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Justice calls audibles on state reopening plan

Gov. Jim Justice continued Thursday to announce ad hoc reopenings of businesses and activities statewide, including bumping up the opening of gyms and fitness centers to May 18.

Justice had previously authorized fitness centers affiliated with health care providers that provide physical and occupational therapy to reopen on Monday, a decision he said drew questions and complaints from other gym and fitness center operators.

“We got an awful lot of calls questioning should our health clubs and gyms be allowed to open up,” said Justice, who said a number of non-medically affiliated gyms and health clubs “pushed the envelope” and reopened Monday without authorization.

Those included Snap Fitness center franchises co-owned by Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam.

Justice said Thursday that in order to alleviate confusion and any “unfairness,” he was authorizing all other gyms and fitness centers to reopen, with to-be-published guidelines and restrictions.

Similarly, during Tuesday’s daily COVID-19 briefing, Justice said that after receiving numerous calls, he was allowing tanning salons to reopen.

Also Thursday, Justice said he is authorizing whitewater rafting excursions to reopen on May 21, with restrictions including no more than six guests and a guide per raft, and restricting ridership on the bus that take rafters to and from the river.

That announcement comes two days after Justice said health care experts had serious concerns about whether it would be possible to practice social distancing on the rafts or the transport buses.

During Thursday’s briefing, Justice denied he was buckling to pressure from various businesses to move them up on the reopening plan.

“That is absolutely, 180 degrees wrong,” Justice said. “I’m not going to succumb to political pressure when I think, and I’m told by my medical experts … that it’s the wrong thing to do.”

Conversely, Justice said he is aware of nonessential businesses that have reopened without state authorization, and said the state will “move swiftly” to re-close businesses that resume without permission.

“There’s surely people who I don’t want to say are cheating, but are pushing the envelope,” he said.

Also during Thursday’s COVID-19 briefing:

  • DHHR officials outlined a rapid response plan to address potential outbreaks of coronavirus infections in counties as more businesses open and activities resume.

If a county or counties break thresholds for new COVID-19 cases as tracked on seven-day rolling sums, those localities will be designated for high-alert status, Public Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp explained.

Action plans will then be developed for those areas, including stricter mitigation requirements, additional testing and contact tracing, and other resources.

  • Dr. Clay Marsh, state COVID-19 czar, re-emphasized that wearing face coverings or masks is an important part of the next phase of living successfully with the coronavirus.

“If you’re inside with other people, absolutely wear a facemask,” he said.

Justice on Tuesday said he encourages people to wear face coverings, but will not mandate it as many jurisdictions have done.

PHOTO: Repairs to temporarily shut down Southside Bridge

Workers for Triton Construction continue repair work on the South Side Bridge in Charleston on Thursday, in preparation for weekend work that will temporarily close the bridge. The bridge will be closed from 9 tonight through 4:30 a.m. Monday. People wanting to get across the Kanawha River in Charleston will have to use alternate routes, including the Patrick Street Bridge, the 35th and 36th Street bridges, and the Interstate 64 bridges.

After push back, Justice permits all gyms to reopen Monday

West Virginians who have been missing their gym routine can return Monday.

Bowing to pressure from gym owners who wondered why they had not been given a target date for when they could reopen while some competitors were allowed, Gov. Jim Justice announced Thursday that all gyms in the state may reopen next week.

Justice said he received a number of calls from frustrated gym owners who were seeing other gyms “push the envelope” of his order permitting wellness centers operated by hospitals or licensed health care providers to reopen this week. One of the gyms “pushing the envelope” was Snap Fitness, which has locations in Cabell, Putnam and Kanawha counties.

“I understand the unfairness,” Justice said. “I do think under the strictness of our guidelines we can move forward and open gyms.”

West Virginia YMCAs were among those making calls to the Governor’s Office. In a letter sent to the governor Monday, the YMCA Alliance — representing all eight Ys in the state — wrote they did not understand why a distinction was made between “wellness centers” and the YMCA.

“We have been made aware that other fitness centers attached to physical therapy locations are planning to reopen under your ‘West Virginia Strong’ plan,” the letter reads. “Our Y’s are staffed by professionals and governed by board of directors representing a broad cross-section of the communities we serve.”

According to the executive order that went into effect this past Monday, “wellness centers” that offer exercise therapy, physical therapy, post-operative therapy and rehabilitation services that are operated by a hospital or otherwise staffed by licensed health care providers could begin operating this week.

Eric Tarr, owner of Snap Fitness, a physical therapist and Republican Putnam County state senator, said Tuesday he interpreted the order to mean he could fully open his gym, which operates in conjunction with Generations Physical Therapy. Generations, which has been operating throughout the stay-at-home as an essential business, is owned by Tarr’s family and operates out of five Snap Fitness locations.

Tarr was not able to be reached for comment Thursday. At least one other wellness center in the state reopened under the order: Healthworks West Virginia based in Morgantown, according to MetroNews.

Bob White, owner of Nautilus Fitness Centers in Charleston, said he believed Tarr took advantage of his position as a senator to reopen his gym and created division in the community.

“If he wasn’t open, you wouldn’t see other clubs trying to open,” White said. “People are dying to exercise. If that’s the only place you can go, [other gyms] are going to lose members. He created this issue in the community.”

White said he had planned to open Monday even before Justice made his announcement.

“You could drive a truck through those guidelines to meet the requirements,” he said.

New guidelines for gyms were released Thursday afternoon. They include restricting building capacity to 40%, closing showers, water fountains and basketball courts, and require all staff and members to wear proper protective equipment, including face coverings to the greatest extent possible.

Doug Korstanje, CEO of the YMCA of Huntington, said he was pleased to have a date for reopening, but was disappointed no fitness centers in the state were consulted on the guidelines.

“We believe you should be able to take a shower,” Korstanje said. “You can space out the showers. I don’t want to be too critical, but I wish they would have consulted us before they released these guidelines.”

It is up to the county health departments to enforce the executive orders and ensure all businesses are following the proper guidelines. Dr. Michael Kilkenny, medical director at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said he would rather guide businesses, but the department does have the authority to work with the county prosecutor, state attorney general or State Police to ensure compliance.

Korstanje said the YMCA will reopen Monday and move forward under a phased approach developed with local health experts. He said he is excited to see members returning to the gym next week.

Gym-goers expressed both excitement and hesitation at the reopenings on social media Thursday.

“I have already been back this week with my trainer,” said Sami Abbas, of Barboursville, on Twitter. “I already knew people were dirty before COVID-19 and I continue to use common sense and wash my hands and use hand sanitizer through the day. I choose freedom with a dash of common sense over forced lockdown.”

Angelo Fioravante, of Huntington, said he won’t be returning to the gym for a few more months at least.

“I’ve got family I’m worried about, so I can do squats and things safely at home,” he said on Twitter. “I had one friend call another friend last night to get a mask so he could rush to a gym. I don’t think those who are excited are ready.”

Santos Alvarez, who lives in Proctorville, Ohio, but attends CrossFit in Huntington, fell in the middle.

“Our CrossFit classes are pretty small so I’m comfortable in the sense of risk pool and also trust the other members to look out for each other sanitation-wise as well as staying away if feeling sick ... my Planet Fitness membership not so much,” Alvarez said.

Lots of talk - but so far no action - about second $1,200 stimulus check for U.S. households

WASHINGTON — Nearly 130 million Americans have received direct payments of up to $1,200 from the U.S. Treasury, a centerpiece of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. But prospects are uncertain for another round of these stimulus checks.

President Donald Trump has left the door open to the idea, saying earlier this week that “we’re talking about that with a lot of different people.” House Democrats included a new and more generous round of payments in a $3 trillion relief bill that’s scheduled for a floor vote on Friday.

But Republicans have declared the House Democratic bill dead on arrival, and some have voiced skepticism about the need for any more individual payments.

The first round of checks was authorized by the $2 trillion Cares Act, which passed in March. It was a novel idea, supported by both Democrats and Republicans: send payments, as quickly as possible, to all Americans earning less than $99,000 a year. The money could be spent on whatever people wanted. Rent. Bills. Groceries. Anything.

It was meant to both help people with their finances but also help companies that struggled from a huge drop in consumer spending.

Democrats want to renew the payments, but it’s unclear what might happen next.

Speaking on the Senate floor on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., railed against House Democrats’ bill for expanding stimulus payments to individuals with a taxpayer identification number, not just a Social Security number. That would allow unauthorized immigrants to qualify for the payments.

“Another round of checks for illegal immigrants. Can you believe it?” McConnell said. “We forgot to have the Treasury Department send money to people here illegally. My goodness, what an oversight. Thank goodness Democrats are on the case.”

The House Democratic proposal would provide $1,200 for all individuals — including children — capping the payments at $6,000 per household. The initial round of payments authorized in the CARES Act in late March provided only $500 for children. Like the stimulus checks sent out under the CARES Act, the payments included in House Democrats’ bill would begin to phase out for people with incomes of $75,000 and above.

There are no active bipartisan negotiations under way on the next coronavirus relief bill. McConnell and other Republicans say they want to pause and allow the approximately $3 trillion in spending already approved to make its way into the economy before agreeing to anything more.

That leaves it unclear whether additional stimulus payments to individuals will be part of Congress’ next coronavirus bill, whenever that legislation does to take shape. Beyond McConnell’s attacks on House Democrats’ attempt to expand the payments to unauthorized immigrants, there has been little public discussion by Senate Republicans of pursuing an additional round of direct stimulus checks.

Earlier this week, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said he did not see the need for more direct payments to individuals.

“At this point no,” Brady said on a conference call with reporters. “I think our main focus should be getting people back to work. I think that’s the key, both short term and long term, for the economy and for families.”

Some Democrats had sought a different approach for getting money to individual Americans. Lawmakers including Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, proposed a Paycheck Guarantee Act that would provide a three-month federal guarantee for 100 percent of worker salaries up to $100,000, to ensure employers keep workers on payroll and continue to provide benefits. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

Jayapal and others have expressed disappointed over the decision by House Democratic leaders to bypass the Paycheck Guarantee proposal in their new bill, and go with a new round of stimulus payments instead. Democratic leaders argued the stimulus checks were a more efficient and cost-effective approach.

Contractor that failed to deliver on $55M FEMA mask contract owes millions to WV

The parent company of the small Virginia firm that failed to fulfill a $55 million no-bid contract to provide the Federal Emergency Management Agency with 10 million protective masks owes more than $6.4 million to the West Virginia Economic Development Authority, according to bankruptcy court filings.

James V. Punelli and Raymond C. Jones, the owners of Panthera Worldwide LLC of Leesburg, Virginia, the company awarded the contract to deliver the N95 masks, are also listed as the owners of Panthera Worldwide’s parent firm, Panthera Enterprises LLC, also of Leesburg, according to bankruptcy records.

In 2013, the WVEDA made a $5 million, 15-year, property-secured loan to Panthera Enterprises to help the firm — then known as TenX Group LLC — buy a 691-acre tract near Old Fields in Hardy County and develop it into a tactical training center for use by military and security groups. The property is located about two hours away from Washington, D.C.

The following year, the WVEDA issued a second loan of more than $1.8 million to the firm, allowing it to buy an adjacent 58-acre tract of land, according to bankruptcy court records.

Eight live-fire shooting ranges, a demolitions range and a 6,000-square-foot live-fire “shoot house” were built on the site, along with a mock village with additional shooting venues, according to the training center’s website. Other developments at the Old Fields site included a 1.5-mile paved track and a 2.6-mile unimproved road course for tactical driving training, a helicopter pad, a classroom and food service buildings.

Training center clients have included units from the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. State Department, Defense Intelligence Agency, state and municipal law enforcement agencies, and private security contractors, according to the website.

According to WVEDA bankruptcy court filings, Panthera Enterprises failed to make several loan payments in 2015, made no payments on either of the two state loans during 2016, and made only three of nine payments called for under a modified payment agreement the company signed in 2017.

In May 2018, the WVEDA began foreclosure proceedings to recover the principal and interest from the loans it maintains it is owed, now set at about $6.4 million. After more than a year of continued legal wrangling, a foreclosure auction was scheduled for Sept. 16, 2019. Three days before that date, Panthera Enterprises filed for Chapter 11 protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, in Wheeling.

The Old Fields property is believed to be the primary asset held by Panthera Enterprises, which listed estimated liabilities of $10 million to $50 million owed to 50 to 99 creditors on its Chapter 11 filing. The case remains unresolved, with hearings scheduled to continue into the summer.