‘Now is the time we should be spending’: Biden pitches $1.9 trillion COVID relief

MILWAUKEE — President Joe Biden took center stage at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater Tuesday night to make the case for his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and spur Americans to remain vigilant against the pandemic.

In his first major political trip outside Washington, D.C., as president, Biden vowed that he was committed to passing the relief legislation, claiming it would create “7 million jobs this year” and that “the economy now has to be dealt with.”

“Now is the time we should be spending. Now is the time to go big,” he said during a town hall broadcast by CNN and attended by a socially distant group of Wisconsin voters.

Asked when the country will get back to normal, Biden said experts warned him to “be careful not to predict things.”

“By next Christmas I think we’ll be in a very different circumstance, God willing,” he said.

“A year from now there will be significantly fewer people having to be socially distant, having to wear a mask. But we don’t know. I don’t want to over-promise.”

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A key to recovery is the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, which Biden said would be available to every American by the end of July.

“A lot will be vaccinated in the meantime,” he said.

President Joe Biden participates in a televised town hall event at Pabst Theater, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Milwaukee.

Biden said “it matters where you continue to wear that mask, whether you continue to socially distance, whether you wash your hands with soap and hot water.”

Biden sidestepped a question about former President Donald Trump, recently acquitted by the U.S. Senate in a second impeachment trial.

“For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump,” he said. “The next four years I want to make sure all the news is the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump.”

Connecting with the audience

In many ways, the appearance was vintage Biden as he sought to reach out to the audience.

Kerri Engebrecht, whose son suffers from lung disease, asked about vaccinating those who are most vulnerable sooner.

Biden said the decision lies with the states but told Engebrecht, “If you’re willing, I’ll stay around after this is over and maybe talk a few minutes to get you some help.”

Jessica Salas, a graphic designer from Milwaukee, appearing with her second-grade daughter, asked when will kids get the vaccine.

“Children aren’t the people most likely to get COVID,” Biden said, adding, “You’re the safest group of people in the whole world.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, baby, I promise you,” Biden told Salas’ daughter. “Don’t be scared, honey, don’t be scared. You’ll be fine.”

Biden defended his push to get a $15 an hour minimum wage and stressed that he wants to increase wages gradually, adding, “No one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty.

President Joe Biden participates in a televised town hall event at Pabst Theater, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Milwaukee.

He also urged that there be “a reasonable path to citizenship” for the undocumented.

Biden also called for the country to confront systemic racism as well as the rise of white supremacy.

Kevin Michel, an engineer from Wauwatosa, asked the president about plans to get school-aged children back in the classrooms.

“It is much easier to send kids K through 8 back because they are less likely to communicate the disease to anybody else,” Biden said, adding “It’s going to be harder to open up the high schools.”

“I think we should be vaccinating teachers, we should move them up in the hierarchy,” he added.

Justin Belot, a high school English teacher from Milwaukee, asked why it would be OK to put students and teachers in close proximity to one another.

“No. 1, nobody is suggesting, including the CDC, that you have large classes, congested classes,” Biden said.

“It’s about needing to be able to socially distance, smaller classes,” he added.

Biden was asked by Dessie Levy of Milwaukee about racial disparities in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. She noted that in Wisconsin, only about 3% of Black and Latino residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Biden stressed the importance of initiatives like mobile vaccination teams and mass vaccination clinics, as well as his Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.

Journal Sentinel reporter Jessica Rodriguez contributed to this article.

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