Lawmakers ramp up messaging blitz on coronavirus-relief resources
Washington, DC, March 18, 2020 | National Journal
President Trump has signed off on a host of new resources to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Now Americans need to learn how to access these services.
The Senate on Wednesday voted 90-8 to send to the president’s desk a COVID-19 package that would expand certain social benefits to help buffer the financial blow Americans are feeling during the global pandemic.
The bill, which is the second coronavirus-related package Congress has passed this month, would provide paid sick leave for certain workers, expand nutritional benefits, and make coronavirus testing free, among a plethora of other provisions.
Despite the press releases and briefings detailing the work on the package, many Americans may still not know about the services that will be available to them during the outbreak.
“Our challenge now is we’ve passed two big bills and most people don’t know what are in them,” Rep. Donna Shalala, who served as Health and Human Services secretary under President Clinton, said in an interview.
With the coronavirus outbreak leading people to stay indoors and avoid large groups, lawmakers are having to be creative in finding ways to educate their constituents on the government’s rapidly evolving plans. Negotiations are already underway on a third bill that could exceed $1 trillion in cost.
“I think it’s important that people, government officials and others, realize that a lot of what they’re doing isn’t necessarily what I would call communications; it’s information provision,” said Glen Nowak, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Health and Risk Communication, who previously worked as the media-relations director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Communication involves listening and dialogue,” Nowak added. “So I think the other part of this is to expand their purview so it’s not just information provision, information dissemination. At some point in this, you’re going to have to really become willing to have dialogue and engage with the people—the populations who are affected.”
Lawmakers have started to hold telephone town hall meetings to engage with constituents concerned about the outbreak. Some have drawn large audiences.
Rep. Dean Phillips hosted a virtual event with Sen. Tina Smith on Monday night, which he told National Journal both Minnesota Democrats found to be of “great value.”
Phillips said the flow of communication that night “was, believe it or not, not just Senator Smith and me taking questions from people that we were prepared for—we actually were provoked by some of the questions, and it goes both ways.
“I think this is actually presenting maybe a cultural shift in how those elected to public office interact and correspond with their constituents,” he added. “We had literally thousands of people listening … many hundreds asking questions, and it was a virtual but very meaningful town hall experience.”
Shalala held her first tele-town hall last week and has another one set for Thursday. The Florida Democrat, who says she hopes to schedule one every week, is also sitting in on some of her colleagues' virtual events.
She told National Journal that 1,700 people called into her first tele-town hall, a far bigger audience than any of the in-person events she’s hosted this year.
“I’ve done 22 town halls in my district; it was never more than 250,” she said. “It’s not just the subject matter; I think people are very comfortable with dialing in, and I can reach a much larger group of people with tele-town halls, so I will, when we get through this, mix them in with my actual town halls.”
Governors on the front lines of the pandemic have relied on more traditional means of communication as well. All 50 state executives have held press conferences, often alongside state health officials, to provide information on the scale of the outbreak or steps to mitigate it.
Every state’s government has created landing pages on their websites promoting CDC and other federal guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. They’ve also unveiled hotlines, email addresses, and multilingual FAQs to keep residents up to date.
Members of Congress have taken similar steps to interact with constituents online, updating their websites and even sending email blasts usually reserved for fundraising with links to CDC guidelines. Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, with AirPods firmly planted in both ears, answered questions about congressional action on COVID-19 in a Facebook Live forum on Wednesday hosted by Alabama Media Group.
But communicating online with an increasingly isolated public falls short in places like West Virginia, where internet access lags behind the rest of the nation. The state on Tuesday had its first confirmed case of coronavirus, despite its vulnerable population of senior citizens and people with preexisting respiratory illnesses.
“When I talk about broadband connectivity, I’ve got a new reason why,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia told reporters Wednesday. “[W]e are going to put a lot of money into telehealth; we’re going to emphasize home health. But if you don’t have the connectivity, it’s not going to be able to help you as broadly. And this is a major concern for me, so I think this just red-flags even more how much we need to deploy this to rural areas.”
Capito said she still uses social media but has been prioritizing reaching out to constituents by radio and other forms of local media to share federal guidance.
“The media’s been terrific in terms of providing information,” Capito said. “And in our state, a lot of people rely on local newspapers and local news, which is why we need to preserve as many of those as we can to deploy this information.”
Nowak said officials will have to be persistent with their communications efforts, particularly about services that can help people affected by the outbreak. “You can’t assume that just because you put your message out there in a press release or in a teleconference or even on a website, that the people who need to see it will see it,” he said.
Sen. Martha McSally has increasingly devoted her regular, hour-long town halls by phone to inform constituents about what the public and private sectors are doing to address the outbreak. The Arizona Republican’s office directly dials constituents rather than simply promoting the event online, and a McSally spokesperson said she had eight conference calls scheduled for this week with business owners, chambers of commerce, and county health and airport officials.
Her public call, dominated by questions about coronavirus, attracted over 21,000 listeners on Tuesday, McSally said.