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Justice provides clarification on timeline to reopen businesses

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Tuesday provided some clarification on his timeline to reopen businesses.

Justice unveiled his plan to reopen businesses over several weeks Monday morning. The phased-in approach will begin after three consecutive days of the percentage of positive tests per tests taken is under 3%.

On Tuesday, Justice said Week 1 has already begun, despite the benchmark not yet being met. Week 1 includes measures the governor had already approved, including restarting elective procedures at hospitals. He said once the state hits the benchmark, the rest of Week 1 will move forward — health care facilities including physical therapy, primary care and mental health, and testing of day-care center staff.

Monday was Day 1 toward the three-day benchmark, and as of 5 p.m., Tuesday was trending to be Day 2 at 2.64%. If Wednesday’s percentage is below 3% at the end of the day, Thursday will see the rest of Week 1. Subsequent weeks will begin on Mondays.

This means by Monday, May 4, hair salons, outdoor seating at restaurants and small businesses with less then 10 employees could open their doors back up. It is the discretion of business owners to reopen; it is not mandatory.

Businesses that open will need to maintain social distancing standards for employees and customers. Barriers are encouraged where possible. Face masks or coverings are highly recommended for all.

Justice said all measures could be halted, reversed or changed should there be a surge in community spread of the virus, an unexpected increase in positive cases or if the percentage surges above 3%.

Dr. Clay Marsh, state COVID-19 czar, said he believes this is a good window for the state to reopen based on the percentage of positives along with the rate of spread from person to person. He said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both said rate of spread is a measure they are closely following.

“These instructions are not rigid linear requirements,” Marsh said. “They are advisements and guidelines to open. We are watching things closely at the county level and state level. Our flattening the curve took a really rapid time frame of people getting sick and extended that time frame much longer, which gave us time to get prepared better. But we still need to protect ourselves, and we know wearing a mask outside is a good way to do that.”

The 38th death related to COVID-19 was announced Tuesday, a 50-year-old woman from Jackson County, along with 18 new positive cases for a total of 1,095.

Confirmed cases by county are: Barbour (four), Berkeley (141), Boone (two), Braxton (two), Brooke (three), Cabell (41), Fayette (12), Gilmer (two), Grant (one), Greenbrier (three), Hampshire (seven), Hancock (eight), Hardy (four), Harrison (30), Jackson (129), Jefferson (77), Kanawha (157), Lewis (four), Lincoln (one), Logan (12), Marion (45), Marshall (11), Mason (12), McDowell (six), Mercer (nine), Mineral (15), Mingo (two), Monongalia (103), Monroe (five), Morgan (nine), Nicholas (six), Ohio (26), Pendleton (three), Pleasants (two), Pocahontas (two), Preston (13), Putnam (22), Raleigh (eight), Randolph (four), Roane (four), Summers (one), Taylor (six), Tucker (four), Tyler (three), Upshur (four), Wayne (84), Wetzel (three), Wirt (three), Wood (39) and Wyoming (one).

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, there have been 41,526 laboratory results received for COVID-19, with 40,431 negative. Tuesday’s overall lab result figure is 2,796 less than what was reported Monday. Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said the discrepancy is from the state removing duplicate figures after all labs started sending data electronically. He said some numbers were also sent by fax, resulting in duplication.

Testing capabilities are increasing, Marsh said, as well as contact tracing abilities, which will be important moving forward with reopening. DHHR and West Virginia University are offering a 14-hour training course for health professional volunteers to learn how to do contact tracing.

Justice also announced the Federal Emergency Management Agency funded the purchase of an N95 mask sanitizer for the state, which can sanitize up to 80,000 masks a day.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine also clarified his plans to reopen businesses. The governor had made wearing masks for employees and the general public mandatory Monday, but Tuesday said it was only for employees after hearing the mandate was “offensive” to some. He still said it was in the best interest of everyone to wear a mask.

DeWine announced 444 new cases of COVID-19, for a total of 16,769, and 799 deaths.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear provided 10 rules for reopening businesses, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. The rules include universal mask wearing, onsite temperature checks, limiting face-to-face meetings and having a testing plan.

Beshear announced 230 new cases of COVID-19, for a total of 4,375, and 225 deaths.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the U.S. is approaching 1 million cases of COVID-19, with 981,246 confirmed cases reported as of Tuesday. There have been 55,258 deaths in the U.S. related to the virus.

Hurricane High seniors participate in drive-in cap and gown photo shoot

HURRICANE, W.Va. — The Class of 2020 at Hurricane High School will be honored with signs lining the road leading up to the school next month, paid for by donations from the community.

Students participated in a drive-in cap and gown photo shoot Tuesday afternoon, and the photos, taken by Cindy Lewis, will be printed on the signs.

Coordinators asked students to be ready to exit their vehicle to have their picture taken and immediately return to their car afterward to keep the process moving and adhere to social distancing guidelines.

A makeup day for students who were unable to attend is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday, April 30.

The decision regarding alternative graduation plans for Hurricane and Putnam County’s three other high schools has not yet been released.

Ohio primary a major test for mail-in voting

After a delay from its original election date, Ohio held its primary election almost entirely by mail in what could be a model for the rest of the nation in November.

The contest is a canary in the coal mine for more than a dozen states still planning presidential and state primaries this year. They’re aiming for either a fully vote-by-mail election or for far more ballots than usual to be cast by mail. Tuesday’s contest also likely will guide officials as they plan for November’s presidential election, which could be similarly restricted by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Ohio aimed to be a counterpoint to Wisconsin, where the Republican-led Legislature blocked Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ efforts to delay the April 7 primary contest, resulting in thousands of people not receiving absentee ballots and blocks-long lines outside polling places on Election Day. At least 40 Milwaukee residents who stood in line or worked the polls have since tested positive.

The primary also takes place as New York, which has been ravaged by the coronavirus, on Monday canceled its primary.

“What I saw from the outside looking in in Wisconsin looked very chaotic and candidly dangerous to me,” Ohio Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose said. “I would not want that scenario in Ohio, and I think we’ve taken the right steps to prevent it.”

Nearly 2 million Ohioans requested mail-in ballots and about 1.5 million cast those ballots, according to state figures prior to the rescheduled primary election day.

That’s a greater than 400% increase over absentee voting in the 2016 primary and basically on par with the total number of votes cast in the 2018 primary elections, according to numbers maintained by LaRose’s office. While former vice president Joe Biden has effectively wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination, Ohio’s ballot includes several congressional and local races that are still contested.

Results from Lawrence County were unavailable at press time Tuesday.

That should be a lesson for other states that voting by mail is likely to surge in November — even if they don’t do anything to promote it, Marian Schneider, president of the voting security group Verified Voting and a former state election official in Pennsylvania, said.

It means states and counties should begin buying up tools such as industrial scanners and mail sorters they’ll need for a big increase in mail-in ballots, she said. They should also begin to ink new contracts for printing those ballots, she said.

Those moves will be especially important for states where only a small percentage of people typically vote by mail or normally require an excuse such as illness or travel for absentee voting but plan to loosen restrictions during the pandemic.

Republican election officials in states including Ohio, Iowa and West Virginia have embraced mail voting during the primaries as a solution to ensure voters can cast ballots without risking their health during the pandemic.

States should also consider sending ballots directly to registered voters rather than having them request ballots, Schneider said.

“There’s enormous interest in mail voting, and it will be smoother if they spend the time ramping up,” she said.

Ohio has also faced obstacles as it geared up for its primary. Notably, the U.S. Postal Service had to make a series of last-minute upgrades to ensure a large number of requested ballots aren’t stuck in transit on Election Day.

LaRose expected a small number of people who didn’t yet receive their absentee ballots to cast provisional votes at in-person polling sites Tuesday.

The Ohio Legislature also rejected a plan from LaRose that would have delayed the election until June 2 and sent all registered voters a form to request an absentee ballot. Instead, the state sent registered voters a postcard outlining how to request a mail-in ballot.

LaRose says he hopes more Ohioans can vote in person in November. But he plans to be prepared for another all-mail contest.

He will present plans to the governor and Legislature in the next few weeks for how that can happen. The plans will include allowing voters to request mail voting forms and verify their identities online, and to mail absentee request forms with postage-paid envelopes to all the state’s registered voters.

“A lot of things about this primary election are not ideal, but given the circumstances I think we’ll be able to say we ran an election that was fair, accessible and secure,” he said. “Leaders across the world right now are making choices between bad and worse outcomes. For November, there are a variety of things I hope we can do better.”

Moody’s: Coronavirus impact will send W.Va. revenue collection plunging

CHARLESTON — West Virginia stands to be one of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus-driven economic slowdown, according to COVID-19 stress test projections conducted by Moody’s Analytics.

If the economic downturn caused by business closures and cutbacks in response to the coronavirus continues into the third quarter of 2020 (July to September), West Virginia revenue collection is projected to fall 39.4% — a loss of $1.876 billion of a $4.57 billion state budget.

That, coupled with an increase in Medicaid costs as more West Virginians go on the state-managed health care plan for the poor, disabled and elderly, could leave the state with a $1.98 billion budget shortfall, Moody’s concluded. That would amount to a 41.7% decline.

West Virginia would be the fourth hardest-hit state by percentage of lost revenue, the study found.

The top five hardest-hit states — Alaska, Louisiana, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming — are all major energy producers, a common thread that Dan White, director of Moody’s Analytics, said is not surprising.

“The reason that energy states see such a large decline in revenues is because of the continued lack of demand for natural resources resulting from COVID-19,” he said Tuesday. “Everything from oil to coal has been hit very hard, and the states you mention rely on energy prices for a large portion of their overall general fund revenues.”

Moody’s analyzed potential state revenue losses using two scenarios: one, a moderate stress scenario that projects a deep recession for the first six months of this year, followed by a modest recovery in the second half of the year. That model assumes that unemployment peaks at 13%, with a GDP decline of 10%.

In that case, the stress test projects that state tax revenue will drop 28.2%, for a loss of $1.34 billion, while Medicaid costs increase by 2%, or $493.48 million, for a total budget shortfall of $1.436 billion.

The second scenario, which is more severe — and increasingly more likely — presumes that travel and business restrictions linger into the third quarter of 2020, with peak unemployment of 17% and a drop in GDP of 14%.

Overall, the report notes, “The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is set to impose incredible stress on state government budgets. This stress will be enough to outmatch even some of the most well-prepared states, and the potential fiscal actions that policymakers may be forced to take in response will have significant consequences for the U.S. economy.”

One encouraging takeaway, the analysis found, is that many states have built up Rainy Day reserve funds, including 17 states with balances large enough to “absorb the unprecedented levels of economic stress estimated in our baseline with relatively minor fiscal difficulty.”

White said energy-producing states generally maintain large Rainy Day funds, relative to their general revenue budgets.

“The upside to this is that these states are typically very prepared for such downturns, because they have seen these levels of volatility in the past,” he said. “That’s why, even though they see tremendous levels of stress, they usually come out ahead in our stress test rankings.”

Moody’s noted that West Virginia has Rainy Day fund balances equal to 15.8% of its general revenue budget and total fund balances equal to 26.7%, among the larger cash reserves by percentage nationally.

However, with stress testing projecting a 30.2% shortfall in the moderate scenario and a 41.7% shortfall in the severe scenario, West Virginia projects to have the 13th- to fifth-worst budget shortfalls, respectively, as a result of the economic slowdown, even with the Rainy Day funds.

State government officials have projected a budget shortfall of at least $350 million by June 30, although Gov. Jim Justice indicated Friday that April revenue collection is not down as much as originally projected, since several manufacturers and other essential businesses have continued to operate during the coronavirus shutdown.