After phone calls, W.Va. governor again widens reopening

In this July 8, 2019, file photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks at a roundtable in Huntington.

CHARLESTON — The outlook for the state’s economy keeps getting “better and better,” Gov. Jim Justice said in a briefing Friday afternoon.

Because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, initial forecasts called for up to a $500 million deficit by the end of the current fiscal year, June 30.

But Justice said that prediction keeps dropping as the numbers continue to be analyzed and a shortfall could be as low as $350, and that does not include income expected when taxes are filed by July 15.

The state income tax brings in about $200 million.

“The numbers continue to come in better than what we thought the numbers were going to be,” he said. “Yesterday, we were looking at the sales tax dollars among other things and they keep coming in better and better.”

Justice said the reason for the adjusted forecast is that most West Virginians have kept working, in manufacturing, roads, mining and many other areas, and as the economy opens up, the numbers will keep improving.

“We shut down the things we had to shut down,” he said of non-essential businesses. “But we never really shut down the entire engine in West Virginia. We let people work, and many work from home.”

Part of the $1.2 billion federal CARES (Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act should also be available to backfill any deficits, he said, not only for state but for counties, cities and towns as well.

“That will enable us to recoup dollars from the (impact of) the pandemic and make us whole,” he said. “Guidelines (for how that money can be spent) are enormously restrictive,” but he remains confident those guidelines will be relaxed to allow the money to be used for budget revenue loss backfill.

“Yesterday (Thursday), they came in with a new set of guidelines,” he said of federal legislators, which will help in several areas and those guidelines will continue to be adjusted. “Backfilling revenue is the next step.”

Justice said the future numbers look good.

“At the economic end of this thing, the state is gong to be okay,” he said, adding that the state “is doing good stuff and West Virginia is going to be fine. Our counties and cities are going to be fine.”

Justice also said the outbreak reported in Jefferson and Berkeley counties in the Eastern Panhandle last week has been handled and there is no need for the counties to be on “high alert” related to the surge that saw a total of 35 positive cases in one day,.

The numbers were attributable to a previous increase in testing in the area, he said, but he is proud of the way it was handled because the cause was not certain at the time.

“Overreact, that’s what we do,” he said of a rapid response team with the National Guard that “runs to the fire” if there is a sudden outbreak. “The numbers were alarming … but things are okay there.”

Justice said the Eastern Panhandle, which was earlier designated as a hotspot, is in close proximity to Northern Virginia and D.C. and that makes the region vulnerable to the import of the virus.

All of the cases have been isolated and contact tracing is being completed.

Justice said a teleconference is being organized for next week with a health professional from each county to gather input on the status of the counties in dealing with the pandemic.

It will be an opportunity for “all of us to come together” and to try to improve communication and provide support for each other, he said.

“This (pandemic) is not over,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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