With thousands and thousands over the Ohio Valley struggling to make ends meet, a suite of coronavirus aid packages, including rent and utility relief funding, eviction moratoriums, and expanded unemployment benefits, is placed to expire after December.

The consequences could be far-reaching. Poverty rates have soared as some federal programs, such as the additional $600 in weekly unemployment aid, came to a close. Now, over 75% of Kentucky's 7,654 independent restaurants are in danger of closing permanently, according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition; one out of three West Virginians is at risk of eviction; 16% of Ohioans are behind on their rent. Based on the Bls, the national unemployment rate is 6.9% – well below the terrifying peaks of late spring, but twice what it really was at February.

Even those who will have cash to spend are being more cautious by using it.

“People just continue to be uncomfortable, and rightly so,” said Sean O'Leary, a senior policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a left-leaning think tank. “They don't want to take unnecessary risks. They’re not heading out, they are not spending the cash that they would be.”

Federal legislators from Kentucky's powerful senior senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi agree they would like to pass more aid, but despite multiple rounds of negotiations, the parties remain divided on major ticket items.

While Washington haggles over the price tag for additional aid, people across the Ohio Valley get ready for a difficult winter as soaring coronavirus cases force more restrictions on workers and businesses.

Eviction Emergency

About half of renters surveyed by the Census Bureau reported being “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to depart their house due to eviction within the coming months, according to Household Pulse data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Housing experts have expressed concern for months in regards to a “tsunami” of evictions, including Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky executive director Adrienne Bush. Inside a call with reporters in July, Bush said evictions don't happen all at once: Families often spend down their savings, take out more debt, or ask relatives for many help before they resort to homeless shelters.

That's the situation landlord Mark Kidd, the master of seven rental units in Letcher County, Kentucky sees for several of his tenants. Kidd is disabled, and the rental properties account for most of his monthly income. The units rent for anywhere from $400 to $700 monthly.

“Up until maybe May, there wasn't an excessive amount of a hit to my finances out of this, but it's become a significant pressing issue within the intervening time,” he said.

Kidd's tenants have suffered financial hardship during the coronavirus, so Kidd has worked together to establish payment plans, or take over their bills. He's spent down what he'd in reserve, and he worries whether he'll have sufficient to pay for a handyman if there were to be a plumbing emergency.

One tenant was laid off in March because of the pandemic. The tenant requested unemployment, but never received it. When Kidd heard that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear was establishing a fund to help renters meet their payments, he encouraged the tenant to use.

Kentucky's Healthy at Home Eviction Relief Fund, that was established August 24 with $15 million in CARES Act funding, closed to new applications on November 5. Based on the website, “We haven't expended all funds, but do expect to use all available funding on applications already received.”

Kidd's tenant has not yet received aid from the fund; the application continues to be categorized as “File Review Complete” for around per month.

“I've never evicted a tenant – uh, ever,” Kidd said. “And I'm not promising I never will, but I really- that might be among the apocalyptic scenarios. However i guess this really is kind of an apocalyptic world.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine dedicated $50 million to a combined rent- and utility-relief fund; in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice did not establish a fund especially for rental assistance.

Any CARES Act money left unspent on December 31 must be returned towards the federal government.

Utilities Support

On September 21, the Kentucky Public Service Commission said hello estimated Kentuckians would miss a total of $150 million in water, sewer, gas and electric bills after 2021.

Gov. Beshear on October 19 announced the $15 million Healthy in your own home Utility Relief Fund to help cover those bills. Customers will even need support in 2021 but the program expires at the end of this season.

In West Virginia, the Public Service Commission sent out 133,000 letters to customers who have been delinquent on utility bills, urging these to apply for that state's $25 million utility relief fund.

“We have a total of about 26 what we call 'larger utilities'” – most of them electric services, said PSC chairman Charlotte Lane. “We also provide about 600 public service districts, water association, municipalities, and all of those are in small category.”

Lane's office is still crunching the numbers on those smaller water districts, she said, but to date, 40,000 customers of the 26 larger utility companies – about 39% of eligible households – returned applications requesting a total of $14 million in aid. If all eligible households had applied, Lane said, there'd have been $30 million requested for only customers from the larger utilities for only accounts that were delinquent between March 1 and July 31.

“If Congress decides to provide more relief for utilities because of the number of people that weren't able to pay their bills, we're able to certainly welcome that,” Lane said.

States have established a patchwork of orders prohibiting utility shut offs throughout the pandemic. Ohio and West Virginia do not currently have shutoff moratoriums; Kentucky's ends December 31.

Unemployment & Student Loans

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which extended unemployment benefits to gig workers and the self-employed, is set to run out December 26. In Kentucky, according towards the Department of Labor, some 50,201 workers are in position to lose coverage; in West Virginia, 51,885; and in Ohio, 431,405 people will become ineligible for unemployment once the program expires.

Also expiring the day after Christmas may be the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provided one more 13 weeks of benefits after workers had used the weeks of unemployment regularly included in their state.

Most states, including Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, normally provide 26 weeks of unemployment insurance; PEUC extended that to 39 weeks.

“What we're seeing is, individuals who were already unemployed once the pandemic started, they're really starting to run out of those weeks, even with the PEUC,” said Jessica Klein, a policy analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank.

As expanded unemployment benefits expire amid high unemployment and a lethargic economic recovery, the Department of Education's suspension of education loan payments is also set to expire.

About 217,000 West Virginians, 575,000 Kentuckians, and 1.7 million Ohioans will need to resume payments on their own student loans starting in January.

As case counts rise, elected leaders must weigh the scales: allow businesses to remain open and risk overflowing hospitals, or tighten up around the economy and risk widespread hardship.

All three Ohio Valley states have experienced record-high amounts of cases in the current wave of the virus, reporting a combined 12,558 positive tests on Thursday. Hospitalizations and deaths have soared over the past weeks, forcing governors to announce stricter guidance as the holiday season – which is expected to bring about the continuing surge – nears.

The Ohio Valley ReSource is supported by the organization for Public Broadcasting and our partner stations.