Hollingsworth responds to national criticism, talks federal coronavirus response

A local congressman said Thursday he has talked to hundreds of Hoosiers in his district about the COVID-19 pandemic, and he wants to get Americans back to work.

Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Indiana, represents Indiana’s Ninth Congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district encompasses Johnson County, as well as Bloomington and southern Indiana counties surrounding the Louisville-area.

Hollingsworth is facing national criticism this week for a comment he made in a Tuesday interview with WIBC, an Indianapolis radio station, saying that choosing to send Americans back to work during the pandemic is the “lesser of two evils.”

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“It is always the government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of American lives, we always have to choose the latter,” Hollingsworth said in the WIBC interview. “It is our job as policymakers to put on our big boy pants and say this is the lesser of two evils.”

Indiana, like many other states, has been under a statewide stay-at-home order since mid-March in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus which, as of Thursday, has killed nearly 500 Hoosiers. It has also meant the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Hollingsworth did not say Thursday his words were poorly chosen, but said he wanted to make it clear that the coronavirus is not going away, and there is still going to be a risk no matter what.

“There still will be infections, there still will be transmissions, and that’s the adult conversation we need to have,” Hollingsworth said in an interview with the Daily Journal. “We are going to work to make sure we minimize this risk, but there will still be a risk, and we will have to move forward.”

He never said the word, “immediately” in that interview, and said he doesn’t want everyone to go back to normal tomorrow, he said. Rather, he wants to begin the conversation about slowly reopening the economy because staying at home forever is not a solution, he said.

He worries Hoosiers think they only have two options: staying at home or going out and dying.

“Either you sit in your house and you live a life but it’s not a life that you would recognize, but you would still live. Or, you go out and work and everyone dies,” Hollingsworth said. “Those aren’t the only two solutions.”

Several Hoosiers reacted negatively to Hollingsworth’s stance. To that, he said those people may not understand the predicament the country is in with the virus.

“I would ask them this: What is their plan? To have people shelter in place? And have the economy stop? And have everyone lose their jobs? Until when?” he said. “If they are waiting for a day where the coronavirus won’t be out there, they are going to be waiting forever.”

It is too early to tell if COVID-19 will have a resurgence. During a livestream Wednesday, Dr. David Dunkle, president and CEO of Johnson Memorial Health, said the world has seen different coronaviruses come and go over the years, including MERS and SARS, so it is possible that COVID-19 won’t be an annual virus.

“My gut tells me this will be very similar, but I don’t want to make predictions I can’t back up,” Dunkle said. “I would bet that, no, this does not become a normal thing. That would be abnormal based on the history of the coronavirus.”

An internal CDC and FEMA document published Wednesday in The Washington Post said there is a risk for a “large rebound curve” if restrictions are relaxed too quickly.

But finding a way to get people back to work is something many constituents said they wanted when Hollingsworth talked to them, he said.

“I talk with hundreds of Hoosiers a day, and what I continue to hear from them is that sheltering in place forever is not a sustainable strategy,” Hollingsworth said. “It was a strategy meant to buy time. It was a strategy meant to flatten the curve. But it’s not a strategy that we can sit at home and wait for (the) coronavirus to pass.”

The two-term congressman shared his own ideas about how to go about reopening the economy, which includes sending those who are deemed low-risk back to work, he said.

“We can find a balanced pathway forward … We’ve been doing it for hundreds of years,” Hollingsworth said.

Congress is working to create a path to reopen the economy, a topic he discusses regularly on conference calls with other Indiana congressmen, he said.

However, Hollingsworth’s primary focus right now is helping constituents and small businesses in his district. He and his team are on the phone every day talking to Hoosiers about unemployment services and telehealth, he said. Primarily, though, he’s focused on helping local small businesses, many of which have had no choice but to close their doors completely as their models aren’t supported by carry-out and delivery only.

“These are individuals who have spent their lifetime working to build that restaurant, that coffee shop, that store out on our Main Street, and frankly, they’re worried about getting through this,” he said.

A large part of the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed last month, is the allocation of loans to businesses across the country. This included the Payroll Protection Program, which has helped keep several Hoosiers employed, Hollingsworth said. But, the program reached its $349 billion ceiling of funding Thursday morning, and the Senate is working on a $250 billion extension now, he said.

Other key parts of the CARES Act included emergency funding for hospitals, additional funding for municipalities since tax deadlines were pushed back, and individual $1,200 stimulus checks for Americans who qualify.

There is a long list of things Hollingsworth wishes he could have changed about the package, but that is common with any legislation of that scale, he said.

“We tried to make sure it was a wrap-around bill,” he said.