PRESIDENT Donald Trump has signed a $484 billion bill to keep small businesses afloat and support coronavirus-stricken hospitals.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hailed the historic relief legislation as “the largest rescue package in American history”.

The White House said Trump had signed into law additional funding to support Americans impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far killed nearly 51,000 people in the US.

The president's signature follows yesterday's passing of additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program by the House, to save jobs and help small firms remain afloat.

A breakdown of the sum promised through the legislation shows it provides $320 billion in additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

With this new round of funding, Trump will have signed into law more than $670 billion for the program, the White House adds.

The bill also appropriates $60 billion more for the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Disaster Loan Program.

And, to aid America's coronavirus response efforts, $75 billion in funding will be provided to hospitals and healthcare providers, while $25 billion will support testing, including support for State, local, and tribal governments.

A thrilled McConnell tweeted: "The Senate's historic CARES Act is the largest rescue package in American history.

"It is already sending hundreds of billions of dollars to struggling small businesses, hard-hit hospitals, testing, very targeted Covid-19 help for states and localities, and direct aid to families."

The approved new relief will aid employers and hospitals buckling under the strain of the coronavirus that has infected more than 903,000 Americans and cost one in six US jobs.

Yesterday, the measure passed almost unanimously, with lawmakers gathered in Washington as a group for the first time since March 27, adopting stricter social distancing rules while seeking to prove they could do their work despite the Covid-19 crisis.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) pointed out that millions of people are out of work as a result of the new respiratory illness sweeping the US.

"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.

"We hope to soon get to a recovery phase. But right now we're still in mitigation," Pelosi added on Thursday.

Anchoring the bill is the Trump administration's $250 billion funding request to replenish a fund to help small- and medium-size businesses with payroll, rent and other expenses.

The payroll program provides forgivable loans so businesses can continue paying workers while forced to stay closed for social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

It also contains $100 billion demanded by Democrats for hospitals and a nationwide testing program.

Plus, $60 billion has been set aside for small banks and an alternative network of community development banks that focus on development in urban neighborhoods and rural areas ignored by many lenders.

There's also $60 billion for small-business loans and grants delivered through the Small Business Administrations existing disaster aid program.

The president said: "At a time when many Americans are enduring significant economic challenges, this bill will help small businesses to keep millions of workers on the payroll."

Passage of more coronavirus relief is likely in the weeks ahead, reports the Associated Press.

Supporters are already warning that the business-backed Payroll Protection Program will exhaust the new $250 billion almost immediately.

It doesn't help that the vital funding hasn't reached its intended recipients – small, struggling firms hit hard by the pandemic.

Unfair advantage

For example, following an outcry, multi-million-dollar restaurant chain Ruth's Chris Steak House will return the $20 million small business loan it received from the government's $350 billion program, reports NBC News.

Ruth's Hospitality Group runs more than 100 steakhouses across the States, and asked for the financial hand-out despite the money being earmarked for much smaller firms – such as family-run ones.

CEO Cheryl Henry said: "We intended to repay this loan in adherence with government guidelines.

"But as we learned more about the funding limitations of the program, and the unintended impact, we have decided to accelerate that repayment.

"It is our hope that these funds are loaned to another company to protect their employees."

Launched just weeks ago, the program quickly reached its lending limit after approving nearly 1.7 million loans.

That left thousands of small businesses in limbo as they sought help.

But big public companies – like Ruth's Chris – which took advantage of the PPP could be forced to return funding.

The Small Business Administration issued an advisory on Thursday clearly aimed at companies like the restaurant chain, and Potbelly, that received loans under the program.

The guidelines imply that unless a company can prove it was truly eligible for a loan, the money should be returned by May 7.

After a swift public backlash, several companies have announced they're returning their loans, including the New York-based burger chain Shake Shack, which got a $10 million loan and Kura Sushi, which is based in Irvine, California, and got nearly $6 million. 

Meanwhile unemployment in the US is swelling to levels last seen during the Great Depression of the 1930s, with one in six American workers thrown out of a job by the coronavirus.

More than 4.4 million laid-off Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, the government said on Thursday.

In all, roughly 26 million people – the population of the ten largest American cities combined – have now filed for jobless aid in five weeks.

This statistic echoes an epic collapse that has raised the stakes in the debate over how and when to ease the shutdowns of factories and other businesses.

Pelosi and allies like Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass), said the next measure will distribute more relief to individuals.

It's also expected to extend more generous jobless benefits into the fall, provide another round of direct payments to most people and help those who are laid off afford health insurance through COBRA.

Democrats tried to win another round of funding for state and local governments in Thursday's bill but they were rejected by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), who said he is going to try to pump the brakes on runaway deficit spending.

McConnell said he doesn't want to bail out Democratic-governed states for fiscal problems that pre-dated the pandemic, but there's plenty of demand for state fiscal relief among Republicans, too.

As of Thursday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases across the United States reached 866,148.

As least 48, 868 people have died from the killer virus in the US.


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