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Northwest Passages Virtual Forum: State Commerce Director Lisa Brown says workers, businesses should check which benefits they’re eligible for

UPDATED: Wed., April 8, 2020

Out-of-work Washingtonians should check which benefits they’re eligible for during the coronavirus pandemic and businesses should be developing game plans for reopening, Washington Commerce Director Lisa Brown said Wednesday.

“It might not be what it used to be, because emergency rules are in place for unemployment insurance, state agencies are putting emergency rules in place,” Brown said during part of Northwest Passages virtual forum series. “Things that you might have worried about before, like a penalty or a late fee, may be waived.”

Brown spoke a day after she and Gov. Jay Inslee announced a $10,000 grant program for Washington businesses with fewer than 10 employees. The money comes from a strategic $5 million fund set aside by the governor’s office and is intended to help the state’s smallest businesses weather immediate storms while they’re ordered to be shuttered. Firms can apply through Greater Spokane Incorporated, and the form is available on the state’s destination website for coronavirus information, coronavirus.wa.gov.

Brown also stressed that federal assistance through the Small Business Administration, which has seen some delays in getting paid out through the banks to companies, is available to nonprofit organizations as well.

The demand for protective personal equipment for health care workers, and businesses when they reopen following the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, remains, Brown said, and the department is working with manufacturers on how they can provide necessary items. That’s in spite of encouraging signs that social distancing may be blunting some of the demand for lifesaving devices.

“We continue to be interested in Washington companies that want to work on potentially retooling for either PPE or perhaps testing,” Brown said. “As we move into a whole new testing arena where people will want to be tested to find out, did I already have the virus? Am I positive or not? It will make us all safer, the more information we have and the more testing there is.”

One of the needs Brown highlighted is a demand for greater access to broadband internet. Brown said state officials were working on a plan that would allow for drive-up wireless high-speed internet in every county to allow seniors to order prescriptions and students to access coursework, among other things.

“The idea here is, if we can’t in the short run extend broadband access to every home, let’s at least have it somewhere where it’s easy to drive to,” Brown said. She mentioned conversations with Washington State University, which has extension offices in every county with access to high-speed internet that could be extended into parking lots.

Brown penned a letter this week asking the state’s congressional delegation to include additional funding for expanding rural broadband services in an expected fourth round of federal assistance. Congress is discussing an additional $250 billion to support a popular program allowing businesses to make payroll during the pandemic, but it’s unclear if that money would be packaged with other assistance sought by Democrats, including extending paid sick leave.

Spokane residents should continue supporting small businesses, including restaurants, breweries and wineries, over the coming weeks, Brown said. Over her shoulder hung the cover of John Prine’s 1973 album “Sweet Revenge,” a tribute to the folk singer who died Tuesday from complications of the coronavirus.

“That’s just my tribute to John Prine, and all those artists out there who have made a living by being out there and engaging the public,” Brown said. “Musical artists and others. This is going to be a tough time for everybody.”

The full interview with Lisa Brown can be seen at the Northwest Passages website, spokesman.com/northwest-passages, along with other interviews with local government, sports and academic leaders.

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