“Keep the politics out of it.” That is main message from Congressman Gus Bilirakis on the COVID-19 pandemic during his interview with the National Herald.
Bilirakis also stated that President Trump's approach “has been effective” and that “he listens carefully to the experts,” and that in his opinion the Governors should make the final decisions about the means and timing for reopening the economy in their states. The interview follows:
The National Herald: Mr. Bilirakis, the United States is being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and there is much criticism for the Federal Government's response. What is your view on the response of the White House?
Congressman Gus Bilirakis: I believe that our President's approach is effective. Don't forget that we are dealing with unexplored territory and nobody knows how long this pandemic is going to last. The President has been effective but we are not done yet. Since I am in touch with him, I can tell you that he is accessible and approachable. This I can tell you from personal experience. Regarding the opening of the economy, the President will let the governors decide and he has issued the guidelines. We should listen to the experts, not the politicians. The President is listening carefully to the experts, such as Dr. Fauci.
TNH: During the last few weeks, the discussion about the right timing for the economy reopening has taken a political turn. We see Republicans support the idea of “opening America now,” although we still have a high daily death toll in the United States. On the other hand, the Democrats are being accused for having an agenda to try to keep the restrictions for as long as possible, for political reasons. What is really happening?
GB: There are people who are using that kind of rhetoric from both parties, but behind the scenes most of us agree that we have to have a balance. We have to make sure the people are safe. It is very important that sometime – when it's the right day to do so – reopen the economy. Last week, I was talking with the Democratic Commissioner in Pinellas County, who is a Democrat. She also said that the local governments have to make that decision. If the economy can open, it will open. I agree on that.
TNH: Let's talk about your state, Florida. Governor DeSantis, most likely, would like to open the State sooner than originally thought. What do you think should happen in Florida?
GB: First of all, Florida is very diverse. In the northern part, there is a lot of distance between people and not very large population. The central area, Miami and South Florida, are hotspots. They should be treated differently. The President will let the Governors decide, but he has issued the guidelines and it should be county to county. In Florida, I believe that the beaches would be open for the public. But the Governor will decide about that. The same thing is happening in New York State and Governor Cuomo is doing a good job. We need to fund the states and we have already done that. They need more, possibly, but we get that case by case. We are already flattening the curve and we will be successful if we work together, united, not as Republicans or Democrats. No matter what, everyone should be social distancing. Everyone should have use proper hygiene. Then we go from there. We also have to worry about our elderly. For example, my parents have to be home. They have to stay home and we have to watch out for them on a regular basis. I bring them food and pretty much say hello and I leave. It is not the way we are used to being, especially us Greeks. But we have to.
TNH: You spoke about Greece. Greece is about to lift the lockdown by May 4. What is your opinion about the Greek Government's response?
GB: In Greece, Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Minister of Health, Vasilis Kikilias did a very good job and I know that because I follow Greek politics pretty closely. They have done a great job. Now he is going to reveal some guidance on reopening the economy. Also, I would like to give the people in Greece a lot of credit. It is difficult for anyone to stay home. Greece is a model.
TNH: As of now, we have seen that a series of huge relief packages were voted, for individuals, families, and small businesses. Do you believe that small businesses can survive, and how? Also, what about the traditional family Greek businesses?
GB: We need to protect the small businesses. We are very concerned about the Greek restaurants, the cafes, and all these businesses that have been around for all these years. For example, the Faklis Department Store and Shoe Repair, which was opened back in 1912 by Greek immigrants. Now it's run by the third generation in the family. It's a small department store and the community loves them. I worry about those people. They have to be prioritized. I sent a letter to the administration and also to the Majority and Minority Leaders in the Senate and the House of Representatives. My message was that we need to prioritize these businesses because they've been out forever. They should not be over-loaned. I continue to emphasize helping out the very small businesses. The Congress passed the package, but we have to work together and stop the delays. Because there have been delays. In the beginning, it was turned down. We could have had the money in people's hands swiftly. I think we have to come back with a phase 4 and probably put more money in people's hands. Another thing is the people who are applying for unemployment. We are giving the money to the States. They administer the unemployment process. The problem with the States is that a lot of them are having trouble and there are a lot of glitches and people don't receive the money fast enough. This is not a federal issue, but I gather names and try to help. I used to be a State Legislator and I know the situation. I am trying to help them.
TNH: The President is accused of trying too hard to speed up the clinical trials for medicine that many scientists believe may not work. What is your opinion about this process?
GB: These are medicines that already exist, but they are not approved yet for COVID-19 use. There are medicines that are proven to work in other countries and also here. For example, the antimalaria drug, for the most part, has saved a lot of lives. I am also in contact with Mr. Polymeropoulos from Vanda Pharmaceuticals who got a clinical trial approval in the State of New York for a drug that can help patients who are on ventilators. The President is openminded and he thinks outside of the box. He is a businessman. The other side says “no wait a minute” but the FDA has approved the trials, with the President persuading them to act quicker. We have nothing to lose. We have to speed up the clinical trials and try to save lives. Also, the COVID-19 bill includes $25 billion for testing. This is an issue as well. We need more tests.
TNH: Finally, what Is your main message?
GB: There is one thing I want to re-emphasize: This should not be made political. Keep the politics out of it. We have to act as soon as possible. Also, we should keep social distancing for as long as is needed. If we were talking about dancing, this is the time for doing a zeibekiko, by ourselves.