewhat futile onetime $1,200 payment. It was a transformative program that ended too quickly, helping some workers build savings for the first time in their lives. When the unemployment bonus expired at the end of July, the president signed an executive order extending a $300 payment. That expires on December 27.

Congress also passed the less heralded Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March, which provided paid sick leave for roughly half of all workers in America in the case that they or someone close to them contracted Covid-19. This proved to be incredibly useful because America, unlike similarly wealthy but more competent countries, does not have a federal paid sick leave policy. As a result, working through colds, low-grade fevers, or injuries had simply become a routine in the United States—an unspoken requirement for those working paycheck to paycheck, as more than half the country does.

The Families First paid sick leave ended up being a saving grace for many workers. Nicolas Ziebarth, an associate professor at Cornell University and co-author of a study on the efficacy of paid sick leave, estimated that with so many workers using the provision, it helped prevent roughly 15,000 new cases per day. Without an extension of the weekly unemployment payments and the paid sick leave policy, more workers will be once again faced with the decision between sudden financial ruin or their own health. In the middle of a pandemic, that choice can be deadly many times over.

The eviction moratorium enacted in September by the CDC is similarly set to expire come the end of the year, further complicating the messy jigsaw of state and local eviction moratoriums and threatening to put more people on the street in a pandemic winter. I say more people because evictions are already happening. Right before Thanksgiving, New York City marshals carried out their first evictions since the start of the pandemic. County courts like those in Jackson County, Missouri—home of Kansas City—have continued to pursue evictions. Tenant organizing has proliferated through the pandemic, but with the CDC order expiring on December 31, there’s little by way of legal federal protections to protect those at risk of losing their homes from landlords and overzealous judges. And without widespread rent relief, the looming threat of back rent will put tenants further at risk of losing their housing.

States and tribal nations are also in fiscal crisis, with staggering deficits caused by the pandemic, and federal funds that are either being held up in distribution or are off limits because of funding rules. There, too, another deadline looms: The Cares Act requires the funds be spent or returned by December 30. “The virus does not care if you are a Republican or Democrat,” Michael Leachman, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, recently told The Washington Post. “We already have another surge in cases, and what happens if after December 30 states and localities do not have the funding?”

The clock is ticking, and the deadlines are mounting. What’s necessary hasn’t changed: pay people to stay home, pass rent forgiveness, provide relief for states facing fiscal crisis, and give bailouts to restaurants and businesses that have taken hits in the pandemic. But we live in a stupid, cruel reality (I didn’t even get to the part about student loan payments starting back up), and so this deadline cliff is what we’re left with. Given the hellish nature of 2020, it seems fitting that the year will provide America one last kick in the teeth by simply ending. But that kick will also be a reminder of how infuriatingly simple the solutions to these problems are.