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White House considers paying ‘hard-working Americans’ affected by coronavirus

WASHINGTON — In yet another roller-coaster day in the coronavirus crisis, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin revealed Tuesday that the White House is “looking at sending checks” to “hard-working Americans” to keep the economy afloat.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence met with hotel and travel industry leaders looking for $150 billion to keep hotels from folding and laying off more than 4 million employees.

“We’re going big,” Trump proclaimed amid talk of a third COVID-19 economic stimulus package that could cost some $850 billion and involve sending checks of perhaps $1,000 to many taxpayers in a matter of weeks.

The White House has not released details of its proposal.

During the Cabinet Room meeting, hotel chain CEOs told Trump how the global pandemic slammed their industry harder than “9/11 and the 2008 recession combined,” according to Chris Rodgers of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Of the $150 billion the industry seeks, $100 billion would be used to cover wages, Rogers said during a conference call with reporters.

Hotel chain CEOs told tales of dizzying losses.

Saying that he had “never seen anything like it,” Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta offered that his chain was looking at room occupancy rates around around 10 to 15 percent.

Hyatt Hotels CEO Mark Hoplamazian interjected, “Now we are seeing occupancy below 10 percent, in the single digits, for the vast majority of our hotels.”

“We have made the decision around the country to close all our resorts,” said Jim Murren, the outgoing CEO of MGM Resorts International. “And tomorrow night, we will close all of the resorts in Las Vegas. That’s 70,000 people we are now putting on a furlough. I want to retain those employees. I want to bring them back as soon as possible.”

“Las Vegas, as you know, will come back rapidly once you give us the green light,” Murren said to Trump, whose Trump Organization also operates a Las Vegas property.

Murren also included a pitch for the “gaming industry and the nearly 2 million jobs that depend on us to be part of the economic recovery that is to come.”

As the hotel executives told their stories, Trump nodded and told them, “This was something that happened. It’s nobody’s fault. It happened and we’re gonna take care of it.”

“It really is an unprecedented crisis in a lot of ways. Obviously, if people are being told, ‘Don’t travel,’ the lodging industry is going to be heavily impacted,” gaming historian and UNLV professor David Schwartz told the Review-Journal.

“As state governments close casinos as a part of the urgent public health response to COVID-19, elected leaders should move just as urgently to support the workers and businesses who will bear the brunt of those effects,” said American Gaming Association CEO Bill Miller, in a statement. “Our immediate priorities are actions that provide liquidity to allow us to support employees.”

The Washington Post reported that casinos might seek cash payments from Congress. Even without special consideration, Strip hotel casinos would be eligible.

“Any company that is designated as a hotel would fall under this assistance,” said Maura Morton of the hotel and lodging association.

Trump also pledged to help other travel-related companies.

“We have to help Boeing. We have to help the airline industry,” he said. “It wasn’t their fault. This wasn’t their fault. And we will do that. We’ll be doing that. So we’re adding it up. It’ll be fine. It’ll come back very quickly once we’re finished with our war with the virus.”

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the bulk of any relief bill should help individuals, not corporations.

“I know that the president is talking to the airline industry, he’s talking to the travel industry, he’s talking to the leisure industry, and we just want to make sure that whatever help we give them, workers come first,” Schumer said. “The vast majority of the aid should go to the workers, not to increasing executives’ salaries, not to doing the kinds of things that the companies have done, like (stock) buybacks.”

Schumer has a competing, $750 billion plan.

Last week, the White House had been pushing a payroll tax holiday, possibly through 2020, to stimulate an economy damaged by COVID-19. But even many Republicans bristled at the idea as too costly and not likely to do the trick.

The beauty of sending checks to working taxpayers who aren’t making $1 million a year, Mnuchin noted, is that “Americans need cash now, and the president wants to get cash now. And I mean now, in the next two weeks.”

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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