Hennepin County wants to move quickly to get $212 million in federal CARES Act funds to those on the brink of financial and existential disaster — especially senior-home residents and workers, renters and small-business owners.
“I’m out of patience,” Commissioner Mike Opat said Thursday. “We don’t have a formal role, but it’s time for us to assume one. We’re six weeks into this and there’s no appreciable action that I can see” to curb the crush of COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities.
Opat’s remarks were among the most pointed comments made during an hourlong video briefing session held by the Hennepin County Board on how the county can and can’t use the federal money that has already arrived. The funding is intended to cover unexpected costs related to the pandemic, and not revenue lost by the county during the outbreak.
Chairwoman Marion Greene said the board will meet every Tuesday, rather than every other week, through June from here on out so it can move faster to direct the federal aid. County Administrator David Hough indicated staffers will have proposals ready for the weekly meetings.
Thursday’s session was designed as a briefing for the seven commissioners on restrictions placed on use of the federal money. The discussion began with a staff-created mission statement about innovation and reducing inequities, but it quickly shifted into immediate needs and practicalities.
Hennepin County already has been spending money to combat the outbreak, having moved vulnerable homeless residents out of crowded shelters and into hotels weeks ago.
Dave Lawless, the county’s budget and finance director, said he expects the cost of sheltering and feeding those residents to climb as high as $60 million for the year.
Opat said that unlike senior-home residents, the homeless “by and large aren’t getting sick and dying.” He represents New Hope, where 47 have died and 130 have become ill at the St. Therese senior facility.
The county also will have to cover the anticipated lost revenue at Hennepin County Medical Center, the flagship hospital of Hennepin Healthcare, that could be in the range of $10 million per month through the end of 2020.
Commissioner Jan Callison cited numbers to explain the county’s role: a quarter of the state’s residents live in Hennepin County, a third of the state’s jobs are in the county, half of Minnesotans hospitalized with COVID-19 are there and 65% of the state’s coronavirus-related deaths have occurred there.
“While the state is ramping up, we need to step in and fill that gap,” Callison said. “We have to start moving. It’s been a month.”
Last week, the County Board voted to spend $2 million to provide grants of $7,500 to 265 small businesses. The board also allowed homeowners to push first-half property tax payments to July without penalty.
Now commissioners are talking about spending millions for rental assistance.
“People need security. They need stability. They need to know they can stay in their house for the next three months,” Callison said.
Commissioner Jeff Johnson, a budget hawk who is often critical of the county’s spending, agreed that the federal dollars need to be used quickly — especially for senior homes and businesses.
“I have a lot of citizens who are literally losing their life’s dream right now,” he said.
Opat noted that HCMC has the ability to conduct more testing, which could be used to monitor senior-home staffers and residents.
In an interview after the briefing, Opat talked about providing hazard pay for care facility workers and also setting up a clearinghouse to replace senior- and nursing-home staffers who get sick with furloughed health care workers from facilities such as North Memorial Health Hospital or HCMC.