Governor eases unemployment rules amid virus


By Anthony Izaguirre and John Raby - Associated Press



CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice loosened unemployment regulations Thursday for people whose jobs have been shuttered over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

An executive order from the Republican governor directs commerce officials to ensure that people who had their hours reduced or are prevented from working due to the virus “shall be eligible for unemployment benefits to the maximum extent permitted by federal law.” It also waives a one-week waiting period for benefits and rules requiring people to be actively searching for work.

The directives come as West Virginia sees a spike in unemployment claims as workplaces around the state close or dramatically scale back services amid the pandemic. Justice said 1,200 people applied for unemployment benefits Tuesday, compared to 5,300 during the entirety of February.

Earlier this week, Justice issued a state of emergency and ordered bars, restaurants, casinos, gyms, health clubs and recreation centers to close for at least two weeks. Bars and restaurants can still offer carry-out and food delivery services, as well as sell unopened beer and wine to people who buy food.

Schools statewide are closed until at least March 27, and state education officials said they’re canceling this year’s standardized tests.

West Virginia has two confirmed cases of the virus, health officials said. One case is in Jefferson County and the other is in Mercer County. As of Wednesday, state officials said 148 people have been tested for the virus, with 143 negatives, three tests pending and the two positives.

Justice’s lavish resort, The Greenbrier, which served as a secret Cold War-era bunker for the federal government, also closed Thursday over the coronavirus. It wasn’t known whether Greenbrier employees were being paid during the closing. A resort spokesman did not immediately return a message.

Buried 720 feet (219 meters) under the resort, the two-story bunker was finished in 1961 and was intended to house the U.S. Congress in the event of a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Greenbrier has since offered tours of the bunker. The resort plans to reopen April 17.

West Virginia University Medicine said it tested 166 people at new drive-thru coronavirus testing sites for pre-screened patients in Morgantown, Parkersburg, Bridgeport, Wheeling, and Martinsburg. Results should be available in three-to-four days.

On Thursday, Marshall Health, Mountain Health Network and the Cabell-Huntington Health Department was opening a drive-thru testing center in Huntington.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority recover in several weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness, including pneumonia.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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By Anthony Izaguirre and John Raby

Associated Press