Broadway actor Nick Cordero may need double lung transplant after COVID-19 battle Thursday, Jul 2 2020 

Broadway actor Nick Cordero has been hospitalized since late March and already had to have his leg amputated due to complications from coronavirus.

        

Kentucky Fairgrounds COVID Field Hospital ‘Mothballed’ Thursday, Jul 2 2020 

The field hospital at the Kentucky Expo Center in Louisville has been ‘mothballed’, but could be reactivated in a week or less if Kentucky experiences a surge in cases of COVID-19, according to the Kentucky National Guard.

As other states experience surging cases of virus, Kentucky has so far maintained a “plateau,” meaning daily cases may go up or down, but average out over time.

Kentucky has averaged 221 new cases per day over the last week, according to the WFPL News Covid-19 tracker.

The number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in Kentucky remains low at 3.6% compared to the positivity rates seen in states including Arizona (24%), South Carolina (14%), Texas (14.4%) and Florida (16%), according to covidexiststrategy.org.

Taking a looking at available hospital space, Kentucky has 11,565 unoccupied hospital beds and 654 intensive care unit (ICU) beds as of July 1, according to data provided by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

In total, there were 495 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as of July 1. Seventy-three of those patients were in the ICU.

If the surges happening in other states, happens in Kentucky, Major Stephen Martin with the Kentucky National Guard said the field hospital at the state fairgrounds could be online in a week or less.

“So the alternate care facility at the Kentucky Fairgrounds and Expo Center is currently mothballed,” Martin said. “There are still beds there and everything is setup but we really just took the crews down and locked the doors.”

Martin said the decision to reopen the facility would be left to the Kentucky Health Cabinet and Gov. Andy Beshear.

As of July 1, Beshear said the state has seen 15,842 cases of coronavirus, 220 of which were reported on Wednesday.

So far, 572 people have died from COVID-19.

“Each one of these folks was special. Each one of them won’t get to see their friends, their neighbors, their kids and grandkids anymore,” said Beshear in a press release. “We cannot let this become the new normal. I’m heartbroken for these families.”

Jennifer Aniston: Masks being politicized at expense of people’s lives Wednesday, Jul 1 2020 

The 'Friends' alum sent a blunt message to her Instagram followers while making a plea to help businesses and exhausted health care workers.

        

Kentucky Still Struggling With Unemployment Backlog Wednesday, Jul 1 2020 

Unemployment Delay

Frustrated with the slow-moving bureaucracy of the state’s unemployment system, Titus McClung was one of thousands of protesters who went to the state capitol to try and get his unemployment check.

He drove in from Lexington.

“I’m behind on my electric bill. Hopefully I can get some money so I can catch up on my car payment,” said McClung, who goes on dialysis three times a week and has been living off of his disability check and with the help of his daughter.

McClung works part time at the Red Cross’ Wheels program but was temporarily laid off on March 14, along with several coworkers, who he said had all gotten their unemployment benefits.

But three months later, McClung was still waiting for a check.

“It’s been hard,” McClung said on June 18. “I’m sure there are other people worse off than I am. I’m not in the best of shape, but there’s always someone that’s worse off.”

McClung’s is one of more than 6,700 unemployment benefit claims from March that still haven’t been resolved. There are also more than 25,000 unresolved claims from April and 17,000 from May, according to state officials last week.

In all, there have been more than 900,000 requests for unemployment benefits filed by Kentuckians since early March amid the coronavirus pandemic, overwhelming the state’s unemployment system.

The spectacle of thousands of people descending on Frankfort to try and get their unemployment claims resolved two weeks ago prompted Gov. Andy Beshear to provide more in-person assistance to those seeking benefits — the state opened up regional offices in Owensboro and Grayson to review claims this week.

And on Tuesday, Beshear announced a $7.4 million contract to partner with a private firm to process unemployment claims, with the hopes of clearing the more than 50,000-claim backlog from March, April and May by the end of the month.

But the backlog continues to draw outrage from both those who haven’t received their checks yet and Republican politicians.

During a legislative committee meeting about the issue on Friday, Paducah Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll said the Beshear administration should have thought more about the unemployment system before ordering businesses to close during the pandemic.

“We have people now that are greater risk of not being able to feed their kids and losing everything they have than they are of the COVID and we did not even bother to consider that when all of these decisions were made,” Carroll said.

Beshear has blamed the backlog on antiquated software and policies that encourage the system to deny or delay applications.

He’s also blamed his predecessor, Gov. Matt Bevin. In 2017, Bevin eliminated 95 positions that handled unemployment claims and removed workers that dealt with the claims from 31 of the state’s 51 employment centers.

“I believe at that time, face-to-face interactions were removed. And what they had as of 2017 was twelve people who would answer a phone in a call center,” Beshear said.

But Kentucky’s problem is not unique. State governments across the country have struggled to deal with a record number of unemployment applications filed in those initial months of the pandemic.

Across the country, more than 43 million applications for benefits were submitted over the course of a 12-week period during the pandemic, over four times the previous record for claims filed nationwide.

Gary Burtless is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“That’s a lot to put on state unemployment insurance agencies, which remember, at the very same time, were themselves facing the same health risks as all the other employer the country,” Burtless said.

Michele Evermore with the National Employment Law Project says states simply didn’t have a global pandemic and recession on their radar.

“The idea of basically 20% of the workforce applying for initial claims in a matter of months is nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Evermore said.

Evermore says that states need to pay more attention to their unemployment systems, especially when they aren’t going through a crisis.

“The time to fix this problem was two years ago. Nobody was paying attention then,” Evermore said.

Back in Frankfort, Titus McClung got his meeting with state officials. They said they could straighten out his application, but needed more information from him.

“Oh Lord, oh my God you have no idea, it’s been so hard,” McClung said. “Boy it’s been a long road.”

But the road wasn’t quite over yet.

This week, McClung said he still hasn’t received his benefits. Though, he did say he got some more paperwork in the mail for it.

“They told me I was supposed to go on the computer, I went in there and did what I was supposed to did, then they send me another paper to upload some off the wall stuff. And I’m still waiting,” McClung said.

And so are a few thousand other Kentuckians. McClung says he got his part-time job back with the Red Cross last week, but he still missing lost wages dating back to March.

State officials say they are prioritizing claims that were made in March.

WFPL reporter Jess Clark contributed to this story.

Cinemark to reopen some theaters July 24 Wednesday, Jul 1 2020 

Masks will be required for moviegoers and employees as the chain prepares for new movies like 'Tenet' and 'Mulan.'

        

WATCH LIVE: Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s Weekly Coronavirus Update Tuesday, Jun 30 2020 

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has decreased the frequency of his coronavirus updates to once a week. Tuesday’s update comes a day after the state entered another phase of reopening, allowing bars, swimming pools and music venues to operate with fewer than 50 people.

Kentucky has not so far experienced the dramatic spike in cases seen in states including Arizona, Texas and Florida. Both Florida and Texas closed down bars Friday as a result. But the website COVID Exit Strategy flags Kentucky as “trending in the wrong direction,” having reported a 35% increase in new positive COVID cases over the last 14 days.

October’s St. James Art Fair Canceled Amid Coronavirus Concerns Monday, Jun 29 2020 

Organizers have canceled the annual St. James Court Art Show, which usually happens every October in Old Louisville.

This would have been the 64th annual event; the art show routinely draws more than 250,000 visitors and involves more than 600 artists. But this year, citing the continued risk from COVID-19, Executive Director Howard Rosenberg said canceling the show was in the best interest of everyone’s health and safety.

“Our executive board and art show staff do not take this decision lightly, and although it saddens us to have to cancel this year’s St. James Court Art Show, the health and safety of our staff, artists, and visitors is our highest priority,” Rosenberg said in a press release.

Instead, the St. James Court Art Show will highlight artists on its website starting on September 1. Every artist who had a spot in this year’s show will be automatically invited to exhibit in 2021; that event is scheduled for October 1-3, 2021.

Looking For County-Level Data On The Coronavirus? Here’s Our Kentucky COVID-19 Tracker Monday, Jun 29 2020 


Coal Towns Were Counting On Tourism For New Jobs. Then Coronavirus Hit. Monday, Jun 29 2020 

Kayak on river

On a recent sunny weekday, Bill Currey proudly walks among 30 neatly stacked, brightly colored plastic kayaks. Birds chirp merrily, and the soothing sounds of the meandering Coal River permeate the background — nature’s version of a white noise machine. 

For the tanned Currey, who also owns an industrial real estate company, being here, on the river, is as good as it gets. His goal is to share this slice of paradise with as many people as will listen. 

“Outdoor adventure is where the new world is as far as new tourism opportunities,” Currey said. “And rivers are cheap. We own them. They’re available once they’re cleaned up, you know, they’re an ideal platform to bring people from all over the United States to come.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Bill Currey, chairman of the nonprofit Coal River Group in Tornado, WV.

But the idea of spending the day kayaking down the 88-mile long Coal River in southern West Virginia was not always so appealing. 

Coal was first found on the banks of the Coal River in the mid-1800s, and it’s been mined in these rugged mountains ever since. In 2012, the Coal River was labeled one of the most endangered in the country by conservation group American Rivers, largely due to pollution from the industry from which the river takes its name.  

Currey helped found the nonprofit Coal River Group, which has been dedicated to cleaning up the watershed for 16 years. 

“These beaches are going from black, they used to be covered with coal, to white, and they’re beautiful,” he said. “That’s been a big improvement.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Coal River in southern West Virginia, made up of the Little and Big Coal Rivers.

And now that the river is clean, Currey and others in southern West Virginia are hoping the region’s natural beauty can help revitalize an area long dependent on coal. They’re betting on a different natural resource — outdoor recreation and tourism. 

It’s an idea gaining traction across the Ohio Valley, where many coal communities are diversifying their local business base. The coronavirus pandemic added to the challenge, with staggering economic fallout from closures associated with stemming the virus. But several coal-reliant communities and experts the Ohio Valley ReSource spoke to said the pandemic may unlock new opportunities to grow interest in the region and what it has to offer. 

The Good

First, the good. People are eager for a safe break from quarantine life and health experts agree, while not devoid of risk, recreating outside where the virus can disperse more easily is safer than many other activities. 

Case in point, kayaking. 

“You know, on a kayak you got a six-foot paddle,” Currey said. “Well, that limits who can get very close to each other.”

Boat launches on the Coal River have been swamped with visitors eager to get into the water on the weekends, he said. 

In Norton, Virginia, a small, traditionally coal-reliant community of about 4,000 people that borders eastern Kentucky, traffic counters show people are flocking to the nearby Flag Rock Recreation Area. The city has invested in campgrounds and hiking and mountain biking trails on the mountain as part of its strategy to diversify its economy toward outdoor recreation. 

“We’ve constantly been getting contacted by people asking, ‘When are you starting some of your classes or your outdoor activities such as outdoor yoga, or mountain bike rides, group rides and things like that,’” said Fred Ramey, Norton’s city manager. “So, I think there’s a pent-up demand.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Hiking trails in the Flag Rock Recreation Area in Norton, VA.

According to a survey from the National Recreation and Park Association released in late May, two in three park and recreation leaders report increased usage of their agency’s parks compared to this time last year, while more than 80% report increased usage of their trails.

Increased demand also comes with challenges, especially for group outdoor recreation activities such as whitewater rafting. 

Joe Brouse, executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, which serves Raleigh, Fayette, Nicholas and Summers counties in southern West Virginia, said rafting companies missed out on the first part of the season due to coronavirus shutdowns. To comply with social distancing guidelines, they are required to limit things like raft occupancy. 

“The logistics of opening, because it’s not just reopening, are very, very challenging,” he said.

But the world’s new COVID reality — where air travel remains an unpopular way to travel — could boost interest in regional tourism,  Jack Morgan with the National Association of Counties. Appalachia is located within 500 miles of about 70 percent of the country’s population.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A display at the Norton City Hall promotes outdoor recreation.

“Appalachian communities are well positioned to capitalize on travelers who may be seeking recreation or that nature escape relatively nearby as opposed to a larger cross country trip or international trip,” he said. 

However, Morgan cautioned that diversification is a long, tough process. Many communities are in the beginning stages of mapping their next chapters. The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic comes on top of years of declining tax revenues from the coal industry. 

“This could be a significant bump in the road to many communities who, excitingly, are really starting to blossom and gain some momentum,” he said. 

That’s especially true for the restaurants, hotels and small businesses that tourists frequent after they come down from the trails. 

The Challenges

Ramey, the city manager of Norton, Virginia, said one of his primary concerns during this pandemic has been ensuring small businesses along the town’s brick-lined downtown survive. 

“One of the reasons why we really looked towards tourism as part of our economic plan is that we did have some of those resources such as hotels and restaurants and things like that,” he said. “We’ve been very concerned about the economic impact to those businesses and tried to do some things to support them through all of this and so we hopefully will all be ready to move forward at the appropriate time.”

That includes providing small “bridge loans” to businesses. Norton has given out about 50 loans, totaling nearly $250,000. The 60-month loans require no payments or interest for the first six months, Ramey said. 

Providing a financial boost for businesses is something the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority is also doing with the help of a $750,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant that will allow the group to recapitalize an existing revolving loan fund. 

“So we’re trying to pump some capital back into the tourism community that way,” said Brouse, the group’s executive director. 

In southeastern Ohio, nonprofit Rural Action has so far helped distribute about $35,000 in small grants. The program was started via a Facebook fundraiser to help support local businesses. 

Dan Vorisek, program coordinator for the resilient communities program at Rural Action,  the communities he works with in Ohio are in the early stages of reorienting their economies toward outdoor recreation and tourism. He said there is a contingent of businesses that are struggling, but others are using the pandemic as a chance to reevaluate their own models. 

“So, from what I’ve seen, it’s a combination of businesses just trying to make it to the next week, and then other businesses that actually have the opportunity to plan for the future,” he said. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Coal River Group has about 30 kayaks to rent to tourists.

The Optimism

In southeastern Ohio, Vorisek’s investors are still moving forward in developing the local bike trail network and surrounding communities. 

“They see the potential,” he said. 

That potential could be shaped by a broader urban reckoning. Many rural places haven’t seen the high coronavirus case numbers that cities have, although that may be changing as states continue to reopen. Telework, once a barrier for many companies, has become increasingly acceptable. 

That’s how Ramey sees it. 

“There could be a flight to places like ours now, and the Appalachian area,” he said. “If you can work from home, you can work from anywhere, and so that anywhere could be Norton, Virginia.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A kayak sits on the Coal River.

Back on the Coal River, Bill Currey agrees. 

“We’re like a national park that’s not designated,” he said. “Big city people are saying, through the pandemic, ‘I don’t want to live in this downtown where I can’t grow a garden like those people in West Virginia. I don’t want to live downtown and not go to the grocery store when those West Virginians are going out and they’ve got deer meat, they’ve got fish.’ It’s like, we’ve got so much of what the other part of the country doesn’t have.” 

But he adds if you aren’t ready to move just yet, you could always start by visiting and spending a day on the river. 

 

Broadway will remain closed through end of 2020 due to coronavirus Monday, Jun 29 2020 

There will be no performances on Broadway until 2021 at the earliest, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

        

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