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Masks mandated statewide in Ohio starting Thursday evening

HUNTINGTON — Beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday, face masks or coverings will be required to be worn in public spaces across Ohio.

Gov. Mike DeWine announced the new mandate Wednesday afternoon. Masks must be worn in indoor spaces that are not residences, outside when 6 feet of social distance cannot be maintained and when utilizing public transportation. The order requires anyone over the age of 10 wear a mask.

Exceptions will be made for:

  • those with a medical condition or disability or those communicating with someone with a disability;
  • those actively exercising or playing a sport;
  • officiants at religious services;
  • those actively involved in public safety;
  • those actively eating or drinking.

DeWine said masks have made a marked difference in the red "level 3" health emergency category, including Scioto and Athens counties, where masks were already mandated to be worn. He said preliminary data shows the rate of increase in new cases has slowed in those counties. 

More locally, Ironton City Council had voted in a special meeting July 18 to implement a requirement for face coverings to be worn in any public space in the city, by emergency ordinance.

"Wearing masks will make a difference," DeWine said. "It will determine what our fall looks like. We want kids to go back to school, we want to see sports. To do that it's very important that all Ohioans wear a mask."

DeWine also issued a travel advisory, recommending anyone who travels to a state with a positive case rate of 15% or higher to self-quarantine for 14 days. Kentucky issued a similar advisory this week.

"We have heard from multiple local health departments that they are tracing cases related to out-of-state travel," he said. "Trips to states where there are high positivity rates, such as South Carolina and Florida, are leading to outbreaks here in Ohio."

DeWine also reported an outbreak of 19 COVID-19 cases linked to a county fair. He said they want fairs to continue, but stressed the guidelines must be followed.

Wednesday saw the state's second-highest daily increase in positive cases since the pandemic began, with 1,527 new cases reported. Sixteen new deaths were also reported, for a total of 3,235.

The Lawrence County Health Department reported four new cases, two men and two women between the ages of 25-55. There are 80 active cases in the county.

DeWine reported hospitalizations for COVID-19 have continued to increase at a steady rate since the beginning of July. There were 1,098 patients hospitalized Wednesday.

In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice reported data has indicated his mask mandate was working, but it was still too early to tell.

"As I always say, one robin doesn't make spring, and this is one robin right now," he said.

The reproductive rate in the Mountain State is now the 19th highest in the country, dropping down from second last week. In the Tri-State, Ohio has the best rate .98, then West Virginia at 1.09. Kentucky has the third highest in rate in the country at 1.23.

The 102nd death related to COVID-19 in West Virginia was reported Wednesday — a 79-year old man from Fayette County.

There were 262 new positive cases reported.

Total cases per county (case confirmed by lab test/probable case): Barbour (27/0), Berkeley (568/19), Boone (63/0), Braxton (7/0), Brooke (40/1), Cabell (251/9), Calhoun (5/0), Clay (17/0), Fayette (107/0), Gilmer (13/0), Grant (34/1), Greenbrier (81/0), Hampshire (55/0), Hancock (66/4), Hardy (49/1), Harrison (148/1), Jackson (151/0), Jefferson (271/5), Kanawha (584/12), Lewis (24/1), Lincoln (35/0), Logan (53/0), Marion (142/4), Marshall (87/1), Mason (32/0), McDowell (12/0), Mercer (76/0), Mineral (83/2), Mingo (71/2), Monongalia (775/15), Monroe (17/1), Morgan (24/1), Nicholas (22/1), Ohio (210/0), Pendleton (24/1), Pleasants (5/1), Pocahontas (39/1), Preston (93/21), Putnam (126/1), Raleigh (114/4), Randolph (200/3), Ritchie (3/0), Roane (12/0), Summers (2/0), Taylor (34/1), Tucker (7/0), Tyler (10/0), Upshur (32/2), Wayne (164/2), Webster (3/0), Wetzel (41/0), Wirt (6/0), Wood (205/11), Wyoming (12/0).

In Kentucky, the Ashland-Boyd County Health Department reported six new positive cases of COVID-19: a 27-year-old woman, 22-year-old man, 52-year-old woman, a 42-year-old man, a 21-year-old man and 18-year-old man — all isolating at home. There are 36 active cases in county.

Statewide, 518 new positive cases and three new deaths, for a total of 677, were reported. Gov. Andy Beshear reported 13 of the positive cases were children under the age of 5.

Pickleball group reunited after player suffered heart attack, received CPR from friend

HUNTINGTON — On a hot summer morning in late June, Jim Case thought he’d ride home in his vehicle after playing pickleball, but he didn’t.

Tim Breedings didn’t expect to be called a hero at the end of the day, either, but he was.

After playing each other in a match at the Ritter Park pickleball courts, Case went to sit in his lawn chair near the courts. Breedings had crossed the street to use the restroom before returning to the court.

When he came back, the 72-year-old Case was unresponsive and had slumped back in his chair, alarming the others in his group that something was wrong. One witness said his eyes rolled back into his head, and he began convulsing.

That’s when Breedings sprang into action, asking for help in getting Case, who was having a heart attack, to the ground before administering CPR for several minutes before first responders were able to arrive on the scene and take over.

“It’s something that stuck in my mind for several days after. To think if I did the right thing, did I act quick enough, did I do it right,” Breedings said. “I can’t say enough about our first responders and the work that they do. This was a first for me, but they are a special group of people that do this all the time.”

Breedings said that he gone through numerous CPR trainings, but he had never had to use that training until Case collapsed. Huntington Fire Department Chief Jan Rader was one of the first emergency responders on the scene and later returned to update the group on Case’s condition.

“(Rader) said 90 percent of the time when they arrive on the scene, nobody is doing anything. They’re standing there waiting to the ambulance to arrive. By that time it’s too late,” Breedings said. “She said without us, Jim would not have survived.”

Case said he doesn’t remember much about that day or the next week and half he spent in the intensive care unit. But after 23 days in the hospital, he was released and allowed to return home.

“It’s still a blur. My wife has been filling me in on some of the details,” he said. “I remember playing pickleball and the next thing was waking up in the hospital 12 days later.”

“He is a hero,” Jim’s wife, Frances Case, said of Breedings. “I know a lot of those people that he plays with. But he is one of the people that I don’t know. As soon as you’re feeling a little bit better I want to talk to him and thank him personally. If he hadn’t (done CPR) immediately, there would have been no chance Jim would have survived.”

On Tuesday, she got that chance, and Case was able to reunite with his pickleball group for the first time since suffering the heart attack, a moment that he and his wife had looked forward to for many days.

Breedings said he doesn’t see himself as a hero, just someone who took action at the appropriate time, and hopes what happened that day encourages people to enroll in a CPR training course.

“This isn’t about me, but more so for people to see the value in taking the training,” he said. “It’s not that difficult; it can be enjoyable.”

For Case, who is otherwise healthy, what happened that morning at the Ritter Park pickleball courts was something he won’t soon forget. His wife said he didn’t have any pre-existing conditions and that he works out frequently at the Huntington YMCA and plays pickleball twice every week.

She said they are grateful for the prayers, quick response from Breedings and diligent work from the first responders — each of whom played a major role in making sure her husband lived.

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Warner touts auto absentee applications to US Senate committee, but says voters need educated on voting process amid pandemic

CHARLESTON — Access to absentee ballots is “necessary but challenging,” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner told a Congressional committee Wednesday.

Warner was one of four witnesses to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration during a meeting about preparations for the 2020 General Election.

Warner told the committee, which includes Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., that West Virginia had a successful primary election in June by learning key lessons from other states that hosted their elections prior to the Mountain State during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were so successful because we learned from other states that poll worker recruitment was crucial, uniformity is helpful, and absentee mailed ballots are necessary but challenging,” Warner said in his prepared remarks to the committee.

The meeting also included testimony from Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Saint Louis County Election Board Republican Director of Elections Rick Stream, and President and Executive Director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Kristen Clarke.

The testimony and questioning from Senators largely dealt with the challenges some states experienced in operating a safe and fair election during the pandemic and what resources they further needed to make sure the general election in November was also safe and fair.

In March, Gov. Jim Justice issued a State of Emergency declaration that allowed Warner emergency rule-making authority to make it so all West Virginians were eligible to vote absentee due to medical and health issues, if they wanted to vote absentee to limit potential exposure to COVID-19.

Justice also delayed the primary election by about a month, moving it from May 12 to June 9.

During his testimony, Warner said a stay-at-home order from the governor gave him the authority to relax requirements to vote absentee and time to automatically send out absentee ballot applications to registered voters.

Now that the order had been lifted, Warner said county clerks had asked to return to the typical process in which voters request their own absentee ballots.

He did not indicate that there were any changes about voters being able to use the medical exemption to vote absentee during the general election.

“We must now educate voters to changes based on an unpredictable virus,” Warner said.

The committee’s questioning ranged from how much money states needed to purchase protective equipment, cleaning supplies, office supplies and other equipment to make the 2020 general election work during the pandemic.

“Congress must allocate at least an additional $3.6 billion needed to supplement the $400 million in funding previously allocated in the CARES Act,” Clarke said during her testimony.

West Virginia received a little more than $3.7 million from the CARES Act to conduct it’s election. A total of $400 million was allocated as emergency election funds made available to states through the guidelines of the Help America Vote Act, referred to as HAVA during the committee meeting.

Warner told the committee that Congress had gotten funding calculations for West Virginia “just about right.”

About $1.6 million of West Virginia’s allocation went toward the primary election, leaving the state $2.1 million to use for the general election, Warner told the committee.

As of Wednesday, 34 of West Virginia’s 55 counties had been approved for more than $1.1 million in reimbursements through the CARES Act, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

West Virginia did not experience issues including those of other states on election day, including hours’ long lines at polling places and shortages of volunteer poll workers.

Recruiting poll workers does remain a challenge, Warner said.

In her testimony, Clarke told the committee that $1.4 billion of the proposed $3.6 billion would be required to print ballots, pay postage, set up drop boxes, and process and track ballots for the estimated mail-in absentee voting process nationwide during the general election.

Approximately 450,909 West Virginians voted in the 2020 primary election, according to a report on the primary election from the Secretary of State’s Office. That’s about 36.7% of the state’s eligible voters who participated in the election.

Of those more than 450,000 voters, 49.9% of ballots were cast through the mail via West Virginia’s absentee voting process, and 40% of voters cast their ballots in-person on election day. Another 9.4% voted in person during the state’s 10-day early voting period.

Warner told the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., that West Virginia offered more ways to vote than any other state, saying it is “easier to vote and harder to cheat than ever before.”

He said no cases of COVID-19 in West Virginia had been traced back to any in-person polling locations during the primary election.

Senate GOP struggles to finalize $1 trillion coronavirus bill

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans struggled to finalize a $1 trillion coronavirus relief bill Wednesday, confronting internal divisions and continued White House demands for a payroll tax cut that most lawmakers oppose.

Several lawmakers speculated openly that they might be unable to make any deal with Democrats at all, suggesting the possible need for a stand-alone extension of unemployment benefits that expire at the end of this month.

Lawmakers and aides emphasized that their intention was to negotiate and pass a deal with Democrats in the next several weeks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is readying a bill as a starting point for talks that he had hoped to release as early as Wednesday, though that timeline slipped to Thursday as internal negotiations bogged down.

In one sign of progress, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows announced an agreement with key senators late Wednesday on certain spending priorities in the bill. As part of this, senators agreed to $16 billion for testing and tracing — down from $25 billion they had initially sought — after administration officials argued that $9 billion remained unspent in a federal fund. Administration officials had initially sought to zero out the testing funding.

But the internal divisions over multiple other issues, from the payroll tax cut to whether a new bill is even necessary, led to pessimistic forecasts from some.

“I’d say it’s gonna be tough,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “There are some over here that think we benefit from doing nothing because people don’t want to spend any more money.”

Cramer said he thought it was possible that even if they succeed in overcoming their internal differences, Republicans would be unable to bridge the “pretty big gap” with Democrats, who’ve embraced a $3 trillion bill containing multiple priorities Republicans oppose, such as a large package of aid for cities and states, among other things.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other administration officials insist they must act by the end of next week because enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire for millions of Americans. McConnell has dismissed that timeline as unrealistic but is working to unveil his bill so that negotiations with Democrats can commence.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said lawmakers may consider a two-month extension in emergency unemployment benefits at a level below the current $600-per-week subsidy if they are unable to come to an agreement on the broader $1 trillion stimulus package. Portman suggested the extension could be used to give lawmakers time to create an unemployment system more closely tied to a worker’s prior earnings.

“I think we should do the whole thing, but if we can’t get it all done by next week we cannot allow there to be a cliff in unemployment insurance given that we’re still at about 11 percent unemployment,” Portman said. “I think we need to do something and the interim period we can have a compromise.”

The enhanced benefits were passed as part of the Cares Act in March, one of four pieces of legislation Congress approved nearly unanimously at the outset of the pandemic. Those laws injected nearly $3 trillion into the economy but many of their benefits, such as stimulus checks and small business loans, have been spent. For some, that spirit of urgency has waned, while others are simply divided on what are the best steps to take next.

“There’s not going to be unanimity,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “So, as you know it doesn’t take unanimity pass a bill.”

Senate Republicans have a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and there’s little chance the legislation they are currently crafting would be able to secure the 60 votes needed to proceed to a final vote. But emerging from the discussions with a formal plan would give them a starting point to begin negotiations with House Democrats.

Whether to include a payroll tax cut remained a critical outstanding question Wednesday, a day after Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows encountered a barrage of criticism on the issue during a private lunch with GOP senators on Capitol Hill. A handful of other items remained unsettled, too, but the contours of much of the legislation has come into focus over the past several days.

McConnell has said it would include $105 billion for education. Of that money, $70 billion will go to elementary and secondary schools, according to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. The $70 billion will be split into two pots, with half of it going to all schools through grants, and the other half reserved for schools that submit a reopening plan and can then use the funds for costs associated with reopening, according to a person familiar with the proposal who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe it.

Reopening schools has become a major focus for President Donald Trump that’s sparked a heated debate nationwide with coronavirus cases spiking and some major school districts announcing plans to start the fall with virtual learning only. In Florida, the teachers’ union sued the governor over his plans to reopen schools.

The GOP plan is not expected to include much if any new state and local aid, but will allow state and local leaders flexibility with how they spend the $150 billion already allocated in the Cares Act in March. It will include around $100 billion in additional funding for the small-business Paycheck Protection Program, targeted for businesses that can demonstrate need.

The GOP legislation will also include about $25 billion for states to conduct coronavirus testing and tracing, and billions more for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. The Trump administration had initially sought to block this spending, but backed down under pressure from Blunt and other key senators.

Republicans also want to include new legal protections for businesses that would make it harder for employees to sue their employers if they become sick.

McConnell has said the package will include another round of direct stimulus payments to individuals. Treasury previously sent out $1,200 stimulus payments to everyone earning under $75,000 per year. Republican lawmakers have eyed lowering that threshold in the next stimulus package, but leading GOP lawmakers — including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. — have suggested that they may simply follow the model for stimulus payments in the Cares Act.

“If the parameters stayed the same, we could do it really quickly,” Thune said, although aides said the issue remained unsettled.

A major area dividing lawmakers was the question of what to do with the expiring unemployment benefits. Some Republicans want to cut the $600-per-week benefit approved by Congress in March to around $200-per-week.

Those benefits are set to expire for between 20 million and 30 million people by the end of the month.

At a closed-door lunch on Wednesday, GOP senators were shown polling from a group called the Foundation for Government Accountability, invited by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, suggesting public opposition to extending the enhanced unemployment benefit at its current level.

At a White House press briefing on Tuesday, Trump floated changing the unemployment benefits so they amount to about 70% of a typical worker’s income while he or she was employed — which translates into cutting the extra benefit to about $175-per-week, according to Ernie Tedeschi, who served as an economist in the Treasury Department under the Obama administration. The federal unemployment benefit comes on top of existing state unemployment benefits that vary widely.

”If they lowered it to $200 a week, 30 million workers would wake up with a pay cut from a third to a half overnight,” Tedeschi said. “While $200 is marginally better than full expiration, the U.S. would still take a major economic hit from this summer and this fall as a result from it.”

U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.33 percentage points smaller at the end of the year under Trump’s proposal than if extended at $600-per-week for the rest of the year, Tedeschi said, as well as more than 1 million fewer jobs because of the contraction in spending.

Republican lawmakers have also looked at a short-term unemployment extension as part of the broader package, rather than a separate measure, according to one person aware of internal planning granted anonymity to discuss private conversations. If included in the broader stimulus package, that measure could include a two-month extension of unemployment only slightly below current rates before fading out over time.

If the payroll tax cut is included, it is expected to defer rather than eliminate the 7.65 percent tax employees pay, which goes to support the Social Security and Medicare programs. That would allow the proposal to technically not add to the cost of the bill. Workers might have to repay the money at a later date, but Congress could also decide to waive that entirely.

Trump views the payroll tax cut as a good way to stimulate the economy and help workers, but GOP senators have raised multiple objections, including that it only benefits those with jobs, the benefit will not be immediately felt, and it will drain the already shaky Medicare and Social Security trust funds.