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Kelly Allen: US Senate must pass COVID-19 relief now (Opinion)

West Virginians help one another. Without thinking twice, we take meals to parents who’ve had a new baby, form ad hoc neighborhood child care arrangements when schools close because of the coronavirus pandemic and pick up groceries for our at-risk elderly neighbors.

Our people know that working together is how we overcome our biggest challenges. But right now, our federal elected officials are failing to work together to overcome COVID-19, the biggest economic and health challenge of our lifetimes. Concerns are growing that Congress and the Trump administration will fail to pass a robust COVID-19 relief package this year if they don’t act by the end of this month. If so, they will leave hundreds of thousands of West Virginia families to face an ongoing and worsening COVID-19 crisis on their own.

The comprehensive measures that Congress enacted in March via the CARES Act were key to supporting families and propping up our state’s economy. Programs that had bipartisan support in March, when West Virginia had zero COVID-19 cases, are just as important today, with West Virginia setting record daily case numbers. But without any congressional action since March, many of these measures have now expired and families are being forced to navigate impossible scenarios.

Take, for example, parents of young children. Schooling is remote or virtual in many counties because of spiking COVID-19 cases. But there is no funding support to help parents stay home or hire someone to take care of their children during the day, no increase in SNAP food benefits and not enough testing, personal protective equipment or contact tracing available to ensure that schools that do open are safe for teachers and children.

Workers who have underlying medical conditions have few options if they refuse to return to unsafe working conditions and federal unemployment benefit provisions have expired with no plan to extend them, even as there are three times more unemployed workers than job openings.

Local governments face budget shortfalls because of an increased need for public services right as tax revenue has declined because of the economic crisis, with no federal support in sight that can close budget gaps and keep services intact.

All of these issues are dire but, without pressure from constituents, it appears that no federal assistance will be provided to support families, communities and state and local governments at the time they need it most.

Because of Congress’ inaction, the burden of risk and responsibility during the pandemic has been transferred from our leadership down to individuals, despite the fact that collective action is needed for all of us to get by and for our economy to recover. Without much-needed federal support, parents can’t balance school and work, displaced workers can’t get jobs that don’t exist and local governments can’t provide critical public services without revenue.

West Virginians are resilient, but the COVID-19 crisis facing our communities is too big to solve on our own. At the end of this month, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to go home until after the November election, while our communities are still reeling from the health and economic effects of COVID-19.

Last week, Senate leadership put forth a so-called “skinny” partisan COVID-19 relief package that was never meant to gain bipartisan support to pass, let alone be signed into law. The proposal failed to address the growing food and housing insecurity faced by our people, ignored the revenue needs of state and local governments, and it contained far too little health and child care funding to adequately address the health crisis and fuel our recovery.

It failed to recognize the suffering West Virginia families are facing and that helping our people helps our economy.

If our senators don’t act soon — and put politics aside — West Virginia families, workers and communities will be left to face this crisis alone, and our recovery will be much slower and more painful than it has to be. Failing to act is not an option.

Please call the offices this week of Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and urge them to support West Virginia’s recovery with a robust relief package now.

Joe DeFazio: Essential businesses need protection from lawsuits (Opinion)

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced West Virginians and others across the country to adapt to an entirely new normal.

During our statewide stay-at-home order earlier this year, people had to stay indoors, work remotely and avoid large gatherings, to name just a few major changes. Through all of this, though, essential businesses have remained open to provide Americans with the products and services they need to keep themselves and their families afloat during this crisis.

In fact, these businesses have provided a model for adapting to the new normal the pandemic has forced upon us. Essential businesses placed markers throughout their stores to serve as social distancing guidelines, upped their efforts to regularly and thoroughly sanitize their premises, to keep customers and employees safe, and ensured that everyone who walked through their doors did their part to flatten the curve by wearing masks.

In addition to the costs of instituting these new policies, many businesses like mine are offering “hazard pay” to our store employees.

All these measures, and others, allowed essential businesses to stay open and continue serving their communities at a time when they were needed most.

Despite all they’ve done to keep people safe, though, essential businesses still face a significant risk beyond COVID-19, with the looming threat of liability lawsuits on the horizon. These lawsuits look to place culpability for community spread of the virus on essential businesses, even those that have followed every possible guideline offered by local and federal health officials.

Allowing these types of liability lawsuits to fill West Virginia’s courts would be problematic for several reasons. First, it places essential businesses in an impossible and untenable position. Communities are dependent on them for vital supplies and services, but keeping their doors open represents a serious risk if they are not properly protected from frivolous accusations of liability.

Beyond this, settling or litigating liability cases can have prohibitive costs for small, local businesses even during a strong economy. Now, as the economy has slowed to a near halt across the nation, businesses simply cannot afford to deal with unwarranted liability lawsuits on top of the broad array of problems they already are handling. For many, even a single lawsuit can put them out of businesses, making things all the more difficult — for their employees and for the customers they serve.

However, this is not to say that businesses who willfully or knowingly disregard public health guidance and put their communities at risk should be wrongly free of blame. Instead, liability protection needs to clearly delineate protection for those businesses that are acting in good faith and doing everything necessary to protect each person who walks through their doors.

This is precisely why it is so important for Congress to finally address this issue and pass the SAFE TO WORK Act, which offers liability protection for the very same essential businesses that are allowing us all to safely see out this pandemic.

As Congress works on this issue in the weeks ahead, I am hoping that West Virginia small-business owners can count on our state’s elected officials, like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to serve as vocal advocates for essential businesses.

Gazette-Mail editorial: Gov. Justice is appeasing, not leading

Gov. Jim Justice continued to talk out of both sides of his mouth Tuesday, citing the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic and his concern for the health of West Virginians, while also unveiling new metrics that will make it easier for schools that would be disqualified under previous state government guidelines to resume in-person classes and sports.

This is an attempt to make everyone happy with an election on the horizon, rather than a commitment to one philosophy or the other.

The new “gold” color description could have several counties resuming in-person classes as early as Wednesday, if that’s what local superintendents want to do, the governor said.

With the mixed messages, not to mention the new regulations on when and how schools may go back to in-person classes, it’s all a bit confusing. Gov. Justice acknowledged this during Tuesday’s coronavirus briefing, adding that he didn’t know how to make it not confusing. One suggestion would be refraining from continuously changing the system, as Justice has done four times since the color-coded COVID-19 map was announced.

Justice isn’t leading. He’s wavering. He’s bending to whatever political pressure is being applied at the moment. This week, it was a hue and cry from athletes and parents — not so much to resume school but to allow high school football to continue even when the pandemic numbers say it shouldn’t in certain counties.

With another color added to the scale, and the introduction of a positive-test percentage rate allowing schools and athletics back based on whatever number serves them best, Justice is basically saying he’ll do whatever he can to make the numbers work. And he’s doing it at a time when cases and deaths continue to mount.

That certainly isn’t putting the health of West Virginia’s students, teachers and parents first, as he insists he’s doing.

The governor continually talked about how difficult the situation is, and he went back to the phrase of “no playbook” in describing the response to the pandemic. Shouldn’t there be a playbook by now? And it’s been a while since the governor made a difficult or unpopular choice because he knew the health risk required it, such as mandating face masks or shutting down bars.

Appeasement in the face of criticism is easy.

It’s telling that neither Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch nor relatively new-on-the-job Bureau of Public Health Commissioner Ayne Amjad spoke during Tuesday’s briefing. Dr. Amjad was hired after the governor requested the dismissal of her predecessor, Dr. Cathy Slemp, in the midst of the pandemic for reasons that were never clarified. Amjad is probably still getting her bearings. Slemp, who, if anything, was overqualified for her post, might have been the only person with the institutional knowledge and the spine to tell the governor he’s making bad decisions at a bad time.

The desire to get back to in-person classes and to have normal fall sports and other extracurricular activities is perfectly understandable. No one wants to live under the thumb of a pandemic. Then again, you can’t always get what you want.

At least West Virginians can see where Gov. Justice’s true priorities sit, because, ultimately, it’s not what he says but what he does. And what he’s doing will end up putting the state’s public health in greater jeopardy. That part is not confusing.