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We need COVID-19 relief more than ever, so of course Congress is dropping the ball

The United States is currently grappling with the worst surge of coronavirus on Earth — a dramatic increase in cases across the country unlike anything we've seen since the pandemic began this spring. And while a vaccine is indeed on its way, it's unlikely that we'll return to anything even resembling normalcy for months, if not years, to come.

Already we've seen waves of job losses, business closures, evictions, and any number of other pandemic-associated instances of dramatic social upheaval. And yet, through it all, the federal government has only managed to pass a single COVID relief bill — the chief impact of which was, for most people, a onetime payment of $1,200 several months ago. But while the need for further relief has only grown as the pandemic continues to rage unchecked, Congress has thus far flubbed what should be its obvious moral obligation to help people struggling to stay alive — both financially and physically — until things begin to improve.

Already Democrats have come down from the $3 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House last spring to largely settle on less than $1 trillion in relief funds via a package proposed by a bipartisan negotiating group earlier this month. It's a massive downgrade House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explained away as "an emergency supplemental" deal rather than a full blown stimulus package — a change in calculus evidently spurred by Joe Biden's electoral victory and the questionable belief that a more robust stimulus bill is increasingly likely under his administration.

At the same time, the White House has been working on — and on Tuesday proposed — its own $916 billion relief package, which Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin described as "slightly larger" than the bipartisan team's suggestion.

However, the proposal offered by the White House reduces the one-time stimulus payments to just $600 per person, and ends the $300 enhanced federal unemployment benefit which has helped supplement existing (and itself largely subpar) aid for the millions of people who have lost work as a result of the pandemic. Democratic leaders have since rejected the proposal, choosing to continue on the path being negotiated by the bipartisan team.

That path, however, got more difficult Thursday, with reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office was downplaying the idea that Senate Republicans would pass the compromise bill — effectively stalling the ongoing negotiations, and leaving the fate of even this "emergency supplemental" effort in doubt.

All the while, the dramatic uptick in coronavirus cases across the country has made social distancing measures all the more important to help mitigate the spread of disease. But to ensure that those measures are effective, lawmakers must provide the public with the sort of financial safety net that will allow people to stay home, and not expose themselves and the rest of their community to the virus.

So long as relief efforts remain in legislative limbo, people will necessarily feel compelled to risk their physical health in service of their financial stability. The longer that untenable tension is allowed to continue, the more this pandemic will continue taking lives, and robbing the country of the communal pleasures so many other nations have regained in our stead.