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U.S. Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., addresses a group of nonprofit agency leaders gathered Tuesday at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester.

WINCHESTER — About 30 nonprofit leaders met with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., on Tuesday at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley to learn ways they can take advantage of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Warner told them they will be able to use money from the recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. He said the plan expands the Paycheck Protection Program to include a broader scope of community nonprofits and other community organizations so they can have access to forgivable loans.

Many nonprofit groups have experienced financial struggles during the pandemic because they haven't been able to hold their traditional fundraisers.

Among those present for the discussion were representatives from the United Way, Habitat for Humanity, homeless shelters, food banks and health clinics. They talked about the financial challenges their organizations have faced providing help to those in need during the pandemic.

Several people expressed a desire for more flexibility in how COVID-19 relief funds are spent in order to meet the community's needs, including Winchester City Manager Dan Hoffman. He said many revenue streams for public safety organizations, such as fundraisers for volunteer fire and rescue companies, were sidelined by the pandemic last year, yet CARES Act money was unable to offset the losses.

“This is going to be a significant amount of money,” Hoffman said. "And if it’s restricted to just gallons of hand sanitizer and masks and things that are very narrowly tailored, it will be a struggle."

Warner said many of the American Rescue Plan's regulations have not been finalized. He noted that last year’s COVID-19 stimulus package, the CARES Act, was restrictive because there concerns about how the funds would be spent.

Winchester Rescue Mission Executive Director Brandan Thomas talked about the need for more funding for mental health services.

“One of the big things we have seen a huge increase in is individuals with mental illness and finding beds for them,” Thomas said. “What happens is they go to the hospital, they get released before treatment has really reached what it needed, they end up at our door and we are forced with a low budget, low staff to do things we are not prepared to do. I know this isn’t technically virus related, but it really is, because it made that issue worse.”

Beth Williams, executive director of the Clarke County Education Foundation, which provides support to Clarke County Public Schools, said the pandemic has shown that not all students have access to high-speed internet. She said the lack of reliable internet is especially a problem in rural communities.

Warner said broadband relief is included in the recent stimulus package.

“I think COVID, in my mind, absolutely proved to all of us that broadband in 2021 is an economic necessity, not a ‘nice to have,’” Warner said. “And we did get $17 billion, the most ever for broadband, in this last bill.”

Faith Powers with The Laurel Center in Winchester said the pandemic led to a reduction in fundraising efforts for organizations that help victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults, despite an increase in such incidents during the pandemic. She said there needs to be a long-term solution to provide funding for these types of organizations.

“I think we all know COVID has created a tremendous economic impact, but what I haven’t heard here so far is the emotional impact that it’s created,” Powers said. “And that’s really what’s driving the need in domestic violence and sexual assault organizations. We have seen a huge increase in incidents of domestic violence, even among families who have not had a history of domestic violence in the past.”

Warner said he will go to the agencies writing the regulations for the American Rescue Act and advocate that they be written with flexibility in mind.

— Contact Josh Janney at jjanney@winchesterstar.com