Across The Virginias: CARES Act spending hopes to stop economic bleeding

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By Bobby Bordelon

Reporting by Shawn Nowlin, Meg Hibbert, Suzanne Stewart

Hoping to curtail the loss of businesses and jobs across the country as the total number COVID-19 cases approach 4 million, some financial support has been provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to state and local governments. Although nowhere near enough to prop up the entire United States economy, the money has provided some security to the millions of families directly impacted by the virus’s economic fallout.

A narrow look at the West Virginia tourism industry is one way to get a broader sense of the damage inflicted across the entire country’s economy. Recently in Greenbrier County, WV, the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB), a tax-funded organization that advertises tourism-related businesses throughout the county, hosted their second Tourism Talk, breaking down the past few months for the county’s largest industry. During the talk, WV Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby provided data giving context to the impact the uncontrolled pandemic.

“The question I get all the time is ‘how bad has this been on the industry?’ I have to tell you I know, from talking to folks like you guys, how devastating the effects have been, but seeing them in black and white has been a little shocking to me,” said Ruby. “This is the research, and it’s state-wide data, you look at hotel occupancy in March, compared to the previous March, we saw about a 35 percent decrease. Revenue hadn’t really started falling yet, so revenue is projected to be down about 40 percent from March. In April, we got to 60 percent decrease. Rates started lowering, so revenue we saw a loss of 72 percent.”

With revenue down, many smaller businesses are struggling to stay afloat. Programs providing funds directly to these businesses through the CARES Act are hoping to prevent their permanent closure. The U.S. Treasury guidance allows states to use Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) dollars for expenditures “related to the provision of grants to small businesses to reimburse the costs of business interruption caused by required closure.”

Virginia elected to disperse a portion of its allocation to local governments. This local flexibility allowed the Salem City Council to create a $500,000 Small Business Coronavirus (COVID-19) Disaster Assistance Grant Fund program, which would provide one-time grant awards of up to $5,000 to small businesses.

Since the start of the program, more than 70 Salem businesses have applied. At a recent meeting of the local economic development authority, Finance Director Rosie Jordan said there is a wide range of ways businesses explained how they have been affected and how they would use the grant money. Under the guidelines, funds may be used for payroll, responding to new market conditions, equipment purchases, rent or mortgage expenses, deep-cleaning services and other critical operating expenses. Salem intends to help businesses that have 75 or fewer full-time and part-time employees. The local economic development authority is continuing to go over applications.

In West Virginia, a similar program was opened state-wide; any West Virginia-based small business, in existence on Feb. 29, 2020, with one to 35 employees, will be able to apply for up to $5,000 in grant funding. The initiative will provide $150 million of West Virginia’s CARES Act funding to qualifying businesses across the state, with preliminary plans for expanding coverage of the self-employed.

“We’re going to continue to work to try to figure out a way that we can also help our self-employed West Virginians who have no additional employees,” said West Virginia Governor Jim Justice. “We really want to help these people too, but we have to figure out how to get them properly registered, so that we can eliminate the possibility of fraud. … In the meantime, we’re going to move forward with our small businesses with one to 35 employees and start pumping that money out now and we’ll continue to work toward helping our self-employed.”

In addition, tourism funding in West Virginia has also been massively increased.

“We’ve looked at our funds and we’ve moved things around so that cooperative advertising program that we have,” Ruby explained during the Greenbrier County Tourism Talk. “It has always been based on a dollar per dollar match, but we moved it to an 80/20 match. Starting now, and it made it retroactive for anything that has been purchased during the summer, the state will now offer an 80 percent match on advertising through our program. …. If your company wants to do a digital buy through us, we would pay for 80 percent of that media, but we also cover production costs for you. Our hope is that this allows you all to shift some funds around, put more money in operations, and continue to advertise. We are committed to do this through the end of the year, but we’ve also applied for some funds to extend it for one to two years because I understand that this isn’t going away.”

This funding, however, won’t save the millions of jobs Americans have already lost. For many of these workers, recovery seems much farther away.

“The number that really struck me most was unemployment,” Ruby said. “In hospitality, these are state numbers by the way, it dropped from 71,200 jobs in April to 31,010 in May. I think these numbers paint the picture of what really happened to this industry and what we’re trying to get out of.”

Those on unemployment for the past several months have received additional aid through the CARES Act passed by Congress earlier this year. The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program provided Americans on unemployment an extra $600 each week, lasting until July 25. Anticipating the end of this program, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (WVDHHR) sought to remind families of the many programs available to support them during hard times, such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. In addition, WVDHHR also has received approval to administer benefits created specifically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Emergency Assistance Program and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program Recovery Crisis Program.

“Unemployment benefits have been a lifeline to many West Virginians out of work because of COVID-19,” said Scott Adkins, acting commissioner of WorkForce West Virginia. “WorkForce paid hundreds of millions of dollars to West Virginians through the FPUC program during a time of great need and it’s important for those individuals to know that West Virginia is here to help now and after the federal program ends.”

“Unless further action comes from Congress and the federal government to extend additional unemployment assistance or make an additional stimulus payment, people in West Virginia and across the country may soon find themselves in increasingly uncertain circumstance,” said DHHR Secretary Bill J. Crouch. “In the absence of federal assistance, the Justice Administration will do what we can to help people experiencing hard times. If your circumstances are changing because FPUC is ending, I encourage you to apply and see if our programs can help you or your family.”

The only way to move forward and begin to repair the economic damage is to get COVID-19 under control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), face coverings help decrease the spread of COVID-19, and because the virus can be spread by people who don’t have symptoms and don’t know they are infected, it’s critically important for everyone to practice social distancing and wear a face covering in public.

The need for masks had people across the country making homemade masks for themselves, family, friends, and healthcare workers. It also lead to institutions changing their entire production plans – at the Denmar Correctional Center, the 40 inmates who are paid to sew prison uniforms throughout West Virginia suddenly found themselves making masks instead. As soon as word of West Virginia’s first stay-at-home order reached West Virginia Correctional Industries plant manager Rick George and employee Charlene Beverage, they quickly collected materials and got the men to work.

“Mrs. B and I both saw it,” said George. “She ended up calling [director Eddie Long] at home on a Sunday and he gave us permission. When we got to work, she called the warden, and the warden said, ‘Let’s go get some material.’”

As soon as all the materials for masks were available, the prison uniform production was put on hold, and the inmates had a new product to produce.

“We’ve made them for Greenbrier Valley Hospital, Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, Pocahontas Homeland Security, Davis Stuart, Family Refuge Centers in Lewisburg and Marlinton, and Greenbrier Manor,” George said. “We started making them as soon as we could, and then we got tasked to do BCR masks [three-layer masks]. Then we started making masks for the National Guard. … We’ve made so many masks, we didn’t keep a running count, but we’re somewhere around forty thousand made to date.”

Once the demand for masks fizzled a little, the majority of the inmates returned to making uniforms, but six continued to make masks and are now making hospital gowns.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit West Virginia, the inmates in Denmar Correctional Center’s sewing department put aside their work on uniforms and started making personal face masks and hospital gowns for essential workers in the state. The men have made more than 40,000 masks. S. Stewart photos

“We call them our COVID line,” George said. “They were making masks as recently as this [Friday] morning for the division, and now they’re making hospital gowns. We just now got into the gown business, but that seems to be the thing they think they’re now going to need the most.”

Because the prisons are not taking any new inmates, the need for uniforms has been reduced, so George said if there comes a time when the need for masks and gowns increases, the shop could put the uniforms on hold again.

“We could do more and, in an emergency, we will do more,” he said. “We were getting severely behind, but the one good thing that did help us out, with the COVID coming, we didn’t get a lot of orders [for uniforms] so we didn’t get covered up as much as we normally would have.”

According to George, t, he inmates are proud of the work they are doing and would like to continue making masks and gowns as long as there is a need during this trying time.

“There’s a lot more we could do – a lot more we would like to do – but to continue our prison uniforms, we can’t,” George said. “I wish we could devote this whole shop to COVID, because it’s positive work for these inmates. All they get to do is make T-shirts and pants, and they’ve made a bunch of them. They make them for the whole state. … This stuff,” he continued, pointing at colorful masks, “they went crazy on it. They’re really happy to see people wearing their stuff.”

These masks will be joining millions of masks that have been a daily essential item for the United States. Hoping to avoid another massive shut down, masks are not only being recommended by both Virginia and West Virginia government officials, but required by several of the region’s largest food suppliers.

In a recent blog post, Walmart U.S. Chief Operating Officer Dacona Smith said, “To help bring consistency across stores, we will require all shoppers to wear a face covering starting Monday. We will continue to inform customers and members of the changes and train associates on the new protocols.”

Kroger recently released a company statement. It read, in part, “With the increase in COVID-19 cases across the country, we are committed to doing our part to help reduce the spread of the virus. We are requiring all customers in all locations to wear a mask, joining our associates who are already doing so.”

This isn’t only limited to food suppliers – the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) also issued requirements for face masks. While ABC previously required all customers to wear a face mask or face covering prior to shopping in any of their 389 stores, ABC will now deny entry to any customer not wearing a mask. As part of this requirement, ABC will make every attempt to provide a mask to customers who arrive without one.

“Evolving guidance from health officials stresses the importance of face masks as a way of protecting the health and well-being of the communities that we serve,” said Chief Executive Officer Travis Hill. “The vast majority of our customers have followed our direction these last few weeks and consistently wear face masks in our stores; however our no mask, no entry policy is to ensure as safe a shopping experience as feasible. We know that it may not be possible for everyone to wear a face covering. In those cases, we suggest curbside pickup as an alternative to in-store shopping.”