Eric Gay / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: Senate Passes Bill to Ban Payments to Dead People; Almost All Pentagon Personnel Could Return Within 6 Weeks 

There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.

Wednesday marks the halfway point for 2020, which has been an unprecedented year for federal employees (as well as the rest of the country) already. In January, escalated tensions between the United States and Iran prompted security concerns for contractors and embassy staffers abroad. In February, the Senate acquitted President Trump in an impeachment trial that featured career and political employees and was spurred from a whistleblower complaint in the intelligence community. In March, federal employees started teleworking if they were not on the frontlines of responding to the global novel coronavirus pandemic. In June, federal law enforcement officials were deployed to the protests for police reform and racial justice, which many have compared to those of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Now, as July begins, here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

On Wednesday, the Interior Department announced the details for the Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C., which include public health guidance. The department has a supply of 300,000 cloth face coverings for visitors on the National Mall, but encouraged individuals to bring their own. 

The Democratic majority of the House Homeland Security Committee released a report on Tuesday about its oversight of the federal response to the pandemic since March. For example, “Throughout the crisis, [the Democratic members] have focused on ensuring healthcare coverage and other benefits are provided to at-risk frontline federal workers” and “urged [the Homeland Security Department] to voluntarily implement new measures to better protect the health and safety of its frontline workforce,” the report said. “In addition to conducting direct oversight, the committee is working with other congressional committees, the Government Accountability Office, and inspectors general to ensure that all facets of the pandemic are examined.” 

On Tuesday, the Trump administration re-established the U.S. Public Health Service’s Ready Reserve Corps to assist with the coronavirus crisis as well as future public health emergencies, as authorized under the CARES Act. The next cohort of officers will be commissioned in spring 2021. 

On Tuesday, the Justice Department warned of fraudulent documents saying individuals are exempt from facemask requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. “The department did not issue and does not endorse them in any way,” the department stated. “The [act] does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.” The Federal Trade Commission issued a similar notice on Monday. 

Based on the reopening plan the Pentagon released on Tuesday, almost all of the 22,000 individuals who work there could be back within the next six weeks under the “best-case scenario,” McClatchy reported. “While the COVID-19 pandemic still presents risk to [Defense] service members, their families and our civilian workforce, improving conditions warrant a transition in our approach to domestic and overseas personnel travel to a conditions-based, phased approach to personnel movement and travel,” the Pentagon said in a statement. 

The Army Special Operations Command halted survival training at the Fort Bragg base in North Carolina after eight instructors and 82 of the 110 students in the program tested positive for coronavirus.  "We have 2,400 students training here every day at [the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School] and that [90] is the only sick population we have,” Army Spokeswoman Janice Burton said. She added that the infected individuals are quarantining for two weeks, Military.com reported

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said on Tuesday that if he wins the presidency in November then one of his first calls would be to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House coronavirus task force member, to “ask him to extend his unprecedented record of service to six presidents by serving one more.” Also, Biden said that Fauci would have “full access to the Oval Office and an uncensored platform to speak directly to the American people—whether delivering good news or bad,” NBC News reported

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Tuesday that the Senate will begin negotiations on the next coronavirus relief package after the two-week recess for the Fourth of July with the goal of finishing before the August break. Democrats in the House and Senate have been calling on McConnell to take up the $3 trillion HEROES Act (which would expand protections for federal employees) since the House passed it in mid-May. 

The Food and Drug Administration stated on Tuesday that while it understands “the urgent need to develop a safe and effective vaccine to prevent COVID-19,” it will “not cut corners in our decisions.”  This comes after much concern from lawmakers and public health experts that the Trump administration will put political pressure on the agency to approve a coronavirus vaccine too fast. It also released guidelines outlining the conditions for vaccine approval. 

The Senate passed a bill on Tuesday night that would preclude the Internal Revenue Service from making payments to deceased individuals. Last week, GAO reported that the IRS and Treasury Department distributed almost 1.1 million coronavirus relief payments totaling nearly $1.4 billion to dead people.

IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig spoke about the issue while testifying before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. “After three weeks of issuing payments, Treasury and counsel issued guidance indicating that decedents should not be receiving those payments and so IRS changed the processing for that,” he said. “Because there was no clarity in the CARES Act that decedents should not be receiving payments, the IRS administered the CARES Act as written. And then, as Treasury came to [that] policy conclusion...we adjusted our filters.” 

On Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons implemented the eighth phase of its coronavirus action plan. It extended its guidance from March 31 that put facilities under a “modified lockdown” to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, but allowed for more inmate transfers, court visits and intakes, according to the plan shared with Government Executive by a union official. 

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode features an interview with GAO Chief Operating Officer Kate Siggerud. The government watchdog is currently investigating many aspects of the federal government’s pandemic response.

Help us understand the situation better. Are you a federal employee, contractor or military member with information, concerns, etc. about how your agency is handling the coronavirus? Email us at newstips@govexec.com. 

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