Donald Trump has signed a 484 billion dollar (£392 dollar) bill to aid employers and hospitals under stress from the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 50,000 Americans and devastated broad areas of the economy.
The bill is the latest effort by the federal government to help keep afloat businesses that have had to close or dramatically alter their operations as states try to slow the spread of the virus.
Over the past five weeks, roughly 26 million people have filed for jobless aid, or about one in six US workers.
The president thanked Congress for “answering my call” to provide the assistance and said it was “a tremendous victory”, but easy passage of this aid instalment belies a potentially bumpier path ahead for future legislation to address the crisis.
The measure passed Congress almost unanimously on Thursday as legislators gathered in Washington as a group for the first time since March 27. They followed stricter social distancing rules while seeking to prove they can do their work despite the Covid-19 crisis.
Their face masks and bandannas added a sombre tone to their effort to aid a nation stunned by the health crisis and devastating economic costs.
“Millions of people out of work,” said House speaker Nancy Pelosi. “This is really a very, very, very sad day. We come to the floor with nearly 50,000 deaths, a huge number of people impacted, and the uncertainty of it all.”
Anchoring the bill is the Trump administration’s 250 billion dollar request to replenish a fund to help small and medium-size businesses with payroll, rent and other expenses. This programme provides forgivable loans so businesses can continue paying workers while forced to stay closed for social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
The legislation contains 100 billion dollars demanded by Democrats for hospitals and a nationwide testing programme, along with 60 billion dollars for small banks and an alternative network of community development banks that focus on development in urban neighbourhoods and rural areas ignored by many lenders.
There is also 60 billion dollars for small business loans and grants delivered through the Small Business Administration’s existing disaster aid programme.
Passage of more coronavirus relief is likely in the weeks ahead. Supporters are already warning that the business-backed Payroll Protection Programme will exhaust the new 250 billion dollars almost immediately.
Launched weeks ago, the programme quickly reached its lending limit after approving nearly 1.7 million loans. That left thousands of small businesses in limbo as they sought help.
Mr Pelosi and allies said the next measure will distribute more relief to individuals, extend more generous jobless benefits into the autumn, provide another round of direct payments to most people and help those who are laid off afford health insurance.