In the face of the coronavirus crisis, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., said he’s supportive of an economic stimulus package that focuses on regular Americans, rather than large-scale industry, he said during a Wednesday night town hall teleconference.
Johnson took questions for nearly 90 minutes on the COVID-19 topic, along with South Dakota Deputy Epidemiologist Dustin Ortbahn, who specializes in infectious disease surveillance. Both officials asked South Dakotans to follow the guidelines of social distancing and isolating.
“All segments of U.S. society have a role to play, and all age groups,” said the first-term congressman. “People are being asked to stay home as much as possible and canceling and postponing gatherings … the goal is to stop the spread to others.”
As for Congress’ role, Johnson said politicians in Washington have been working quickly and have put aside petty squabbling to help the American people. He said the next 15 days will be very important but said “this is something we need to be mentally prepared to deal with for a long time.”
Ortbahn said social distancing is meant to “blunt the number of cases” South Dakota and the nation experience. He said the state anticipates cases of community spread, something South Dakota avoided prior to Thursday.
When asked about his support for a stimulus package to help the economy, Johnson said there are lots of ideas but acknowledged Congress cannot sit by and not act, but did not identify his preference of plans.
“I do think that economically we’re going to need to do something,” he said. “So much of the early discussion was about taking care of large industries. I don’t have anything against cruise lines, or the airlines, or the oil and gas folks. I’m far more concerned about the backbone of South Dakota, small and medium businesses, wage-earners, ag producers and retirees.”
Johnson wants a temporary, fiscally responsible solution, one that doesn’t play favorites in the marketplace. He also said it will be debt-financed, something he’s not looking forward to.
“It’s one of the most miserable things about serving in D.C. ... Not very many people seem to care about the debt,” he said. “I understand we have to be proactive, but I don’t think we want to fly all over the country with helicopters dumping bushel baskets of cash out either.”
Johnson noted what Congress has already done, including making loan funding available through the U.S. Small Business Administration and funding more investments in vaccine development, sick leave and COVID-19 testing. He also noted that he was part of a contingent of members of Congress that advocated for hours of service rules for truckers to be relaxed to help fulfill the supply chain to stores.
Johnson was asked about how South Dakotas should feel about restaurants or bars shutting down. He reiterated that Gov. Kristi Noem has made it clear that she’s not considering shutting down restaurants, but he said he would “get uncomfortable with people” who are heading out for a night on the town.
“I would tell you that if I had friends that were just going out at Carey’s or (Main Street) Pub, I’d shame them a bit,” Johnson said, answering a question from a Vermillion resident and referencing the popular local bars. “It’s important that every person acts responsibly.”
In a poll of callers on the town hall, 92 percent of participants said they are practicing social distancing.
“It gives us a good sense that the message is getting out,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he will likely be headed back to Washington next week. He said members of the House will likely take precautions to avoid all 435 members being on the House floor at once.
“We’ve got a job to do,” he said of the work in Washington, before leaving with words of wisdom for his constituents. “Our actions in the next few weeks can have an impact. … Doing the work on the front end will ease the pain on the back end.”
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