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West Virginia moving to ‘safer-at-home’ order Monday

CHARLESTON — As more businesses move to reopen Monday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice will also lift the statewide stay-at-home order that was issued amid the coronavirus pandemic and implement a new safer-at-home order.

Justice provided details of the new order during his daily press briefing Thursday. The new order will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday, May 4, as Week 2 of his “comeback plan” is implemented, which permits hair salons, outdoor seating at restaurants and small businesses with less than 10 employees to reopen if they choose to do so.

The new order goes hand-in-hand with the governor’s comeback plan, and ensures there aren’t conflicting messages from the state. Individuals will be strongly encouraged to stay home versus being directed to stay home.

“This disease is here today, and we’ve got to learn to live with it until we have a medicine that will take this disease out of our lives,” Justice said.

As more people head back to work — though working from home is still encouraged where possible — child care facilities will need to begin to reopen. Justice has requested all child care staff be tested for COVID-19.

The Bureau for Public Health issued guidelines Thursday to assist child care centers in obtaining testing. COVID-19 testing is available at no charge to the provider or employee whether or not the individual is insured. Staff are encouraged to check with their employer to coordinate efforts. Providers and staff may also check with their local health department if they have questions or to determine local testing options. Individuals may contact their primary care provider, health clinic or other health care provider to arrange for testing or to obtain an order for a COVID-19 test that can be done elsewhere. Justice has instructed the West Virginia National Guard to assist with testing efforts as needed.

Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said there are already more than 600 child care facilities open that have been providing child care for essential workers. Those child care workers can also be tested, he said.

Four new deaths related to COVID-19 were reported Thursday: an 89-year-old man from Jackson County, a 74-year-old man from Berkeley County, and a 71-year-old woman and 81-year-old man, both from Kanawha County. The total number of deaths in the state related to COVID-19 is 44.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, there have been 44,700 laboratory results received for COVID-19, with 1,125 positive and 43,575 negative. Sixteen new positive cases were reported Thursday.

Confirmed cases by county are: Barbour (five), Berkeley (145), Boone (three), Braxton (two), Brooke (three), Cabell (42), Fayette (13), Gilmer (two), Grant (one), Greenbrier (three), Hampshire (seven), Hancock (10), Hardy (five), Harrison (30), Jackson (130), Jefferson (79), Kanawha (160), Lewis (four), Lincoln (two), Logan (13), Marion (45), Marshall (12), Mason (12), McDowell (six), Mercer (10), Mineral (17), Mingo (two), Monongalia (102), Monroe (five), Morgan (11), Nicholas (six), Ohio (27), Pendleton (three), Pleasants (two), Pocahontas (two), Preston (13), Putnam (25), Raleigh (eight), Randolph (four), Roane (six), Summers (one), Taylor (six), Tucker (four), Tyler (three), Upshur (four), Wayne (85), Wetzel (three), Wirt (three), Wood (38) and Wyoming (one).

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine said he was extending the state’s stay-at-home order until further notice. It was set to expire Friday, May 1. The extension includes exceptions for businesses reopening, such as office work restarting Monday and retail reopening May 12.

DeWine announced 724 new positive cases of COVID-19, for a total of 18,027, and 38 new deaths, for a total of 975.

In Kentucky, 174 new positive cases were announced, for a total of 4,708, and 240 deaths.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,031,659 total cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Thursday. There have been 60,057 deaths related to the virus.

The Associated Press reports that for most people, the novel 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.

Parade for health care workers rolls past Huntington hospitals

HUNTINGTON — Lights, horns and sirens flooded through Huntington on Thursday in a scene that would normally be scary for the average hospital employee.

However, during the COVID-19 epidemic, the scene was a welcomed one.

A parade of police vehicles, fire trucks, ambulances and everyday cars participated in a “Salute to Our Health Care Workers,” driving by Cabell Huntington Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center to give thanks to those on the front lines of the crisis.

The parade was similar to ones being organized in cities across the country in a show of solidarity between first responders and health care workers. The city of Huntington organized the caravan, which was announced by Mayor Steve Williams at the City Council meeting Monday.

The caravan rolled past both hospitals as dozens of hospital employees watched from outside or from windows and captured the event on their phones. Cabell Huntington Hospital uploaded the parade to its official Facebook page.

“So honored to have our first responders and city workers parade by our health care team to recognize their hard work and dedication to our community!” the hospital said.

Williams said the parade was organized as the simplest way to thank those battling the epidemic.

“There are two important words that we learn when we are children — ‘thank you,’” Williams said. “Individuals working in hospitals are on the front lines putting their lives at risk, and our community needs to show them our appreciation.”

Several agencies participated in the event, including the Huntington Police Department, the Huntington Fire Department, the Huntington Public Works Department, Cabell County Emergency Medical Services, the Cabell County Sheriff’s Department, the Marshall University Police Department and the West Virginia State Police.

“The idea of this first responder caravan is circular. Not only does it give an opportunity for our first responders to say thank you to our health care workers, it allows our health care workers and the community as a whole to show their appreciation back to our police department, fire department and Public Works employees,” Williams said. “They have not missed a day of work. That’s the definition of ‘essential’ employees.”

Editor’s retirement sparks changes at HD Media

HD Media, publisher of The Herald-Dispatch, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and several other newspapers and a magazine in West Virginia, has new leadership in its news division.

Lee Wolverton, who has worked at newspapers since 1986, has been appointed HD Media’s regional executive editor. He succeeds Les Smith, who is retiring effective May 1 after 49 years as a journalist, as the organization’s top news executive. Smith also served as editor of The Herald-Dispatch.

As HD Media’s new top editor, Wolverton will have responsibility over news operations at the Huntington and Charleston newspapers and their online news sites, as well as the weekly newspapers The Logan Banner, Williamson Daily News, Wayne County News, the Coal Valley News, Putnam Herald and the Lawrence Herald and the bimonthly River Cities Magazine.

He also will replace Smith on HD Media’s Operating Committee, which directs all operations at HD Media’s properties.

As part of the news leadership changes, Wolverton announced that Lauren McGill has been promoted from metro editor to associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch, taking on on-site administrative responsibilities and continuing her duties overseeing daily story planning and managing news staff.

Wolverton also announced that Jim Ross, currently the opinion page editor at The Herald-Dispatch, will continue in that role and add the role of development editor with responsibilities for coaching and guiding news staff in both reporting and writing.

“Lee is the consummate journalist,” said Jim Heady, HD Media’s regional publisher, in announcing Wolverton’s appointment. “He brings a depth of experience and expertise in running newsrooms that few others can match. He is passionate about doing journalism the right way, reporting exhaustively and emphasizing accuracy, fairness and context. That is evident in the body not only of his work as an investigative journalist but in the work of his staffs everywhere he’s been.”

Heady said Smith will be missed.

“Les has enjoyed a remarkable career that’s carried him across the country, from Nebraska to West Virginia,” Heady said. “His knowledge of journalism and news operations has helped guide us in a time of constant change in our industry. He has been a steadying hand that has allowed us to develop talent in our newsrooms and grow our digital audience when others are struggling to attract readership.”

Wolverton began his career with the Beaver County (Pennsylvania) Times. He wrote or worked as a reporter or editor for all of Pittsburgh’s major publications, including The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Pittsburgh Magazine, winning or contributing to regional, state and national awards. His work as an investigative reporter at The (Fort Myers, Florida) News-Press led to the federal conviction of a real estate fraud artist, triggered a Government Accountability Office investigation and exposed massive waste at a regional workforce development agency.

In addition, he has been a top editor at newspapers in five states, including tenures as the executive editor of the Amarillo (Texas) Globe-News, editor of The (Charlottesville, Virginia) Daily Progress and managing editor of The Roanoke (Virginia) Times, guiding each of those dailies to state and national investigative reporting awards. He led Virginia’s smallest seven-day newspaper to two consecutive state public service awards, competing against The Washington Post, Richmond Times-Dispatch and Virginian-Pilot, among others. In Charlottesville, Wolverton hired a photographer who later won a Pulitzer Prize, and reporters working under him there and in Roanoke captured state outstanding journalist awards in three of five years.

“I am excited about the opportunity to lead these outstanding news organizations,” Wolverton said. “The talent and dedication in our newsrooms runs deep. The tradition is rich, and we will be looking to build on it with strong, powerful journalism that makes a difference.”

Smith had been with The Herald-Dispatch since 2007. He served as managing editor until being appointed editor in March 2018. He was named HD Media’s regional executive editor a few months later after HD Media purchased the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

A native of Bismarck, Illinois, Smith is a graduate of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and began his newspaper career in Danville, Illinois, as a reporter. He later served in editing roles in Coffeyville, Kansas; Fremont, Nebraska; and Lansing and Battle Creek, Michigan.

“Working as a journalist has been a great honor, and I very much appreciate the opportunities I’ve had to serve readers in a variety of communities,” Smith said. “Being in Huntington and working with former editor and publisher Ed Dawson continued my education in community journalism, even after many years in the business, and I have been blessed to work with many great people, including my current colleagues in the various HD Media newsrooms and throughout the entire organization.

“I will miss all of them, and wish them the best going forward,” he said.

He and his wife, Holly Wilson Smith, live near Huntington and have four grown children and eight grandchildren.

Wolverton said he was pleased to have McGill and Ross on board in The Herald-Dispatch newsroom.

“We are fortunate to have people with the dedication, skills and expertise needed to fill the immense void left by Les Smith’s retirement,” Wolverton said. “Lauren is a smart, serious journalist who knows her community and her staff, and Jim is a fount of knowledge about both Huntington and the larger region as well as journalism and compelling news writing. Together, they will ensure The Herald-Dispatch not only remains the region’s news leader but continues the pattern of strong growth seen on Les’ watch.”

McGill has worked for newspapers around the state for 15 years, starting out as a reporter, then as a copy editor at The Journal in Martinsburg before advancing to roles on the city desk at the Charleston Daily Mail and then the Charleston Gazette-Mail, now an HD Media publication. She joined the staff of The Herald-Dispatch in 2016. She lives in Huntington with her husband and son.

Ross joined The Herald-Dispatch staff in 1978. From then until 2009 he served in various roles, including reporting and editing. His beats included business, Lawrence County and Huntington and Cabell County government, and he was opinion page editor for about five years. Afterward he was a reporter and managing editor for a weekly business newspaper in Charleston. He rejoined The Herald-Dispatch in late 2018 as opinion page editor. He also is a freelance writer, editor and photojournalist.

Republican-led states signal they could strip workers’ unemployment benefits if they don’t return to work

Iowa, Oklahoma and other states reopening soon amid the coronavirus outbreak are issuing early warnings to their worried workers: Return to your jobs or risk losing unemployment benefits.

The threats have been loudest among Republican leaders in recent days, reflecting their anxious attempts to jump-start local economic recovery roughly two months after most businesses shut their doors. In Iowa, for example, state officials even have posted a public call for companies to get in touch if an “employee refuses to return to work.”

For some states, the concern is that residents who are offered their old jobs back simply may not accept them, choosing instead to continue tapping historically generous unemployment aid. The $2 trillion congressional coronavirus relief package signed by President Donald Trump in March greatly plussed up weekly benefit checks for out-of-work Americans, and some people now may be earning more than they did previously.

Business leaders say they desperately need workers to return to stores, restaurants and other operations to stay afloat financially. Labor activists, however, contend the reality is far more complicated: Some now-unemployed Americans weren’t making much money in the first place, so they may not want to risk their safety just to return to underpaid old gigs.

In the process, some states’ public comments have frustrated federal lawmakers, labor activists and public-health officials, who say that forcing workers to return so quickly might be dangerous — and could undermine the country’s response to the deadly pandemic.

“These states are offering people the choice to endanger your life or starve,” said Damon Silvers, the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO.

Generally, states have the legal right to revoke benefits if unemployed Americans are offered jobs comparable to their past positions yet decline to take them. In response to the coronavirus, regulators also have put in place special exemptions to protect people out of work because they’re sick or caring for family members who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Still, the early threats of enforcement — at a moment when the coronavirus has killed more than 60,000 in the U.S. — have called into question whether some governors are prioritizing economic recovery over public health.

“I would argue having to go back to wait tables during a pandemic might not count as similar working conditions,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. She said workers could challenge such reversals of benefits, but doing so might be tough.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Labor has affirmed the restrictions, even as more than 26 million people are out of work and seeking critical jobless aid. “Barring unusual circumstances,” the agency said in public guidance, “a request that a furloughed employee return to his or her job very likely constitutes an offer of suitable employment that the employee must accept.”

State officials nationwide have echoed that approach, including in West Virginia. Gov. Jim Justice and his health officials this week said if a person is elderly or otherwise at high risk, they should stay home, and encouraged employers to “be smart.” But refusing to return to work and continuing to receive unemployment benefits can be considered fraud, said Scott Adkins, acting WorkForce West Virginia commissioner, in a news release. Refusing an offer at a comparable job could also disqualify a person from benefits.

Iowa also has signaled in recent statements it plans to ramp up its enforcement efforts. Its directive has taken on added significance since Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that could result in meat-processing plants staying open — including those in Iowa where workers recently died of the coronavirus. A spokesman for Iowa’s governor did not respond to a request for comment.

And in Oklahoma, top economic officials even publicly discussed restricting benefits last week in an attempt to get residents back on the job faster. The state is among more than a dozen with a minimum wage of $7.25, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“If there is a claimant out there that says, ‘You know what? I can make more money sitting at home, drawing this extra $600, and some other benefits,’ then if the employer will contact us, that is considered a refusal of civil work and we will cut off their benefits,” said Teresa Thomas Keller, the deputy director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, during the call conducted over Zoom and published online. The Frontier, a Tulsa news outlet, first reported on the meeting.

“I know that’s been a concern,” Keller continued. “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Gee, some of these claimants will be making more money on unemployment than they did while they were working,’ but that will be a temporary situation.”

In response, Sean Kouplen, the state’s secretary of commerce, said it was “the best news that I have heard all day,” adding that he had witnessed such reluctance to work firsthand. “I have a lot of companies, and we’re trying to hire people back. And they’re saying, ‘Nope, we’re good. We’re making plenty of money on the unemployment piece.’ So I really appreciate you saying that.”

Keller later added Oklahoma even could potentially stop sending residents the additional $600 per week in federal unemployment aid authorized under the CARES Act in an attempt to compel people to return to work more quickly. “If it was a huge problem, and we felt like people were taking advantage, we could cut it off,” she said.

Asked about the exchange, Kouplen late Tuesday said that no such policy to cut federal aid dollars is under consideration. Otherwise, he said it is “longstanding practice in Oklahoma, and I’m sure in other states across the country” that if you’re offered re-employment and turn it down then “your unemployment is removed.”

Kouplen himself is a local businessman: He is the chief executive of Regent Bank in Tulsa as well as a local restaurant, which he said recently had to let go a handful of workers — but now is hiring them back with the help of federal small-business funds.

“I’m not personally going to turn in an employee that doesn’t wish to come back,” Kouplen said Tuesday, but still added: “It is a significant issue for employers. It really is; it’s a real issue, and it’s going to be a nationwide issue where employers of entry-level positions are trying to hire people back.”

Top representatives for Oklahoma businesses said Wednesday they share that concern. “In order for the Oklahoma economy to recover, we need those people back in the workforce, we need businesses open,” said Chad Warmington, the president of the State Chamber of Oklahoma.

Warmington cautioned that workers shouldn’t “get a raw deal being forced to go back to work with an unsafe environment and worse pay.” But he added about the recovery effort: “What we don’t want to do is have the federal government have a plan that’s competing with the private sector.”

The potential that people may have their benefits revoked drew sharp rebukes among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, which bolstered unemployment-insurance programs precisely in response to the pandemic. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said the problem began with the fact Republican governors are “casting public health aside and forcing their states to ‘reopen.’”

“Everyone wants to find a new normal and get back to our lives,” he added in a statement, “but pretending the crisis is over when it’s not over will make it much harder to contain the virus and for workers to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.”