VIDEO - Coons: 'Double the size of AmeriCorps' to help safely reopen, recover from COVID-19 he tells Morning Joe

Coons: Our bill would rapidly stand up ‘a national workforce of 150,000 people who could do the contact tracing and the test support that we so badly need in order to be able to reopen safely”

Sen. Chris Coons of the Senate Appropriations Committee joined MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He highlighted his call to expand AmeriCorps and other national service programs to respond and recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Q: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says when senators return to Washington next week, the focus will be on judges and not the coronavirus. Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committees. Thank you for joining us.


The focus on judges and not jobs. Senator, let me read you another paragraph from this Guardian article. Kevin Hassett, Senior Economic Adviser to the White House predicted GDP could fall at an annualized rate of 30% next quarter and Goldman Sachs expects a 15% unemployment rate by mid-year. What in the world can the United States Senate, what in the world can the White House, what in the world can the federal government do to help move us through this economic calamity?

Coons: Well, Joe, what you are seeing right now is the consequences of a failure to respond promptly and to plan adequately two to three months ago to the emergence of this pandemic. And we’re now seeing a dis-coordinated, sometimes even chaotic federal response and a whole lot of states playing catchup and whac-a-mole trying to deliver the testing, the personal protective equipment, the ventilators that we should have had ready months ago. We should now-if we return next week to the Senate-be dealing with those issues that have to be addressed now in order for us to be in a better position months from now. We should not be coming back from Washington, 100 folks whose average age – just to remind everybody – puts most senators in the highly vulnerable category, and all the workers who would have to come to work in order for us to be in the Senate, we should be concerned about protecting the Capitol Police officers, the folks who work for the Architect of the Capitol who help make the complex work. We should be concerned about protecting them and reopening safely, and we should be focused on the things that have to be done now to prepare for six months from now. I have a bill with Senator Klobuchar and Senator Wyden to provide for safe vote-by-mail, so we can ensure that when the virus comes back more aggressively this fall – as is already predicted by the heads of the CDC, Dr. Fauci and others – we can vote safely and we should be rapidly turning on our national service network across the country, 75,000 young people dedicated to service through AmeriCorps who could be today deployed as the contact tracing workforce for our country. Those are just two suggestions. There’s lots more we could and should be doing about job creation, about economic revitalization, and about making sure our federal response is as coordinated as our workers and families deserve.

Q: Senator Coons, it’s Willie Geist. It’s good to have you on the show this morning. We have a number on the bottom of the screen that the economy shrank by nearly 5% in the first quarter of the year. As Joe also said, that number in the second quarter is going to be much, much worse by all estimates, somewhere between 30% and 40% in the second quarter that the economy has shrunk. So, what are you saying in the short term-and I’ve asked this of a lot of legislators and lawmakers-what are you saying to people in your state: the small business owners who understand how serious this disease is, they understand the risks of going back to work, they understand the risk of opening their societies, but they say, ‘I can’t survive like this. I need my job. I need my small business to open.’ How are you talking to them about that, and where do you see the balance between public health and saving the economy?

Coons: Well, first, Willie, I’m in regular contact with our governor, John Carney, who is doing an outstanding job and who is relying on the doctor, the public health official, who is the head of our Division of Public Health, Dr. Karyl Rattay. He made the hard decision to close our schools and our businesses early. He has been coordinating across our health providers a good response, but one that has been crippled by the lack of a federal coordinated response around PPE, a constructive role by FEMA, a coordinated response in terms of testing. I, like most other senators I’ve been talking to on the phone, am getting calls morning, noon and night from people who I’ve known back to my days in county government, small businesses, small nonprofits, who struggled to get access to the SBA program that we passed now nearly a month ago in the CARES Acts, or who are struggling to get unemployment insurance because of the antiquated I.T. systems of the federal and state departments of labor. We are working hard to make sure that folks get the resources we’ve already appropriated federally, but it’s frankly just not enough so far, so what I’m saying to them is, ‘we need to listen to science, we need to be patient and hopeful, but if we open too quickly and if we open in a way that we’re not prepared for, with full testing and contact tracing, the consequences for thousands of Delawareans could be catastrophic.

Q: Senator, tell us about your push to expand national service, and how that enhances or contributes to the fight against the virus or this time that America is going through.

Coons: Well, Mika, as you may recall, I launched and ran one of the first national direct AmeriCorps programs back in the ‘90s. I had 150 members serving in 15 cities, and I saw how highly motivated and capable they were as they worked mentoring and tutoring kids in inner city schools. Today there are 75,000 people all across our country working in locally-based, state-supervised AmeriCorps programs. There are state commissions all over the country that help supervise and fund-in partnership with local nonprofits and local governments-organizations that do all sorts of great things. Some of them are known to many of your viewers: Teach For America, Habitat for Humanity, City Year, Public Allies. Many of those folks, we know three things about them. They’ve already signed up to do national service at a very modest cost – they mostly get paid minimum wage – and they’re connected to communities that are interested in volunteerism and service, and most of their programs are on hold. So a bill that I’ve been advancing with a group of Democrats – and there’s been some strong interest by Republicans – would double the size of AmeriCorps, would recruit and fund and support a whole new generation of younger Americans dedicated to national service, and would rapidly stand up at the state-by-state level a national workforce of 150,000 people who could do the contact tracing and the test support that we so badly need in order to be able to reopen safely. Most governors and mayors are looking for the right solution to this problem. I think in AmeriCorps, we’ve got it. And so far, in conversations with the head of the CDC and with the head of the corporation for national service that runs and supervises AmeriCorps federally, they’ve been very positive and quite interested in the solution.