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The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020 authorized $2 trillion to battle COVID-19 and its economic impacts. Within the law, the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) authorized $150 billion earmarked for state and local governments. Departments of environmental health might be well-suited to utilize a portion of this fund in very strategic ways, perhaps in ways not previously considered.

The $150 billion earmarked for state and local governments was rapidly injected into a whirlwind of distribution formulae and disparate request processes, all with extremely limited visibility. Said another way, it can be a challenge to determine the status of the fund in many regions.

At its foundation, the practical need for massive appropriations is apparent and urgent, especially to those in the service of public health—an intensely local matter. But too, Congress intended the fund to accommodate many varied necessities.

As the last calendar year closed and the original December 30, 2020, deadline loomed large, Congress extended the program through December 31, 2021. The president signed the omnibus bill (H.R. 133) into law on December 27, 2020. Notably, Congress did not increase the fund. Most agree that there are substantial unspent or unreported funds, at least in certain regions.

Important facts to know:

  • The U.S. Department of the Treasury disbursed funds directly to states, counties, and cities with populations >500,000, as well as to certain tribal governments.
  • Regionally, states and counties were encouraged to “pass down” funds to municipalities (e.g., those with populations <500,000) within their boundaries.
  • The funds may be used to reimburse for expenditures related to the public health emergency and not budgeted for prior to March 27, 2020. Congress made spending rules vague on purpose. The U.S. Department of Treasury has published guidance for the CRF program in the January 15, 2021, Federal Register (see sidebar). We can appreciate, though, that the intent of Congress was to enable states, cities, and counties to execute against regional priorities.

Let’s add that the intent of Congress is undermined if the funds are never spent. Unspent funds do not aid in COVID-19 response. Unspent funds to not stimulate the economy.

Environmental health departments could still utilize these funds if applied to the pandemic response. Beyond the more obvious direct public health needs, other projects can fit, too. For example, closing (or downsizing) your customer counter by moving plan review, applications, consulting, and payments to the internet reduces virus exposure and risk.

Enabling inspectors to do more remotely (e.g., through virtual inspections) eliminates contact. Often overlooked, department payroll (including overtime) for environmental health

Editor’s Note: A need exists within environmental health agencies to increase their capacity to perform in an environment of diminishing resources. With limited resources and increasing demands, we need to seek new approaches to the business of environmental health. Acutely aware of these challenges, the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) has initiated a partnership with Accela called Building Capacity—a joint effort to educate, reinforce, and build upon successes within the
profession using technology to improve effi ciency and extend the impact of environmental health agencies.


This column is re-posted from NEHA’s Journal of Environmental Health (April 2021).

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