Council Passes Emergency COVID-19 Legislation

Forbids Evictions, Expands Unemployment Insurance

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DC Council met Tuesday to pass legislation. Screenshot: DC Granicus

DC Council passed Emergency Legislation in response to the COVID-19 outbreak Tuesday, March 17 in order to help businesses and workers and to ensure the business of government can go on during the public emergency.

The bill allows for expansion of the period of emergency as well as protections for citizens, business and government while it lasts. As written, the ‘COVID 19 Response Emergency Amendment Act of 2020‘, is designed to address the needs of workers and businesses losing income during the outbreak and provide additional authority and flexibility to government in a public health emergency.

The District’s ability to provide financial aid is limited in some ways by the Home Rule Act, which requires the Emergency reserve fund maintain a balance that equals a portion of overall operating expenditures. DC is also  obligated to pass a budget without any deficit carried over.

At the hearing, DC Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for the District of Columbia Jeffrey S. DeWitt said the city is expecting a serious decline in tax revenue. More than half of sales tax revenue, about $787 million, and about 8 percent of income tax revenue comes from the hospitality industry, which has essentially been shuttered. If the emergency were to go until the end of June, DeWitt said, the city will need to cut $500 million is spending from the budget.

The date for the Mayor to submit the budget has been moved to either May 6, or later if another resolution is approved, allowing DC’s Chief Financial Officer the opportunity to reassess revenue.

Jeffrey S. DeWitt, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for the District of Columbia, explained financial situation and models to DC Council Tuesday. Screenshot: DC Granicus

Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) comment on the legislation in an email to constituents, noting “It’s not the only emergency relief effort we will need, but it’s a start.” In a similar email, At-Large Councilmember Robert White said that while the council had managed to pass an number of protective provisions, “I recognize that there is a lot more we need to do.”

The bill makes it easier for workers to get Unemployment Insurance, making it easier for more people to get relief and eliminating the one-week waiting period and requirement to look for work. Applicants do not need to have been laid off, and are eligible to apply right now if hours have been reduced. The definition of worker has been expanded to include those who are self-employed and independent contractors. Information on how to apply will be available on the Department of Employment Services (DOES) website as soon as possible.

All employees who were ordered to self-quarantine by the DC Department of Health (DOH) or who test positive for COIV-19 can take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, called “declaration-of-emergency leave” (or DOE).

The bill created a small-businesses grant program to help those affected by the public health emergency with payroll, operations and loan requirements. Non-profits and independent contractors will also be eligible. Once it is up and running, the program will be administered by the District Department of Small and Local Business Development (DSLBD).  Businesses will be able to file tax remittances as late as July 20, though they till must pay. The federal government also approved DC’s effort to give targeted low-interest loans to businesses.

The Mayor has been given the authority to revoke Certificates of Occupancy held by someone violating an emergency order.

The bill prohibits evictions during while an emergency executive order is in place. It also prohibits utilities from disconnecting services such as electricity, gas or water and prohibits late fees on rent. It permits pharmacies to prescribe and dispense a one-time refill of medications under certain conditions to ensure patients have an adequate supply.

It also allows the Mayor to place families experiencing homelessness in interim housing for up to 60 days, rather than the usual 3 days, for the duration of the emergency. She can also accept federal or private grants during the emergency.

The bill provides additional flexibility and authority to the government, including allowing the Council and other officials to meet and vote virtually. Groups such as Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) and boards or public bodies can meet virtually but are not be obligated to meet during a public health emergency at all.

The Mayor is granted authority to extend the public health emergency by 30 days without approval and another 15 days after that with the approval of Council. The Office of the Mayor can also forbid price-gouging and stockpiling of critical goods, and extend the validity of licenses, registrations and permits that require in-person renewals.

Council will discuss and pass the legislation at the meeting scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Tuesday, March 17. See draft details at dccouncil.us