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Justice briefing: Pandemic-related business closures causes unemployment claims to skyrocket

The coronavirus pandemic might be days away from accelerating in West Virginia, but unemployment claims already are skyrocketing, state officials said Tuesday.

WorkForce West Virginia processed about 7,000 unemployment applications Monday, Gov. Jim Justice said.

“There’s a great, great many more than 7,000,” Justice said during his daily briefing Tuesday. “That’s just what was processed.”

The state received about 16,000 unemployment applications on Monday, said Brian Abraham, chief counsel to the governor. That brought the total to more than 28,000 since the governor began ordering businesses to close, starting at midnight last Wednesday.

That far surpasses the 5,877 claims West Virginia received the week of Jan. 2, 1999. according to federal data. That total was the previous high in recent history.

Through executive order, Justice closed bars, casinos and dine-in service at restaurants. A day later, he ordered gyms, fitness centers and recreational facilities closed, followed by an order to close barbershops, beauty parlors and nail salons.

On Monday, the governor issued a stay-at-home order and an order to close non-essential businesses, effective Tuesday evening.

On Tuesday, Abraham responded to public concern that the list of essential businesses is too expansive, allowing too wide a variety of retailers and professional and building trades services to remain open during the pandemic.

“We tried to strike a balance between maintaining essential services and protecting public health,” Abraham said.

The list of essential businesses is based on federal guidelines and lists in neighboring states that have ordered non-essential businesses closed, Abraham said.

“There are risks in society, but the people have to step forward and take the risk,” he said. “Our life has to go on, and we have to provide services to our citizens.”

The essential designation should not be construed as an invitation to businesses to reduce limits on on-site staff or bring back employees who already have been allowed to work from home, Abraham said,

Public Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp concurred.

“‘Essential’ means you have to continue operations,” she said. “If you can do it from a distance, if you can do it remotely, if you can do it a different way, that’s the best.”

During Tuesday’s briefing, officials reiterated the need to continue practicing social distancing and regular hand washing, staying at home as much as possible and other measures to avoid spreading the virus.

The upward curve of COVID-19 cases in most states has occurred about seven days after the first positive case is reported, said Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University.

“We haven’t seen that yet,” he said, “and we’re at about the seventh day today.”

It should be known soon if restrictions here are slowing the curve, Marsh said.

“If we’re doing the right things and our citizens are staying in their homes, washing their hands and practicing social distancing ... we can see the results of that with the curve.”

Also Tuesday:

  • Justice expressed reservations about President Donald Trump’s statement earlier in the day that he wants the country to reopen by Easter, April 12.

“From the standpoint of everything going back to normal by Easter, it’s ambitious,” Justice said. “But at the same time, I would celebrate in every way, shape, form and fashion if we could do that.”

He added, “While I think it may be a little too optimistic, I hope and pray the president knows something we don’t know.”

  • Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch encouraged residents stressed by the pandemic to seek assistance from regional behavioral health centers.

“These are not normal times. We have no point of reference for this pandemic,” he said. “It’s a fast-moving disease, and it’s very stressful.”

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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