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The $2 trillion relief bill is massive, but it won’t prevent a recession

A $2.2 trillion relief package for the U.S. economy — the biggest in history — probably won’t be enough.

The empty intersection of 18th and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia stands in stark contrast to what was once full of nightlife before the city's leaders restricted or closed all social gathering places because of concerns about the coronavirus. (Michelle Gustafson for The Washington Post)

The Senate just passed a $2.2 trillion relief package for the economy — the biggest in U.S. history — by a unanimous vote. The House is expected to approve it soon, and President Trump is eager to sign it.

The good news is that the majority of the money will go to laid-off workers, small-business owners, hospitals, and state and local governments. The bad news is that it won’t be enough to stop a recession. And it’s an open question whether the nation can avoid an economic depression, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1930s.

“By any measure, this is a huge stimulus package. One thing that it cannot stop is the recession that is coming,” said James McCann, senior global economist at Aberdeen Standard Investments.

What exactly is in this massive $2 trillion Senate coronavirus bill?

Economists say Congress’s response was too slow, too stingy and too focused on big Wall Street firms during the Great Recession, and that prevented a faster turnaround. Many analysts say Congress deserves some credit for doing better this time. This relief package is more than double the $830 billion measure that Congress passed in 2009. It came together in a few days, and it’s far more targeted at Main Street.

Middle-class and low-income Americans are slated to receive $1,200 checks (more for people with children). Small-business owners will soon have access to $10,000 emergency grants and millions in loans. And additional money is set aside for the unemployed. Only about a quarter of the money will go to large companies this time, including billions earmarked for Boeing and airlines.

But economists say two key problems remain: fixing the health crisis and getting money to people in time.

Constance Hunter, chief economist at KPMG, predicts that it will take at least six to 10 weeks for the government to disburse a significant amount of the money. That’s a long time for laid-off workers and small-business owners with no money coming in to wait. It makes it less likely that they will bounce back quickly.

“There isn’t some magic restart button for the economy,” Hunter said. “Before the money arrives, there will be a lot of collateral damage to the economy. That’s going to make restarting it difficult."

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James Bullard, a noted economist and head of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, put out a chilling forecast of what’s ahead for the nation in the coming months: He expects 46 million Americans to be unemployed (30 percent of workers) and an unprecedented 50 percent decline in economic output.

On March 25, the Senate passed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package in an effort to address the economic impacts caused by the pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump has floated the idea of getting people back to work by April 12. Yet public health officials say that they don’t think that is realistic and that going back too soon could cause a second spike in coronavirus cases and deaths, forcing more shutdowns.

The nation is choosing to shut down much of the economy to save lives, maybe as many as hundreds of thousands, according to one estimate. The United States has to get the pandemic under control before daily life and business can go back to anything remotely normal. It’s still a big unknown how long that will take.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared on the Senate floor Wednesday that “this is not even a stimulus package; it is emergency relief.” Economists agree. This $2 trillion isn’t about boosting the economy; it’s about trying to compensate people for what could be $2.5 trillion in lost business and wages in the coming weeks. And that’s a best-case scenario. Losses will be deeper if the pandemic lasts into the summer.

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To prevent a depression, the relief payments have to get to workers and business owners fast enough to prevent a chain reaction of pain where one person goes out of business and that triggers another failure and another.

Bullard, the St. Louis Fed president, is optimistic that the economy will bounce back in the second half of 2020. He compares this to driving a car 70 miles per hour on the highway and then having to slow to a crawl for a construction zone. The hope is that the car can regain speed quickly, after exiting the construction zone, but it’s not a given.

“It’s not enough to have Congress pass something or to have the Fed put new programs into place to preserve liquidity, it’s actually the execution of those programs” that matters, he said.

Fed announces unlimited bond purchases in unprecedented move aimed at preventing an economic depression

To get a reality check on what’s happening to the U.S. economy, call a small-business owner. Nearly all will tell you that business is severely down — or closed — and that they have no clue when that will change. In recent days, most of these owners have talked to anyone they can think of — bankers, insurers, politicians, friends, customers, Small Business Administration officials — about getting a loan or aid. But everyone is waiting to see what Congress does first, leaving business owners fearful that they will run out of money before help arrives.

John Russell co-founded Webconnex, at small tech company, in 2008, but he says this crisis is even harder to navigate than the Great Recession, because it’s so uncertain when it will end and whether the recovery will be fast or slow. His company, which employs 41 people, makes affordable software for fundraising and events and processed about $1 billion in credit card payments last year. Now most of its 2020 events are canceled, leaving almost no money coming in.

“If we don’t get relief from this bill in Congress, we have no choice but to do massive layoffs,” Russell said. “Our team is like our family. For us, 100 percent of our focus is on saving those jobs.”

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Russell has taken an ax to his budget. Advertising spending is gone. He cut up the credit cards. The company managed to end its lease in Sacramento at the end of the month. All trips are canceled. Those decisions are already rippling across the economy, cutting revenue for other businesses.

If he has to lay off employees, like so many restaurants and hotels have, Russell knows the pain will escalate. But taking on a hefty loan right now feels risky, given the uncertainty.

It’s a similar story for many states and cities hit hardest by the pandemic. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) is furious about the latest congressional package, saying that about $4 billion in aid is not nearly enough as the state tries to battle the virus and bolster health care and safety personnel during the crisis.

“I’m telling you these numbers don’t work,” Cuomo said to reporters.

There is no economic playbook for how to handle this health crisis. Congress and the White House have taken a first attempt at aid, but most economists anticipate more will be needed. And the only thing that will truly turn this around is ending the pandemic.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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