Federal pandemic funds are dwindling. What happens when they're tapped out?

TUMON BAY: Beaches in Tumon Bay, a magnet for more than 1.6 million tourists in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic started, has been largely empty of international travelers for more than a year and a half. David Castro/The Guam Daily Post

In May, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio's administration received $553 million from the federal government to aid GovGuam in pandemic relief and response efforts.

This money was the last major chunk the federal government provided to GovGuam since the pandemic began in March 2020.

More than three months later, we still don't have a complete breakdown of how this money has been and will be spent.

The new government of Guam budget law requires an accounting of this fund's spending, but that information would be after the fact, or when the money is pretty much gone or locked away.

What we do know, in general, is that at the rate the administration is committing or spending funds for various pandemic-related needs, there soon won't be much left to go around.

The governor confirmed Monday in a press conference that, of the $553 million, she is firm on setting aside about $300 million to jump-start the development of a nearly $1 billion medical complex that will primarily involve the construction of a new Guam Memorial Hospital as well as public health and mental health facilities.

So carving out that $300 million leaves GovGuam with $253 million, but portions of the remaining money have been spoken for.

Here's a partial list of spending or commitments that will chip or have chipped away at that $253 million, based on our previous reporting:

• $30 million - for the direct cash assistance program called All RISE;

• $20 million - to help pandemic-hit small businesses by providing grants of up to $50,000 each through the Guam Economic Development Authority;

• $20 million – for tourism recovery, as discussed in a recent Guam Visitors Bureau meeting, in which expectations were expressed that the governor had made this funding commitment;

• $25 million - for a pay subsidy program for about 5,000 workers, but the implementation date for this has been delayed;

• $15 million - subsidy for Guam Power Authority to avoid further increases to the fuel surcharge as a result of high fuel costs;

• $11 million - for the rental of hotels for COVID-19 quarantine facilities;

• $678,000 - for the rental of a hotel or hotels for COVID-19 isolation facilities; 

• $674,000 - for homeless shelter operations; and

• $180,000 - for COVID-19 bereavement funds, which started as a $50,000 expense in August, but the recent deaths could increase the total amount to at least $180,000 based on the $10,000 assistance for each family of the deceased.

If the government follows through on all the items in the list above, there will be $131 million left for other expenses that we haven't learned about.

And this isn't a complete list. 

Now that the delta variant of the coronavirus has accelerated the number of infections and increased our island's death toll in this pandemic, it's very likely the money will run out well before the pandemic ends.

But what's complicating GovGuam's financial challenges is its ambitious $937 million spending plan in the budget year that starts Oct. 1.

This is the same budget year in which tourism, Guam's chief economic driver before the pandemic began, likely will remain dismal. Tourist arrivals were down 93% before these latest surges of deaths and infections occurred.

Since then, there have been alerts about Guam being a very high risk for international travel. Travel from Manila to Guam has been paused. Tourist arrivals from Korea and Japan, which were Guam's core markets, have been reduced to just tens of thousands instead of more than 1 million. The more-than-$2 billion-a-year tourism industry will remain stagnant for months, or well into next year.

What's going to happen when the money's tapped out?

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