New COVID Relief Bill Passes Congress, Includes Horse Racing Safety Measure

Posted on: December 22, 2020, 04:49h. 

Last updated on: December 22, 2020, 09:36h.

In the span of a couple hours Monday night, Congress did what it had failed to do for months – pass another federal COVID-19 relief package. By a 359-53 vote in the House and a 92-6 vote shortly thereafter in the Senate, the $900 billion-plus spending package will now go to President Trump to become law.

COVID bill
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) speaks on behalf of the COVID-19 relief bill Congress passed Monday. (Image: Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office)

However, as several lawmakers noted throughout the negotiating process, more aid will be necessary once President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Democrats and Republicans will try to find agreement on such issues as additional unemployment and direct stimulus payments, as well as liability protection for businesses.

“It doesn’t go all the way, but it takes us down the path, a first step,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on the floor Monday.

In a statement sent after the Senate’s vote, American Gaming Association President and CEO Bill Miller said Congress must act urgently on additional measures for the nation’s businesses.

The gaming industry in particular needs that help, he said. That includes giving businesses protections from COVID-related lawsuits and offering incentives to spur travel and tourism.

Gaming communities, companies, and employees across the country have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic—enduring mandated closures and operating restrictions, investing heavily in health and safety protocols, and playing a key role in stopping the community spread of COVID,” he said. “We’ve met these challenges with resolve and resilience.”

Miller said the trade group also is eager to work with the incoming Biden Administration on those issues.

COVID Bill Extends PPP, Unemployment Programs

There’s nothing specifically for the gaming industry in the nearly 5,600-page bill. There are plenty of items that would serve to benefit casinos, other gaming businesses, and their workers.

For casino staffers currently on unemployment, they – like other eligible workers – would be able to claim a $300 weekly subsidy. That funding will be available through mid-March.

The relief bill also allows claimants to receive benefits for up to 50 weeks instead of the 26 weeks traditional unemployment allows. The CARES Act passed in March allowed recipients to receive assistance for 39 weeks.

For small businesses, the new relief bill offers an additional $284 billion in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, with eligible entities able to apply for a second loan.

Legislators from gaming states touted PPP loans for small gaming businesses when the CARES Act became law. However, the Small Business Administration initially imposed rules that blocked most gaming companies from applying. That interpretation kept at least one casino from getting assistance and deciding to close for good.

Roughly a month later, in late April, small casinos finally were allowed to apply for the loans designed to help companies refrain from laying off workers.

Horseracing Safety Bill Included in Spending Plan

In addition to passing a COVID relief bill, lawmakers included an omnibus spending package that keeps the federal government’s lights on through the end of the fiscal year in September. That’s a major reason the bill comes in at 5,593 pages.

Omnibus spending bills are known for becoming vessels where numerous bills are included, hence the name. This one is no different, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was inserted in the legislation.

The Kentucky Republican introduced the bill in late August. It took legislation calling for nationalized doping standards and the creation of an independent agency to oversee those standards in thoroughbred racing, and added track safety measures with it.

US Reps. Paul Tonko (D-New York) and Andy Barr (R-Kentucky) had proposed the drug standards piece for years in their Horseracing Integrity Act.

“With today’s passage of HISA in Congress, we are in the final stretch of achieving the most transformational and consequential reform of the Thoroughbred horseracing industry since enactment of the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978,” Barr said in a statement. “For almost a decade, I have worked with industry stakeholders and my Congressional colleagues to build consensus around reforms that will protect equine athletes and strengthen confidence and international competitiveness in the sport.”

The measure has received significant support from major racing stakeholders, including Churchill Downs, as well as from animal welfare groups.

“The passage of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act is the biggest news for horses in Congress in half a century, will put the welfare of the horses at the center of the enterprise, and put the sport on a level playing field that aligns with global standards,” said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action.