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The new town hall: Anxiety, fear and few satisfying answers

CHICAGO, Ill. – A Michigan woman recounted for her congressman how she and her feverish 82-year-old husband were sent away from an almost empty emergency room after a fruitless, dayslong effort to get him tested for COVID-19. “Where are the sick people going?” she wanted to know.

In Iowa, a 55-year-old nurse who gets groceries for her 91-year-old father worried she may unknowingly infect him because it takes days to receive results once a person is tested for the coronavirus. Her question: Is anyone coming up with a faster test?

And in Phoenix, the owner of a small bar and restaurant told his congressman that a payroll tax credit Washington approved in response to the pandemic would do nothing to help his business survive an order closing bars and banning dine-in service.

“That doesn't help me today,” the man, identified only as William, told Rep. Andy Biggs on a telephone town hall on Thursday night, his voice rising. “I need relief now."

Across the country, anxious Americans are finding an audience for their questions -- if few answers -- in telephone town halls with their senators and representatives. These are the socially distanced versions of the constituent meetings that have long been held in community centers, libraries and city halls. But these are not the town halls of the past — there's little ideological warfare or finger-pointing.

Instead, the calls can feel like listening in on painful family conversations. The questions are far more personal than political. Politicians have been measured, largely dodging overt partisan swipes and trying to focus on dispensing sometimes hard-to-come-by information. The voices on the end of the line are often filled with desperation, fear and confusion.

Associated Press reporters listened in on more than 12 hours of town halls across nine states in recent days and heard questions that ranged from technical — such as how to qualify for a Small Business Administration loan — to specific. A New York woman wondered how to help her parents who were stuck in Morocco after the government banned air travel in and out of the country. One almost 70-year-old man asked what precautions he should take in his job transporting Medicaid patients besides sanitizing his taxi after each trip. The tough-but-strong advice of the two doctors who joined New York Rep. Anthony Brindisi's town hall: Quit your job.

And while most of the lawmakers were joined by health officials and other subject matter experts, many questions still had no clear answers, like the one a man named Andy posed to Michigan Rep. Bill Huizenga on Friday morning: “When are we going to go back to normal?”

In an effort to slow the spread of the dangerous virus, some states have issued stay-at-home orders, air travel has been restricted, and schools, restaurants and other businesses have been closed, wreaking havoc on the economy.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. Across the globe, there are more than 360,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and over 15,000 deaths.

Lawmakers in Washington have passed measures to address both the health care and economic crisis — and continue to negotiate over additional emergency measures. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has held almost daily briefings for reporters on the federal government's response, events that have at times been heated, confusing and inaccurate. Several governors have also started holding regular press conference in an effort to spread information, issue warnings and offer what little reassurance they can.

But the tele-town halls have become the chief forum for Americans to talk, instead of listen, to their leaders. Many of the discussions focused on the federal aid, with Democratic lawmakers who supported the most recent measure saying it would help small businesses and Republicans like Biggs explaining why he voted no, noting the same concerns as the bar and restaurant owner who said the relief would come too late.

But members of both parties shut down comments that were too critical of the other side. When a man on a call with Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer of Iowa asked why Congress doesn't go around Trump and accused the Republican president of dragging his feet and other “B.S.,” the congresswoman, a freshman moderate, responded, “Let's not talk Democrat or Republican.”

The calls aren't a perfect listening post. Lawmakers' aides often screen the calls, filtering out the most partisan or off-topic. Michigan's Huizenga noted that many of the prescreened questions that didn't get asked were about Trump or the state's Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, who he acknowledged had been taking swipes at each other.

“There will be a time for politics,” the Republican from West Michigan said. “Now is not the time.”

Universally, the lawmakers urged constituents to take the situation seriously. Rep. Donna Shalala, a Florida Democrat who was health and human services secretary under President Bill Clinton, told people to change their behavior but not panic. Rep. Ralph Norman, a South Carolina Republican, suggested that constituents alert authorities to large gatherings that shouldn't be happening, adding that he called a local sheriff after he learned a racetrack in his district planned to carry on as usual. The sheriff shut them down, Norman said.

And Huizenga said he had “robust conversations” with friends and family who planned to take trips, sharing with people on the call what he'd said.

“Do not go away on spring break, please. This is not the time to go on vacation.”

Some of the lawmakers specifically sought out vulnerable constituents. In El Paso, Texas, Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar sent out invitations for the event via a robocall directed at landlines — an effort to reach older people most at-risk of serious illness from infection. She also offered a Spanish-language version of the call. Within a few minutes, some 1,200 people were on the line.

In New York, Brindisi participated in his town hall from his home, where he was in self-quarantine after being in contact with another member of Congress who tested positive for COVID-19. He compared the moment of fear and uncertainty with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, taking an optimistic tone.

“We are going to get through this just like we got past 9/11, and we'll come together as a country.”

More than 6,000 people were on the line Friday night for a town hall with Republican Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin, but satisfying answers were in short supply.

A nurse educator from Whitewater said she was concerned about a shortage of critical personal protective equipment for health care workers. Andrea Palm, Wisconsin’s health secretary, said that the state was competing with others around the world for the necessary supplies and won’t have enough to meet demand.

“No one, I think, is satisfied with where we’re at,” Steil said.

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Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., Cedar Attanasio in El Paso, Texas, and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.