Rep. Cindy Axne, Iowa’s Third District Congresswoman in the U.S. House of Representatives, met Tuesday afternoon with about a dozen of her Perry constituents to learn how the town is faring under the trials of the COVID pandemic and to share her recent legislative efforts to help businesses hit hard by the recession.
The 90-minute meeting in the Towncraft Building was arranged by the Perry Chamber of Commerce and brought together representatives from Perry’s public and private sectors, including figures from city government, healthcare, manufacturing, communications and banking and commerce.
Reviewing her recent legislative track record, Axne said she was optimistic about the potential benefits of Congress’ passing the RESTART Act, which she cosponsored and the House passed in May as part of its COVID response. She said the RESTART Act would give business owners who took out Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans more flexibility in effectively using the PPP.
The RESTART Act would also create a loan program aiming to jump-start the hardest-hit businesses, such as restaurants, gyms, hotels and retailers, and provide loan forgiveness as a backstop against ongoing economic challenges for the rest of 2020.
“We have so many people here in Iowa who have lost everything, all their revenue,” she said, mentioning the Iowa State Fair and RAGBRAI as examples of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic.
David Sheffer, whose family owns the Tin Pig Tavern in downtown Perry, responded warmly to Axne’s description of the RESTART Act’s provisions. The Sheffers spent two years and many dollars restoring the old Gamble Block at 1203 Second St., and the Tin Pig Tavern was just hitting its stride when the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak closed them down along with every Iowa restaurant and bar in March.
“Overall it’s just been tough, but we’re working through it,” Sheffer said. He said his family has sold their Wobbly Boots barbecue restaurant in Clive in the fallout from the statewide lock down, and his parents have sold their house. He said his 88-year-old grandmother recently moved in with him, so he takes all possible anti-virus precautions at home.
Longtime downtown business person Jenny Eklund also shared a sad story of the virus’ impact, which for her included a death in the family and the disruption of her business involvements in the Hotel Pattee, La Poste and the Atelier.
“Talk about hospitality,” Eklund said. “Talk about restaurants. Talk about taking a hit. Talk about losing revenues of $100,000 a month. Talk about closing up your small business at the end of the year. Talk about six of your family members having the virus and one died, your 90-year-old mother had the Last Rites with the priest, your aunt, your uncle, your sister, your brother. Talk about balancing all that. Talk about employees saying they make more money on employment, just like what Jackson and David said. That’s what we’re hearing. But I’m blessed that we have a core group of employees that we learn to mentor, coach, connect with, that want to be part and that what we have here in town is a big claim for our community. It needs it.”
Eklund also spoke about the mental sufferings the virus has brought to many people in Perry.
“I want to get back to normal right away,” she said. “I don’t know, Cindy, I’m stressed. I’m worried. You lose your family members to it. You lose your businesses to it. You lose your saving to the virus. It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning.”
Axne thanked Sheffer and Eklund for sharing their sorrows so frankly and said lawmakers “are cognizantly aware in the House of businesses like yours and David’s that are suffering the most as a result of this, which is why we wrote the RESTART Act” and also cosponsored the Restaurant Act with her colleague from Oregon, a bill that targets resources to struggling hospitality businesses.
“We know that your problems are going to be ongoing,” she said, “and you’re going to be one of the last sectors to come back, so it’s specifically targeted at restaurants to ensure that you have the resources you need.”
Axne also cited the House’s recently approved 2021 infrastructure bill, which includes more than $680 million to expand broadband service in America’s underserved areas, such as rural Iowa, in order to provide economic development opportunities and improved education and healthcare services.
She said the bill included $60 billion in emergency funding for the Federal Communications Commission to expand broadband access and $73 million to update broadband mapping under the Broadband DATA Act, an Axne-led bill that was signed into law in March 2020.
Iowa’s digital infrastructure is the central concern of Minburn Communications CEO Deb Lucht, who noted the nation’s sudden turn to working from home and online schooling have brought to the fore the crucial importance of broadband internet access to American prosperity.
“There still is a digital divide,” Lucht said, “even in those areas that on the broadband map for the state of Iowa and across the nation, even though they say that they are served, they truly are not.” She said the cost to build out the Minburn Communications network in Perry, for instance, would cost $12 million to $14 million.
“We’re a small company and can’t afford to do that,” she said, “but there’s a need here. Part of the challenge is how do you make the business plan work. How do we figure out how to serve communities like Perry that on the map are registered as being served but truly are not being served?”
She said broadband access should be looked at in the same way as sewer, water, electricity and gas, a utility that should be universally available and affordable.
Dallas County Hospital Chief Financial Officer Randy Loomis said broadband access is the technological basis of telehealth medicine, which has become vital to DCH’s operation during the pandemic.
“We’ve seen telehealth grow pretty dramatically,” Loomis said. “We knew it would eventually, but COVID has accelerated that process. I guess what I’m a little disappointed in is reimbursement rates. I can tell you that for Medicare, for instance, the reimbursement rate for an office visit by telehealth is less than half of our cost.”
Axne said she has worked to improve telehealth and will “continue to support it with equal reimbursement rates, and it’s kept a lot of people not just healthy but in many cases alive when they weren’t able to get to the hospital or the doctor’s office.”
DCH Chief Executive Officer Angela Mortoza asked about the possibility for accelerated Medicaid payments during this period of extreme financial strain on rural hospitals.
Perry Mayor John Andorf and Perry City Administrator Sven Peterson said the health and safety of Perry’s residents are their first concerns, and the economic survival of the city is also crucial.
“We need a lot more help for our small business,” Andorf said, “Local governments, state governments all need help financially because we’ve gone through a lot, and now we’re trying to open schools in Perry and all over, and they need consideration, too.”
Peterson noted Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ announcement that $60 million in federal CARES Act funds, the third COVID relief bill, would go to sustain local governments, but it is unclear how much would trickle down to Perry.
“We know that out cities are losing millions of dollars,” Axne said. “From small towns to big towns, it’s a big percentage of the revenue that you’re taking in, and you’re not able to provide the services with the revenue loss that you’re taking in, so we’re very cognizant about that, and we’re trying to do everything we can to ensure we get that put in (a final COVID relief bill).”
Jackson VanKirk of the Progressive Foundry described his factory’s staffing challenges during the pandemic and encouraged Axne to do what she can to promote American manufacturing’s competitive edge in the global marketplace.
Raccoon Valley Bank Assistant Vice President and Business Banker Matt McDevitt urged Congressional help in business modernization and also suggested funding that is earmarked for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as anti-virus face coverings, for use in the public schools.
Axne wrapped up the whirlwind meeting by thanking her Perry constituents and assured them her efforts on their behalf would continue in Washington, D.C., during this period of world-historical social change.
“There’s been a lot going on,” she said, with notable understatement.