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Mitt Romney says U.S. should look to South Korea — not Italy — to stem coronavirus spread

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to media as he arrives for a briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March, 12, 2020, on the coronavirus outbreak.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney wants to learn about and possibly adopt practices from China and South Korea — not Italy — to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.

In South Korea, he said, people who had temperatures above 99.3 degrees were given a test that took four hours — not four days — for results.

“That would be an approach that might be interesting,“ Romney told reporters Friday in Washington. “But I’m not a doctor. I’m not a public health official. But I’d like to learn from those countries that were successful. Let’s not follow Italy. Let’s follow South Korea.”

The Utah Republican’s comments came after emerging from talks about an economic rescue package to help distressed American workers and businesses in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Romney, who is part of Senate task force looking at how to structure direct payments to people, said he’s pleased with the process so far.

“They are now working in negotiations with the Democrats to see if we can’t find a way to move forward. That consists of three major parts. One part is getting help to individuals and families,” he said. “I think that you’re seeing the kind of speed and seriousness which you’d hope to see in the kind of setting that we have.”

Romney posted on social media a video of himself meeting Thursday with senators on the relief package for American families, workers and small businesses, pointing out that they were practicing social distancing.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump administration officials were on Capitol Hill on Friday to open negotiations with Senate Republicans and Democrats racing to draft a $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package.

The closed-door meeting was the biggest effort yet from Washington to shore up households and the U.S. economy as the coronavirus pandemic and its nationwide shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who released a draft bill late Thursday, is pushing for a vote by Monday.

Romney expressed concern as have other GOP senators that the bill would give smaller checks to lower wage earners. He was one of the first to propose getting cash to people immediately.

“Americans urgently need cash to meet immediate needs, that’s been my goal from the start. The current bill has promise but it shouldn’t give lower earners smaller checks — that’s directly contrary to my proposal. We need to fix this to ensure lower earners get equal payments,” he posted on Twitter.

McConnell’s plan aims to shore up households, businesses and the health care industry, which is bracing for an expected onslaught of patients falling ill from the virus that causes COVID-19.

The one-time $1,200 stipends would be sent to individuals — $2,400 for couples — phased out at income thresholds of $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 per couple. There would be $500 payments for each child.

Additionally, the McConnell bill would provide $300 billion to small businesses, with loans that would eventually be forgiven for employers who use them to meet payroll expenses.

McConnell’s plan would provide $208 billion in loans and loan guarantees to distressed sectors, including $50 billion for commercial airlines, $8 billion for air cargo carriers and $150 billion for other eligible businesses. But those loans would have to be paid back.

Democrats are expected to come up with their own proposal or amendments featuring their priorities.

On Friday, Romney introduced legislation to defer for three years federal student loan payments for those graduating from college this year.

The legislation builds on the Trump administration’s announcement Friday that the Education Department would allow federal student loan borrowers to suspend payments for at least 60 days without penalty, which Romney called a strong step.

“Students graduating from college this year are suddenly facing significant hurdles entering the workforce,” he said. “We must further ease the burden on students by allowing them to defer their payments until the economy regains normalcy.”

The senator has also wants to immediately strengthen the unemployment insurance system, noting the latest Labor Department report showed jobless claims rose to 281,000 last week, and is only expected to go up.

His plan would extend the number of weeks employees could receive benefits and broaden the eligibility to include furloughed workers, the self-employed, and independent contractors.

Romney is among a small group of senators working on a list of principles on improving unemployment insurance to send to McConnell, R-Ky, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he is working with senators for broad-based action to help Americans through the social and economic disruptions of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Americans are all in this epidemic together. So the federal response — from loan guarantees to tax reforms to regulatory relief to direct aid to families — should be as inclusive as possible, rather than carved out only for select special interests,” he said.

In a letter to Mnuchin on Friday, Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, sought relief for small businesses that are obligated to make paid leave payments to employees under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act the president signed Wednesday.

Curtis said he’s heard from small business owners who are worried about paying for the new set of required paid leave benefits.

“Unfortunately, in many instances, this could bankrupt businesses if done incorrectly, and potentially force an employer to lay off employees,” he said. “The intent of this legislation was to help employees and employers during a time of need, not make their survival through this temporary hardship more difficult.”

Curtis suggested the Treasury Department offer small companies payments in advance if waiting to receive their tax credits would hurt employees and jeopardize their business. He also called for clear guidelines or requirements for employees to prove they’re eligible for leave to avoid fraud and abuse.

Lee warned before voting against the bill that it would increase bankruptcies and unemployment because it forces businesses to front the money.

Instead of paying affected workers through employers, the government should give people cash directly, he said. Affected workers should be able to take a paid “extended leave of absence” and the benefit could be paid directly by government through the existing unemployment insurance system, Lee said.

Also Friday, Romney launched a new webpage designed to keep Utahns informed during the pandemic. It provides information from federal agencies and state and local authorities, including guidance for seniors and at-risk individuals, veterans, families and small businesses.

Contributing: Associated Press