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Justice accelerates reopenings, announces dates for malls, bars, casinos, LVL to restart

Gov. Jim Justice on Monday announced a rapid acceleration of his multi-week plan to bring West Virginia back online, announcing reopenings of shopping malls, bars, casinos, Limited Video Lottery, museums and other entities between Thursday and June 5.

“We have got to open ourselves back up,” Justice said during his daily state COVID-19 briefing.

Justice announced that indoor shopping malls will be permitted to reopen on Thursday, the date he previously had announced permission for freestanding specialty retailers to reopen.

Last week, the governor’s general counsel, Brian Abraham, said malls would not reopen when big-box stores, specialty retail and mall anchor stores with exterior entrances could open on Thursday, as people continued to come up with ways to control ingress and egress to enclosed malls.

Justice also announced a number of businesses and activities that may restart during Week 5 of the multi-week phase-in of reopenings.

Effective May 26, the following businesses may reopen:

  • Bars, with indoor and outdoor seating limited to 50 percent of capacity. Justice previously announced that indoor dine-in restaurants may reopen this Thursday, also at 50 percent capacity but with bar areas remaining closed.

State Parks cabins and lodges, for in-state residents only. State Parks campgrounds will reopen Thursday, also for in-state resi

  • dents only.
  • Museums, visitor centers and zoos.

Justice also announced that Limited Video Lottery at bars and clubs around the state will restart May 30, with the state’s five casinos authorized to reopen June 5.

With casinos, bars and clubs ordered closed on March 18, West Virginia Lottery gross revenue for March plunged 46%, dropping from $110.03 million in March 2019 to $59.01 million.

April gross revenue, to be disclosed later this month, is expected to fall to $15 million to $17 million, as casinos and LVL were shutdown for the entire month, leaving revenue essentially only from traditional scratch-off and online game ticket sales.

Randy Burnside, the state Lottery’s spokesman, said Monday afternoon that the Lottery Commission has not yet released guidance to casinos and LVL operators on how to maintain social distancing after reopening.

Also on May 30, Justice said spas and massage parlors may reopen.

Justice and Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar, stressed the need to continue social distancing and hygiene as the state comes back online, including wearing face coverings in situations where social distancing is not possible.

“As we come back together again, as we open our vital businesses, and also as we reopen businesses that give our people a pleasurable life, this is when we are at the risk of the highest spread,” Marsh said.

“Please be very cautious in what you do. We’ve got to crawl before we run,” Justice said, adding, “West Virginia, wear your masks.”

Governor opens whitewater rafting in time to capture outfitters' peak summer season

FAYETTEVILLE — For West Virginia’s whitewater outfitters in the New River Gorge area, this weekend’s reopening of the state’s rafting season is eliciting elevated adrenaline levels and sighs of relief.

Although commercial rafting under new regulations designed to deter the spread of COVID-19 may resume as early as Thursday under guidelines announced last week by Gov. Jim Justice, most outfitters are planning on a Friday reopening date.

Those booking trips with outfitters operating on the New and Gauley rivers this summer can expect the same level of excitement that’s drawn people to guided descents of the fabled whitewater streams for more than 50 years. What will be different this summer are a variety of COVID-19 safety enhancements and several new trip options that enhance social distancing.

Only a relative few early season trips had been run on the New River by late April, when the plug was pulled on commercial rafting activity in the state for an indefinite period in deference to social distancing needs brought on by the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival.

Instead of taking reservations and running trips, outfitters have been issuing refunds or rain checks, not knowing when, or even if, the 2020 season would resume.

“We ran our first rafting trip the week before we had to shut down,” said Hayes Mansfield, marketing director for ACE Adventure Resort near Oak Hill.

Between then and last week’s announcement on the whitewater season’s resumption, “our reservations were down about 60% from what they should be,” Mansfield said. “Guests want to be sure we will be open when they plan to be here.”

In early May, outfitters watched their cash-flow charts begin to assume a downstream-only pattern, while the coronavirus showed no sign of abating. The need to have a reopening plan ready for consideration when the governor’s “West Virginia Strong” outdoor recreation phase-in rolled around soon became evident.

“If we can get rafting open by Memorial Day, or at least by the first or second week in June, we can still have a season,” Roger Wilson, CEO of Fayetteville’s Adventures on the Gorge, said the week before Justice’s announcement.

“The period between Memorial Day and Labor Day is what our company depends on to be successful,” Mansfield said. “It’s when about 90% of our business takes place.”

Being open during that peak period, he said, “gives us a chance to have a reasonably normal season.”

Last week, West Virginia Tourism officials hosted a teleconference with outfitters, regional tourism board directors and others to hash out the framework of a plan for reopening the whitewater season in the safest manner possible.

“The outfitters had worked together to come up with a plan that identified what they thought to be the best and safest practices” for reopening, said Lisa Strader, director of Visit Southern West Virginia. Many of their recommendations were included in the governor’s guide to reopening whitewater rafting, she said.

COVID-19 precautions in place for the state’s summer whitewater season include:

  • A maximum of six guests and one guide are allowed on each raft.
  • All guests in each raft mu
  • st be friends or family who live together or traveled together (or both) to arrive at their outfitters’ locations. If fewer than six people are included in such groups, customers from other families or travel groups may not be added to create a full raft.
  • Customers and employees must wear cloth or disposable face masks while on shuttle buses to and from launch and take-out sites. Outfitters are encouraged to provide masks for guests who did not bring them. Masks should be worn by guests and employees alike “where safe and practical to do so.” The last face mask rule gives guides the option of removing masks if they interfere with guests being able to hear and understand paddling commands.
  • Windows must be open during shuttle runs, and seating will be limited to 18 people per 55-seat bus to accommodate social distancing between groups.
  • Customers must remain on their buses until it is time for their group to board and launch rafts. Outfitters must make a coordinated effort to stagger the loading and offloading of rafts to maintain social distancing.
  • Check-in and payment processing should take place outdoors, wherever possible.
  • Traditional buffet-style lunches at stops along the river will be replaced by individually packaged lunches.

Employees taking reservation information for area whitewater outfitters are urging those traveling to the New River Gorge area to encourage friends and family members to accompany them.

“Forty percent of our reservations for New River Gorge trips involve groups of two,” Mansfield said. Groups of four to six clients per raft are needed to make trips viable for outfitters. One alternative, Mansfield said, is booking an inflatable kayak, or duckie, trip on the Upper New.

“I’ve heard that most of the people have been calling back with groups of four or more,” Strader said. “I don’t think it will be much of an issue.”

Adventures on the Gorge is offering a new Gauley Loop overnight trip this summer, covering a 2-mile narrow bend of the Gauley River that includes four major rapids — Back Ender, Koontz Flume, Canyon Doors and Junkyard. Depending on water levels, the rapids can be run from three to six times each day.

Adventures also is offering trips on the New River Dries between the Cotton Hill Wildlife Management Area and Gauley Bridge, and family friendly duckie trips on the Upper New that include a stopover for a brief hike and a dip in a waterfall-equipped swimming hole on Glade Creek.

All outfitters that offered summer trips on the New and Gauley rivers last year will offer them again starting this weekend. Wilson and Mansfield said they expect outfitting for the fall Gauley River whitewater season to be similar to previous years, only with smaller group and trip sizes.

“The outfitters and the businesses that benefit from people who come here to raft are really excited to get the whitewater season back online,” Strader said. “Our region’s economy is heavily based in tourism, and this gives people a cause for some optimism.”

But it’s a cautious optimism, Strader said.

“We also need to think about the health of the local people,” she said. “We want to have a cautious reopening — a comeback that’s safe for everyone.”

Report: $500B Treasury fund for coronavirus relief has lent barely any money

A $500 billion Treasury Department fund created by the CARES Act in March to help stabilize the economy has lent barely any money, according to an initial report issued by a Congressional Oversight Commission created by the law.

The money was supposed to be used to help prop up large segments of the U.S. economy at a time when millions of Americans had lost their jobs or were ordered to work remotely. The Treasury Department has speedily implemented other parts of the CARES Act, but its work on the $500 billion fund has so far led to little action at a time when a growing number of firms are seeking bankruptcy protection and continuing to lay off employees.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell are expected to be asked about the law’s economic impact when they testify before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday.

The Congressional Oversight Commission was created by the law to help oversee how the taxpayer money is being used, and the group issued its first report Monday, even though it still does not have a leader. That person must be appointed jointly by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

They still haven’t agreed on an appointment — an example of how oversight of the trillions of dollars Congress approved to fight the coronavirus is getting off to a slow start.

However, the commission has four other members who were appointed individually by congressional leaders, and they produced the 17-page report that contains mostly questions about how the Treasury fund is going to function.

The report describes the lending facilities the Treasury Department has created to operate through the Federal Reserve, and says that only one of them has received funding. It is called the Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility and is supposed to purchase corporate debt. It has received $37.5 billion.

The $500 billion Treasury fund also set aside $46 billion to make loans and loan guarantees to the airline industry. None of that money has been disbursed. Although the White House and numerous states are pushing forward with efforts to reopen parts of the economy, the severe economic trauma caused in the past two months has dealt a heavy blow to a large number of businesses and workers. A growing number of businesses, particularly those that rely on direct customer interaction, have closed and are not expected to reopen. And others have expressed frustration about the changing terms of government aid programs.

The Treasury Department has announced five lending facilities to disburse other portions of the money, including a Main Street Lending Program that is supposed to help small and medium-sized businesses.

The report describes how, even before any money from the Main Street program has been lent, the terms of the program already have evolved. The changes include increasing the size of loans, eliminating a requirement that companies have to attest they need money “due to the exigent circumstances presented by” the novel coronavirus, and modifying a requirement that companies make “reasonable efforts” to maintain payroll and retain employees during the term of a loan. Instead, they will be required to make “commercially reasonable efforts” to do so.

The report poses questions to the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, including asking about risk to taxpayers and how the agencies will assess success or failure of its programs.

There also is a Municipal Liquidity Facility that is supposed to loan money to state and local governments, an issue that has been the topic of intense debate on Capitol Hill and at the White House. The CARES Act allocated a separate $150 billion pot for state and local governments, but governors and Democrat lawmakers have been petitioning for more.

The Treasury intends to invest $35 billion in the Municipal Liquidity Facility, which can support up to $500 billion in lending, the report says. But none of that money has gone out yet. The report also specifically asks when the Main Street and Municipal Liquidity Facilities will begin to function.

The Treasury Department had no comment Monday on the report.

The report underscores the wide discretion the Treasury Department has in using the $500 billion in taxpayer money as it sees fit. Congressional Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who headed a similar oversight commission after the 2008 financial crisis bailout, have criticized the money as a “slush fund” for corporations.

The commission consists of four members: Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., who was appointed by Pelosi; Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., appointed by McConnell; Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., appointed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; and Bharat Ramamurti, a former Warren adviser appointed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The fifth member is supposed to be the chairman, appointed jointly by Pelosi and McConnell.

Aides to Pelosi and McConnell had no update Monday on when that appointment will be made. They appear to have made little progress toward filling the job in the nearly eight weeks since the CARES Act passed.

The Congressional Oversight Commission is one of a series of overlapping oversight mechanisms created by the CARES Act and separately by Congress, all of which have gotten off to a slow start. The CARES Act also created a special inspector general position to oversee the $500 billion Treasury Fund, but the Senate has not yet confirmed the man named to fill that role.

Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act in late March as a way to try to soften the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The CARES Act had many components, and the $500 billion Treasury fund is just one piece of the law.

Mnuchin and other senior officials have worked aggressively to stand up the legislation’s Paycheck Protection Program, which is being run jointly with the Small Business Administration. That program is not covered by the $500 billion fund that was the focus of the commission’s report on Monday.

The Treasury also has sent out checks of up to $1,200 each to about 140 million households. Separately, the CARES Act provided for an extension of unemployment benefits. More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus hit.

The $500 billion Treasury fund was seen as a key part of the law, though, because it gave the Trump administration ample flexibility to target money into parts of the economy that appeared to be in the most immediate need of help. Some Trump administration officials believe the fund’s very existence has helped calm financial markets, because it has made clear that money is available if it should become necessary, a viewpoint the commission report concurs with.

The report comes as congressional Democrats and Republicans are sparring over the next steps in responding to the pandemic. Congress has approved four bipartisan bills totaling nearly $3 trillion in spending to address the economic ravages of the pandemic.

On Friday, House Democrats pushed through an additional $3 trillion in a bill that would fund aspects of the response, including a second round of stimulus checks to taxpayers and more money for testing. But Republicans and Trump administration officials say they want to wait and see how the money approved so far works in the economy before agreeing to any more spending. That’s despite warnings from Powell at the Fed that the economy could enter a prolonged downturn if Congress does not pump more money out.

On Monday, White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said it’s possible the economy will recover so quickly that there will be no need for additional legislative action at all.

VA reports more than 1,000 coronavirus deaths, but the actual toll on veterans likely much higher

More than 1,000 people have died of the coronavirus at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, the agency reported Monday, a grim milestone that took 65 days to officially reach — but leaves out hundreds of others who died in state-run homes.

VA reported 1,012 deaths on its tracking site, with more than 700 logged as veterans who died during inpatient care at the VA’s sprawling network of veterans hospitals. The remaining deaths were recorded elsewhere but reported to the VA, agency spokeswoman Christina Noel said last week.

But Noel acknowledged that the VA’s count does not include veterans who have died at state-run veterans homes. That death count is at least 550, according to Vietnam Veterans of America, an advocacy group collecting nationwide data for a forthcoming report.

And even then, 28 states are not reporting veteran deaths, making the cumulative total unknown, said Linda Schwartz, a special adviser to the group and a former VA assistant secretary for policy and planning.

“[The] VA grieves for all of the veterans and loved ones affected by this heartbreaking situation,” Noel said, noting the death count would include civilians enrolled in VA care in humanitarian cases, patients with military health care and active-duty service members. Noel did not provide a breakdown of those cases, although the overwhelming majority would be among the 9.5 million veterans enrolled in VA care.

Only one active-duty service member has died of coronavirus — a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt who died in a naval hospital on Guam last month. A National Guard soldier died in a civilian hospital in March before he was mobilized. And the VA has only cared for a handful of civilians after its emergency response mission was activated.

Veterans advocates point to the deaths as a reminder of the greater toll on the community.

“Not only are veterans generally at greater risk of contracting and having complications from coronavirus due to age and underlying conditions, but the pandemic is quickly worsening an already troubling veteran homelessness, mental health and unemployment crisis,” Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told The Washington Post on Monday.

Cancellations of many non-emergency appointments have triggered dramatic increases in video-based mental health appointments at the VA. Some homeless-veteran shelters have halted new enrollments to help curb the spread of the virus.

U.S. Vets, a national nonprofit focused on permanent housing, has screened and enrolled homeless veterans into its program during the pandemic, said Clifton Lewis, the executive director of the group’s facility in Washington, D.C.

A 70-year-old veteran in Portland, Oregon, died of an infection on March 14, becoming the first coronavirus victim within the VA’s network of 1,200 medical facilities.

The pace then accelerated. The VA recorded only 30 infections among veterans in mid-March. Dozens more would be dead by the end of the month as the virus made the leap from patient to caretaker. More than 2,000 VA staffers have been infected, with at least 30 staff member deaths, the VA reported.