MORGANTOWN — Much of Gov. Jim Justice’s Friday coronavirus press briefing focused on the state budget, but he and COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh did offer a couple bits of advice as the state progresses into The Comeback Plan.
As churches prepare to resume services on May 10, Justice highlighted one point from the religious entities and funeral home guidance his office has issued.
The guidance encourages those age 65 and older to continue to stay home and find an alternate means to join in worship, such as online; or for churches to offer services exclusively for seniors. Justice repeated that encouragement on Friday, saying seniors should strongly consider staying home a while longer in order to stay safe.
Marsh said he wanted to add one item to the Safer at Home order that takes effect Monday and replaces the stay-at-home order now in place. While it’s not in Safer at Home, Marsh urged everyone who goes out to wear a mask or face covering.
People may assume that because the numbers good and the infection rate is low, people will wrongly presume they’re safe. But the virus is still out there, people are still dying. Many people are unprotected and lack immunity.
Masks, he said again, protect us by preventing us from touching our noses and mouths after we touch potentially infected surfaces, and protect us to some degree from airborne droplets containing the virus.
But more important, he said, masks protect others from us if we are infected and don’t know it; 70% of those who have the disease don’t know they have it or show no symptoms.
Justice talked about and fielded questions on the budget shortfall, stemming from the lack of income tax revenue and general economic slowdown caused by the virus.
Of the revenue numbers, he said, “They’re terrible. We expected them to be terrible.”
Year-to-date revenue collections are $3.69 billion, he said, putting the state $198.7 million below estimates. The shortfall cold approach $500 million by the end of June, which is the end of Fiscal Year 2020. Worst case scenario, if the economy remains stagnant, the hole could hit $700 million by the end of September, which is the end of the first quarter of 2021.
But he remains optimistic, he said, that the federal government will come through and rewrite the CARES Act rules to allow a portion of the $1.25 billion the state has sitting in a bank account to be used to backfill the hole. We’re not like other states, he said, who irresponsibly want to use it to fund depleted unemployment or retirement funds; our need stems from the economic damage caused by the virus.
While we wait, he said in answer to a question, he’s confident the state can pay its bill through June 10.
The state Senate Democrats sent Justice a letter or Friday calling on him to call a special session to devote $500 million of the CARES money to small businesses that have been unable to secure Paycheck Protection Program money to stat afloat.
Justice said he’s aware of the request and is open to ideas from everyone, from both sides of the political aisle. But at this point, if they do that, and send $500 million to the counties and cities, the state will be bankrupt.
So he wants to wait on the CARES rules to be finalized and all the data to be in. “Then we’re going to make good decisions. … We’ve got to be really smart in what we’re doing.”
It’s premature, he said, to make spending plans now. “There’s no point in everybody scrambling around and try to run for the cheese yet.”
Asked about a special session if no relief is in sight by June, he said, “You’re dad gum right they’ll be back.”
Through a series of executive orders, Justice designated 11 counties with high coronavirus case numbers – including Monongalia and Marion – as hot spots, with additional restrictions, such as gatherings limited to five people. With Safer at Home set to take effect, Justice said they will release additional guidelines for those over the weekends and he may consider taking some off of the list.
Friday morning’s coronavirus numbers from the Department of Health and Human Resources were 1,151 positive cases out of 47,062 test results, a 2.45% rate. The number of deaths climbed from 41 on Thursday to 47 Friday.
“I just hate it; I realty, really the it,” Justice said.
Alluding to the belief that warmer weather and increased sunlight exposure can help curb the growth and spread of the virus, he said, “May is here, and hopefully the rain is going to stop. We want the sun to shine and the temperatures to go up, and that’s hopefully going to help us with this virus.”
But reflecting again on the deaths, he said, “There’s nothing good about sitting here and telling you we’ve lost five West Virginians. Nothing about that is good in any way.”
But that state still needs to reopen, he said. If it stays closed, the toll could be far worse in suicides and drug overdoses.
DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said those who need mental health support during this time can call the hotline as 844-435-7498 (844-HELP4WV) or find additional resources at coronavirus.wv.gov.
Crouch had planned to give a comprehensive update on the statewide nursing home testing on Friday, but said that will come next week. The last of 123 homes was tested Friday and not all results were in.
Justice fielded a couple questions from The Dominion Post that were forwarded by readers.
One dealt with CARES Act Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds for gig workers,self employed and contract workers. Readers who’ve had no income for weeks have been unable to get through or answers about when their money will come. Justice didn’t have much information on this, saying only that to his knowledge they have 100 people answering calls and every call has been answered.
The other dealt with high school graduation ceremonies. Some said they aren’t clear if the state school board or the county health department would have to approve those plans. Justice didn’t have an answer on that, either, but said he hopes schools will consider postponing ceremonies until summer when it might be safer to gather.
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