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CARES Funding Protected Businesses And Fortified Healthcare, But Left Rental Tenants Wanting


The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, was the largest stimulus bill ever passed in the United States. Wyoming's cut - $1.25 billion - went to various sectors of the economy, but there's criticism of how that money was split up and concerns that the state will need more funding as the pandemic continues.

The stated goal of the CARES Act was to support individuals, families, businesses and industries as they weather the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act included those $1,200 checks everyone received in the spring. It supplemented state unemployment benefits and included more than one trillion dollars in forgivable loans for businesses and corporations.

The CARES Act also directly paid each state no less than $1.25 billion, to be spent as the state saw fit. Wyoming has now divvied up and spent almost that entire amount.

Michael Pearlman, a spokesperson for Gov. Mark Gordon, said the money has been well spent, fortifying livelihoods and protecting lives.

"We know there's going to be continued challenges to the economy, but we're trying to look forward to the next phase," he said. "I think the CARES Act money that we have received has been really effectively utilized."

The largest chunk of this funding - about $500 million, or 40 percent of the state's total - was put into business and economic relief efforts.

"The governor got guidance from the Legislature back in May, and they had set out the parameters for how they wanted to see the money spent," Pearlman said. "And one of the big things was to make sure Wyoming businesses got an adequate amount of assistance through what was a difficult spring and a difficult year."

That half billion was distributed by the Wyoming Business Council, with grants awarded throughout the year.

Originally, these business and economic relief efforts were given just $325 million, but as the pandemic wore on, additional funds were brought under the business council's purview and distributed to business and agriculture.

Wyoming Business Council CEO Josh Dorrell said he's proud of what that money has accomplished, allowing businesses to survive or even rebound.

"This money was really intended to provide business relief and help our communities stay strong during the course of the year, knowing that it was going to be really, really challenging," Dorrell said. "When you look at it, we had over 9,000 businesses apply for relief and that accounted for almost 40,000 employees across the state."

The Business Council also supported programs to boost broadband access and help oil and gas companies complete projects delayed by the pandemic.

The council's last round of grant-giving was the Endurance Fund, which gave out more than $80 million, but still had to turn down some applicants.

That fund started with just $20 million, but was quadrupled because of the demand. Even still, the business council still had to turn down some applicants.

Dorrell said that at least applicants turned down for previous grants were given preference.

"So, at least everybody that needed something got something out of the programs," he said.

Some CARES funding also went to education and healthcare. Schools were given funds for the technology and planning required to go virtual, or to make campuses safer.

Hospitals were given money to purchase Personal Protective Equipment, ventilators and other equipment and supplies. Healthcare workers outside of Wyoming were recruited to staff hospitals during the most recent surge. Gov. Gordon also devoted $136 million to testing and contact tracing, with the lion's share spent on testing.

Business relief, education and healthcare together accounted for almost 80 percent of the state's CARES funding.

The rest was largely spent helping local governments, state agencies and courthouses acquire the technology and resources required to keep serving their communities. About three percent went to unemployment and worker's compensation.

But the smallest sliver of CARES funding - less than half a percent - went to eviction protection and food insecurity efforts. That's nowhere near enough help for Wyoming's at-risk population, according to those who work closely with issues of insecurity.

Josh Watanabe, the executive director of Laramie Interfaith, said the lack of help was "heartbreaking."

Although it's known mainly as a food pantry, one of Interfaith's main goals is actually homelessness prevention, helping people through hard times with vouchers or rental assistance.

"Our phones ring nonstop," Watanabe said. "Now, that's not all housing, but I have difficulty having conversations with my staff because the phone does not stop ringing."

The Wyoming Emergency Housing Assistance Program was originally funded at $15 million. By December, the program had given out just a little more than 10 percent of that - $1.5 million - returning the rest to the governor for reallocation.

The housing program's director called it a success, saying that this $1.5 million accurately represented the need in Wyoming.

But Watanabe said that's insulting. The need is much greater.

In Laramie, Interfaith paid out $200,000 in rental and utility assistance last year. That's what the nonprofit could afford, but only about half of the need they confirmed through interviews with applicants.

Considering the stigma against asking for help - and the inability to get an interview when Interfaith's schedule is packed tight - the true need for rental assistance could be a lot higher.

And Watanabe estimated the need could be as great as two or three times what Interfaith provides, in Albany County alone.

"There is an unknown and unmeasured need," he said. "We're not the solution right now. We can't meet the need that is out there, we can't do it alone."

The CARES rental assistance program rejected one third of the applications it received, in part because it had stringent qualifications. Certain income and co-pay requirements had to be met. And someone's loss of income had to be directly related to pandemic.

At Interfaith, Watanabe said that particular qualification leaves out a lot of people who are struggling right now.

"If somebody couldn't get a job in February before COVID happened, there was zero chance of them getting a job in April after COVID shut everything down," he said. "They may not have lost their job because of COVID, but they certainly weren't going to find a job with COVID happening."

The new stimulus package from Congress doesn't include a direct payment to Wyoming, but it does give the state more time to distribute the $18 million from CARES that's still unallocated.

It's not clear if the issue of rental assistance will be revisited.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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