Updated at 10:05 p.m. ET
The government has gone to work disbursing the billions of dollars Washington has committed to sustain the economy after the deep shock it has undergone in the pandemic, the White House promised on Thursday.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Jovita Carranza, head of the Small Business Administration, vowed that some of the first systems for loans or payments would be up and running as soon as Friday.
Meanwhile the Treasury Department, the SBA, the IRS and other agencies are gearing up to implement the programs contained in the $2 trillion relief legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Trump, officials said.
Nearly 10 million people have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks alone, according to the Labor Department.
Social distancing and other virus mitigation measures have paralyzed much of the economy because they have grievous effects on restaurants, brick-and-mortar businesses and travel. Carranza said she worries about each one of the nation's roughly 30 million small businesses.
The White House convened a briefing to provide an update on its response to the pandemic at 5 p.m. ET. Watch live here.
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Mnuchin: The checks will be quick
The treasury secretary vowed that his department and its agencies appreciate the value of time in terms of making payments, loans and other such assistance available amidst the ongoing crisis.
The first direct payments to eligible taxpayers will begin to arrive within two weeks, Mnuchin vowed — an upgrade, he said, from his earlier promise of three weeks.
Mnuchin rejected suggestions that some Americans might not receive checks for another several months, but he acknowledged that some people might need to upload their direct deposit or other information to a web portal in order to guide authorities on where to send it.
The goal is not to send paper checks, Mnuchin said; the best case is for Americans to receive their relief payments electronically.
"This money does no good if it shows up in four months and we'll deliver on that," he said.
Loan programs also getting underway
Forgiveable small business loans and other assistance also will be available as soon as practical, Mnuchin said.
The broad goal is to provide as much liquidity as possible to the world's largest economy for about ten weeks to keep employees on payrolls and permit businesses to get back to operating as soon as public health officials give the all clear, Mnuchin said.
He acknowledged that the Treasury Department's mandate and the loan authorizations for the Federal Reserve add up to a program of unprecedented scale — some $6 trillion, taken together — but only spending of that magnitude can answer the mail for this disaster, he said.
"We're going through something that we've never done before," Mnuchin said.
All the same, he acknowledged that the unprecedented scale of the program might mean there are growing pains or delays with actually getting cash into the hands of those who need it.
"That doesn't mean that everybody is going to get their loan tomorrow," he said. But: "The system will be up and running."
Skeptics including majority House Democrats have sought some kind of special oversight of the pandemic relief spending given the sheer quantity of money involved.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is forming a select committee to monitor the way the money is spent.
Mnuchin said he didn't think that was necessary and that the House's standing Oversight Committee could oversee the relief program in the same way it oversees the rest of the functions of the government.
The treasury secretary has become a key interlocutor between Trump and Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Mnuchin was asked whether the congressional leaders might agree to more relief or stimulus if the current 10 weeks' worth of spending wasn't sufficient.
"If we need to go back to Congress to support the American economy, that's what we'll be doing," he said.
Added Trump, later in the news conference: "We will probably do more."
Mask dispute wears on
Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would issue guidance "in the next several days" on the hotly debated question about recommending face coverings for every person.
Dr. Deborah Birx, a top physician coordinating the White House's coronavirus response, told reporters she worried that a mask recommendation might create a false sense of security.
A mask over the mouth and nose doesn't protect the eyes, for example, Birx pointed out — another way people can become infected.
What Americans really should be doing is keeping apart, washing their hands and following the other public health guidelines, she said. But the continued increase in the number of recorded cases showed that in many places, they aren't, Birx lamented.
Trump, for his part, has been a booster of face-coverings, especially scarves. The president continues to repeat that he thinks people should wear scarves and he said Thursday that "in many cases, the scarf is better, it's thicker."
Defense Production Act
Ahead of the Thursday briefing, President Trump issued an order under the Defense Production Act to "facilitate the supply of materials" to six companies making ventilators. Those companies are General Electric, Hill-Rom Holdings, Medtronic, ResMed, Philips and Vyaire Medical.
In a statement, the president said the order will help domestic manufacturers "secure the supplies they need to build ventilators needed to defeat the virus. I am grateful to these and other domestic manufacturers for ramping up their production of ventilators during this difficult time."
Dublin-based Medtronic, which has extensive operations in the Twin Cities, says it has increased ventilator production by more than 40 percent and is looking to more than double its ventilator manufacturing capacity. Without a ventilator, people who struggle to breathe because of COVID-19 may die.
Medtronic said it appreciates the president’s effort to increase our production of the sought-after devices.
In a memo released by the White House Thursday evening, the Trump administration singled out Maplewood-based 3M for action under the Defense Production Act.
The memo said the federal government will use the act “to acquire, from any appropriate subsidiary or affiliate of 3M Company, the number of N95 respirators that the administrator determines to be appropriate.”
The president went further in a tweet, suggesting his administration “hit 3M hard.”
Trump's second test negative
Trump showed reporters what he said was a letter describing the results of the second test he has taken for COVID-19. The president said he only needed about a minute to take the test itself and then got his result within about 15 minutes — negative, just as with his first one.
"I took it out of curiosity to see how quickly it worked," Trump said.
Trump has been in meetings with people who have tested positive for COVID-19, which is why he took the first test, but he didn't suggest on Thursday there had been any medical necessity for the second one.
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