CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday loosened unemployment regulations for people whose jobs have been shuttered over concerns about the new coronavirus pandemic, and announced that the state has purchased additional medical supplies.
An executive order from the Republican governor directs commerce officials to ensure that people who had their hours reduced or are prevented from working due to the virus “shall be eligible for unemployment benefits to the maximum extent permitted by federal law.” It also waives a one-week waiting period for benefits and rules requiring people to be actively searching for work.
The directives come as West Virginia sees a spike in unemployment claims as workplaces close or dramatically scale back services amid the pandemic. Justice said 1,200 people applied for unemployment benefits Tuesday, compared to 5,300 during the entirety of February.
He also announced that the U.S. Small Business Administration on Thursday evening declared West Virginia an economic injury disaster zone, which allows small businesses in the state to apply for low-interest loans to get “badly needed immediate cash.”
Justice told reporters that the state has purchased 100,000 surgical masks and 275 sets of highly protective suits with filtration masks. He also said more supplies from the federal government are coming to “ramp up our ability to test.”
The governor has issued a state of emergency and ordered bars, restaurants, casinos, gyms, health clubs, recreation centers, barbershops, nail salons and hair salons to close. Bars and restaurants can still offer carry-out and food delivery services, as well as sell unopened beer and wine to people who buy food.
“Let’s really, really try in every way we possibly can to live our lives but stay separated for a period of time that gets us through this,” Justice said, echoing widespread guidance to limit in-person social interaction.
Schools statewide are closed until at least March 27, and state education officials said they’re canceling this year’s standardized tests.
The governor on Thursday also said he had tested negative for the new coronavirus after his staff discovered he attended an event with the first person in the state to test positive for the virus.
Justice said he hugged and took a photo with the Jefferson County man at a state grant event in February, weeks before the man tested positive for the virus earlier this week.
“I am as transparent as I can be all the time and want to tell you the truth,” said Justice, adding that he self-quarantined himself at the Governor’s Mansion while awaiting his test results.
West Virginia has five confirmed cases of the virus, health officials said. Two cases were reported Thursday in Tucker County and one in Monongalia County. Health officials said all three new cases were travel-related.
The other positive case reported earlier this week is in Mercer County. As of Thursday, state officials said 237 people have been tested for the virus, with 219 negatives, 13 tests pending and the five positives.
West Virginia University Medicine said it tested about 300 people at new drive-through coronavirus testing sites for pre-screened patients in Morgantown, Parkersburg, Bridgeport, Wheeling and Martinsburg, WVU Health Sciences Executive Dean Clay Marsh told reporters. Results should be available three to four days after a test is performed.
On Thursday, Marshall Health, Mountain Health Network and the Cabell-Huntington Health Department opened a drive-through testing center in Huntington. Mon Health said it will open a drive-through testing location in Morgantown on Friday, March 20.
Testing nationwide for the virus has been limited and caused frustration among citizens who’ve been turned away or had to navigate onerous bureaucracies while suffering symptoms. In West Virginia, health officials said they hoped the mix of the private testing and state lab tests was helping to increase testing throughout the state.
Justice’s lavish resort, The Greenbrier, which served as a secret Cold War-era bunker for the federal government, also closed Thursday amid virus concerns. It wasn’t known whether Greenbrier employees would be paid during the closure. A resort spokesman did not immediately return a message.
Buried 720 feet under the resort, the two-story bunker was finished in 1961 and was intended to house the U.S. Congress in the event of a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Greenbrier has since offered tours of the bunker. The resort plans to reopen April 17.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority recover in several weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness, including pneumonia.