Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation Friday distributing $2.2 billion in federal money for COVID-19 relief aimed at bolstering schools, speeding vaccine deliveries and helping small businesses, renters and immigrants.
The governor signed the measure in a virtual bill-signing ceremony for the package passed by the Legislature this month, freeing up the money to be sent out in the coming weeks.
“As you know, the focus this year is on relief, recovery and resilience, and this legislation will make big progress on all three,” Inslee said.
The relief package, Inslee said, will aid struggling residents and businesses, as well as schools that are working toward resuming at least some in-person classes — an important transition the governor emphasized can be done safely.
The bill included an emergency clause, making the money, part of COVID-relief measures approved by Congress last year, theoretically available immediately. But David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management, estimated it likely will take a couple weeks for funds to start flowing.
Lawmakers took relatively early action to pass the relief measure during the 2021 legislative session, as opposed to waiting to include it in the larger state budget process over the coming months.
“We are getting the money out right now instead of waiting until May,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. She said the bill provides a “critical link for landlords and renters, for preventing homelessness” while strengthening the Department of Health’s ability to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The largest chunk of money in the legislation — $714 million — is directed to K-12 schools.
Washington superintendent of public instruction Chris Reykdal has told school districts that if they want their share of the new federal COVID-19 relief money, they must submit updated reopening plans by March 1.
Roughly 30% of Washington students are taking in-person classes at least once a week, according to survey data released by the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) this month.
T.J. Kelly, OSPI’s chief financial officer, said in an email that districts can use the new round of federal money to cover the costs of a variety of pandemic-related expenses. Examples include training staff on sanitation practices to minimize disease spread, buying laptops or other equipment for students and costs related to learning loss.
Any school district whose reopening plan is approved by OSPI will be eligible for the funds “regardless of when they actually reopen,” Kelly said. “Districts do not need to be currently serving students in-person to be eligible for this round of federal funds.”
Inslee strongly endorsed resuming in-person learning, pointing to examples of districts that have shown it can be done safely through practices such as bringing only a portion of students to school each day.
“I think it bears repeating because the parents are really wondering, ‘is it safe to go back to school,” Inslee said, adding “the answer is unequivocally yes, if a school embraces these protocols that have been so successful.”
The bill allocates $618 million for public health programs, including $438 million for coronavirus testing and contact tracing. Another $100 million will go to epidemiology and laboratory grants and $68 million is aimed at planning and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.
Washington has struggled with the logistics of scheduling and delivering vaccine doses, leading to public frustration, as well as extreme feats of perseverance — such as the now viral story of a 90-year Seattle woman who walked 6 miles in the snow to obtain a shot.
Inslee said the state’s efforts “are accelerating dramatically.” The 70-year-old governor and his wife, Trudi, were scheduled to received their second vaccines Friday.
The bill signed Friday also allocates $365 million to help renters and homeowners, with the bulk of it dedicated to emergency rental and utility assistance. The money will be distributed by the state Department of Commerce through grants to local housing providers.
Another $240 million is available for grants of up to $75,000 to small businesses, defined as those with annual gross receipts of $5 million or less, also administered through the Department of Commerce.
The bill signed by Inslee also makes $65 million available for immigrants who have lost jobs or had hours cut because of the pandemic but are ineligible for federal stimulus payments or unemployment benefits. That’s a continuation of the $40 million Immigrant Relief Fund the governor rolled out in October.
The measure signed by Inslee also will provide $50 million to support child care providers, and $26 million for food banks and other food-related programs.