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As businesses reopen across WV, the Eastern Panhandle fears influx

HARPERS FERRY — The Eastern Panhandle’s longest serving legislator just wants the state to prove him wrong.

Eighty-eight people have died of the coronavirus in Frederick County, Maryland, only a 15-minute drive from three churches in Harpers Ferry, where Sen. John Unger II is head pastor.

Sixty-four West Virginians total had died of COVID-19 as of Friday evening.

Across the Shenandoah River from Harpers Ferry sits Loudoun County, Virginia. Forty-eight people there have died of COVID-19 and 1,374 have tested positive; West Virginia cases total 1,447 statewide.

West Virginia’s three easternmost counties — Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson — are surrounded by four counties that each have a population of more than 150,000 people. Totals for those combined were 2,040 cases and 73 deaths as of Friday evening.

Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties combine for 318 cases and seven deaths.

For weeks, Unger said he’s urged state health officials to release data showing COVID-19 cases broken down by county. He submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the state Wednesday requesting the data, fearing he wouldn’t get it otherwise.

The state must show the total number of tests conducted in each county, not just the positive cases, to prove sufficient testing has been done in the region that was West Virginia’s original hot spot, Unger said.

In an email, a Department of Health and Human Resources spokesperson wrote that the agency has received Unger’s request “and will look into whether we are in possession of these data. I do know the dashboard continues to evolve with helpful and important information.”

Virginia is releasing COVID-19 data by ZIP code, showing the total number of tests administered, not just the positive cases.

Unger’s biggest concern lies with the sharp increase in cases just outside the Eastern Panhandle over the last two weeks. In Frederick County, over a five-day period this week, 326 new positive cases and 26 deaths were reported.

In the three panhandle counties, 54 new cases and four deaths were reported over the same five-day period. Twenty-four of those cases were reported Monday in Berkeley County.

“I suspect if we do adequate testing, we’re going to find out we have a real problem,” Unger said. “We don’t know if there’s a spike here. But the spikes are occurring all around us.”

Unger hopes he’s wrong and testing has been sufficient in the Eastern Panhandle. But as local businesses weigh the risk of reopening, and more people are sent back to work, he said, counties must have region-specific data so the public doesn’t operate under false sense of security.

“I want us to move forward, but I want us to open up with our eyes wide open and not blindfolded.”

‘The town’s not open’

A mother hauling three young children in an SUV with Maryland tags stopped at the four-foot tall sign placed in the middle of the road Tuesday morning.

“SAFER AT HOME! by order of the Governor,” it reads.

She pulled a slow three-point turn and headed back the way she came.

Until further notice, the sign continued, there would be no public parking, restrooms or trash cans in the town of Harpers Ferry.

“The National Historic Park is closed. Practice social distancing. Leave no trace.”

A young woman and her dog shuffled down the sidewalk soon afterward; she wore a surgical mask around town because “you never know when these tourists will just pop out from behind a bush,” she said.

Harpers Ferry, the state’s easternmost town, is one of West Virginia’s top tourist attractions. The heaviest traffic often comes from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., locals say.

“All it takes is just one person to park illegally,” said Cindy Dunn, a longtime business owner in lower town Harpers Ferry.

The weekend before, tourists were a problem, she said. Parking was blocked off, but some found places to pull off the road and stretch their legs.

Harpers Ferry has multiple signs placed throughout the town’s main stretch, Unger said, “but they’re ignoring them. ... The town’s not open.”

Unger often brings up the ballooning COVID-19 data in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Fairfax County, Virginia, two urban counties bordering Washington, D.C. The two counties combine for nearly 15,000 positive cases and 722 deaths.

They are as interconnected to West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle as any other county in the region, he said.

Unger, who has represented the district since 1998, said he’s struggled getting people to understand how things work in the Eastern Panhandle. He often gets shut down when trying to argue eastern West Virginia is a suburb of the nation’s capital.

Nonexistent borders

Ronda Lehman, coordinator for Jefferson County Teen Court, has lived next to the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry for 17 years.

“I can spit on Loudoun County, Virginia, from my house,” she said.

Lehman, who is also a nurse at the Jefferson Day Report Center, said state borders are an afterthought in the panhandle. People may live in West Virginia, but their job is in Washington, D.C., their family physician practices in Virginia and they attend church services in Maryland, she said.

At the Martinsburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center, seven deaths and 68 positive cases are connected to COVID-19. It remains unclear whether these veterans and employees are West Virginia, Maryland or Virginia residents.

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said by phone that her husband is a nurse on the front lines of the pandemic in Maryland. Her husband’s drive across the border for work each day isn’t unique.

“It’s called the tri-state [area] for a reason. There’s a large percentage of my constituents who work in Maryland and Virginia,” she said.

“The borders don’t mean anything,” Unger said.

Unger, chairman of the Senate Public Health caucus, has called on insurance companies, health care administrators and government officials to make COVID-19 testing available, free and voluntary for all West Virginians.

“As we open the state back up, these tests should be available to all employers and their employees — restaurant workers, store clerks, coal miners; everyone,” he said in a May 5 release. “This is to protect their families, co-workers and customers from the spread of COVID-19.”

Gov. Jim Justice announced during his news briefing Thursday free testing in Berkeley and Jefferson counties as well as Raleigh and Mercer counties this weekend.

Additional testing is scheduled for Cabell, Kanawha, Marion and Monongalia counties next weekend.

Weighing the risks of reopening

The Vintage Lady, Cindy Dunn’s small business in lower town Harpers Ferry, sells West Virginia-made jewelry, beer, wine and other collectibles assembled in the Mountain State.

The Vintage Lady closed March 16, the day Justice declared the state of emergency for West Virginia.

A small map of the United States on the wall by the register in her store marks the homes of tourists who stop into The Vintage Lady each month. In just 16 days in March, Dunn greeted visitors from New Orleans, southern California, Florida and South Dakota, to name a few.

Below the U.S. map, Dunn marks people who visited internationally. Tourists came from China, Germany, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Italy and Mexico in just those two weeks and two days.

Dunn figured it was time to close shop after countries and cities where tourists were coming from were being ravaged by COVID-19.

“I have no regrets when we closed, I feel like it was a solid decision,” she said. “I think it’s the reopening that I’m just not sure what to do.”

The National Park in Harpers Ferry remains closed, but that could soon change, as some national parks across the country have been given the green light to reopen.

Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., aren’t reopening at the rate West Virginia is. Dunn fears a mass influx of weary people from those places tired of quarantine life, longing for an escape to the mountains.

Protecting her sole employee, who has helped run the store for a decade, is Dunn’s primary concern. So for now, the decision to reopen is “day by day.”

A few miles away in Charles Town, Marjorie Skinner’s family is weighing their own reopening. Skinner handles financials for her stepson and daughter-in-law’s small Italian restaurant, La Mezzaluna Cafe.

Customers often come from Maryland and Virginia. She described the region as “dormitory,” as residents from each state travel in and out of each other’s backyards every day, and even more so on weekends.

“We do feel that this area is very unlike the rest of the state, and it’s really tricky to treat us the same way,” she said.

Keeping tables 6 feet apart is tough for a small cafe; disposable menus aren’t financially feasible, due to the variety of meals the eatery offers; and automatic hand sanitizer dispensers are expensive. These are just a few of the barriers to the restaurant’s reopening, Skinner said.

Takeout service only will continue at La Mezzaluna for now, Skinner said. Reopening under state and federal guidelines is “just very impractical and very risky to do.”

Like Dunn and Unger, Skinner said she understands the need for businesses in the area that are financially hurting to reopen as soon as possible. But she worries about asymptomatic carriers and how one case tied to La Mezzaluna could mean the end for the family business.

“God forbid, if we have an illness because one of our customers unknowingly came and dined when they were ill,” she said. “[Customers] would not forgive us for [that]; that stain would stick.”

Unger hopes the Eastern Panhandle’s counties get a say in their region’s reopening. Just because things go swimmingly in Braxton County doesn’t mean Jefferson County is flattening the curve, he said.

As a man of faith, Unger wants to believe God has spared the Mountain State from the pandemic’s devastating effects. But as a public servant, he wants the data to know what’s true.

“If we’re not careful, it could overtake us; and even before we find out it’s here, it could be too late, and the death rates will start climbing very quickly,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

While WV beer tax collections surged in April, the reality of beer sales cloudy

West Virginia’s state revenue report for April was dripping in red numbers, as the coronavirus pandemic shutdown caused most business activity — and tax collections statewide — to plunge. But the suds still flowed.

In the midst of the $192 million (33%) shortfall for the month, one number stood out in that sea of red — beer tax collections of $860,000 came in 43% above estimates.

While that seemed to jibe with national reports of sales and consumption of alcoholic beverages increasing during the pandemic, West Virginia Beer and Wine Association lobbyist Phil Reale said the reality is not that clear-cut.

For one, rumor was that a major brewer was late paying March taxes, which showed up in the April report. March beer tax revenue of $184,000, indeed, was $306,000 below estimates, a larger shortfall than the $260,000 surplus for April.

Asked about the apparent late payment, Tax Department legal counsel Mark Morton cited taxpayer confidentiality rules, stating, “The Tax Department can neither confirm nor deny the statements set forth in your email.”

Reale said the reality for state beer distributors, who preferred that he speak for them, rather than to be interviewed directly, is that the past two months has been something of a financial roller coaster.

Reale said beer sales surged in mid-March, as Gov. Jim Justice ordered schools, casinos, restaurants, bars and clubs closed, and seemed to be moving toward a statewide stay-at-home order and closure of all nonessential businesses.

“There was panic buying for beer — and for wine and alcohol, too, I suspect,” he said.

Reale said beer drinkers might have been reacting to closure orders in states like Pennsylvania, where sales of alcoholic beverages were deemed non-essential, or they might have been taking part in some of the initial panic hording of consumer goods that left store shelves empty of products such as toilet paper.

However, after that surge, reality set in, he said.

“Some distributors had a huge increase in sales, but that soon dissipated,” Reale said.

With the combination of closed restaurants, bars and casinos, and beer drinkers who had stockpiled supplies of beer, distributors saw sales plummet in late March and early April, he said.

Sales to bars and restaurants make up about 20% of overall business for most distributors, he said. While many restaurants remained open for carryout and delivery, and while the state regulators relaxed rules to permit carryout sales of beer and wine, carryout sales of beer have been nominal, Reale said.

Meanwhile, distributors lost St. Patrick’s Day, which Reale said is the single biggest day of the year for beer consumption, and most had stocked up on kegs in preparation for the NCAA basketball tournament, the March Madness that keeps many bars hopping into early April.

With bars and restaurants closed, and social gatherings prohibited, the market for kegs completely disappeared, leaving distributors with inventories they cannot sell and which have relatively short shelf lives, he said.

For the state’s craft brewing industry, which with a few exceptions, rely entirely on sales of keg beer, the shutdown will be extremely tough, Reale said.

“Craft brewers, I think, have got to be really hurting,” he said.

Attempts to reach officers in the West Virginia Craft Brewers’ Guild were unsuccessful.

Reale said most distributors have seen sales drop from 1% to 9% during the pandemic shutdown, although those that distribute primarily to retail outlets, including grocery and convenience stores, have seen sales increase as much as 2% to 3%.

Likewise, he said, “There’s a few because of geography who are doing OK.”

He said distributors who have a lot of bar and restaurant customers, and particularly those that service casinos, have been hardest hit.

Going forward, he said there are concerns about how many bars and restaurants will not survive the shutdown.

“There’s going to be bars that don’t reopen. There’s no getting around that,” he said.

Reale added, “There’s a strong sensitivity among distributors for restaurant and bar owners and their employees.”

Charleston housing advocates expecting 'overwhelming' evictions as state reopens

While restrictions meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 are being rolled back at the state level, advocates for Charleston people experiencing homelessness are preparing for a wave of evictions that could hit residents who are struggling financially in the wake of the pandemic.

Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, a resource center and day shelter in Charleston, said that evictions have nearly stopped since the courts are only processing more pressing issues; but, she said, advocates are anxious to see what happens when courts resume full operations.

“The courts are going to open back up, and that’s when landlords are going to start evictions. We haven’t seen them yet, but we’ve seen some notices, and we have people calling us who know they’re behind on payments and are going to be facing [eviction],” said Karen Spenser, emergency housing case manager at Covenant House. “A majority of the people that are calling us have never had assistance before. They’ve never needed it, and that’s all changed now.”

In March and April, Covenant House’s homelessness prevention team made more than $110,000 in direct rental and utility payments for nearly 200 West Virginians in need of assistance. They’ve also found permanent housing for 42 residents who were chronically homeless before, and the group has connected thousands more with food and hygiene products as the pandemic has progressed.

In that same time, Spenser has seen her caseload of people needing immediate assistance nearly triple to 56. That doesn’t include the stack of intake applications — roughly 20 or 30 — sitting on her desk, or the dozens of calls she’s fielding daily from people trying to prepare for eviction.

West Virginia courts will begin resuming operations with in-person hearings and filings Monday. As courts reopen, it will be up to a judge’s discretion to hear or rule on eviction cases.

Spenser isn’t sure how many more people will be facing eviction in the area, but she’s confident it will be more than the organization is used to handling, as thousands have lost their income due to COVID-19 closures.

“I don’t think people realize the impact this is going to have,” Spenser said. “We know it’s going to happen, and, yeah, I think it’ll be a bit overwhelming, but that’s what we’re here to do. We’re going to work to keep as many people as we can in their homes and give them the help they need.”

The Rev. Kay Albright, a case manager for Covenant House’s Housing First initiative, has been fielding calls from her clients to help them access the $1,200 stimulus checks issued by the federal government. Some can’t get the money because they lack identification and can’t get IDs until the West Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles opens.

But for those who can, Albright said, $1,200 can be a lifeline right now.

“The stimulus checks have made a big impact on most of them,” Albright said. “That’s a month or two of expenses taken care of as they get their feet under them. Some have lost their jobs, or are taking care of others. Right now, anything helps.”

Covenant House is focusing most of its efforts on preventing homelessness, Allen said. Keeping people in housing instead of finding new housing after being evicted is better for the individual and the community as a whole.

For one, it’s cheaper, Allen said.

“If you get someone into a new apartment or home, there’s a deposit, on top of the risk — the worst case scenario — that they are out on the street until they can find a new space,” Allen Said. “There are health risks that come with that, especially with a pandemic going on. If they’re in recovery and this is a setback, that can become a risk.”

For many who have recently lost their jobs and who are relying on unemployment benefits, just $1,800 in assistance can keep them housed for three months and give them an opportunity to save money and focus on other needs, like food and health care, Allen said.

“That’s really not a lot to pay,” Allen said.

Unemployment benefits that were extended as part of the federal coronavirus relief act — including an additional $600 a week for those on unemployment — will expire in July, unless Congress passes an extension.

Meanwhile, there’s no telling when — or how — the economy will bounce back from the effects of COVID-19. Several businesses are sure to close. Some people might be unable to get their jobs back, even as the state reopens, and there’s no telling which jobs will be available with thousands potentially looking for new employment, Allen said.

Shimaya Jones, who works with Albright as a case manager for Housing First focusing on those experiencing chronic homelessness, expects that her caseload — like Spenser’s — will increase in coming months.

“Those bills and things are still piling up,” Jones said. “There’s no getting around it: We’re going to be seeing a lot more people qualify [as chronically homeless] here in the near future.”

There are others, too, Allen said, who could fall through the cracks. Many people in these situations for the first time may be “couch surfers,” meaning they’re staying with friends or relatives as they’ve lost their income, but don’t have stable housing.

“There were a lot of people in that situation before this, or right on the verge of being there,” Allen said. “This has pushed them over or exacerbated it, and it’s not easy — it’s really not — to pull yourself up from that. Poverty, living in poverty, it’s expensive.”

And during this time, Spenser said, some people just need a reminder that they are not alone in their situation, and that there is no shame in getting assistance.

“When they see what they’re up against, the panic builds and it keeps on building. Mostly they want to hear a calm voice of reason, to know they’re not alone and they have help — we are here to help them,” Spenser said. “It’s a process, it’s going to take time, but if you call, we’ll figure out what you need and we’ll get you to the right person.”

People in need of housing or utility assistance may call Karen Spenser at 304-344-8053, extension 45, or visit wvcovenanthouse.org/programs /housing-assistance for more information on housing assistance programs.