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State Legislature suspends work amid coronavirus

Mississippi legislators Tuesday suspended their session until at least April 1 because of the coronavirus pandemic, in accordance with a recommendation from the state health officer.

“We are asking you to just put a pause button on where we are and just give us a buffer, a break,” House Speaker Philip Gunn told his colleagues Tuesday in a Capitol that was mostly empty of visitors.

Mississippi reported 21 confirmed cases of the virus as of Tuesday, up from 12 on Monday.

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, spent the afternoon packing up items from her office in the Capitol building.

As chairman of the Judicial A committee, Doty has a heavy committee responsibility.

“This is going to give me a couple of weeks to continue to review bills and work on bills, so even though the session is suspended I will be very much actively engaged in committee work. This will allow me to spend some time with some pretty important legislation.”

Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said she’s glad to see the state Legislature taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

“We are taking it as seriously as we hope everyone else is,” said Currie, who is a home care nurse when she’s not in session. “There’s a lot more to be done, and, unfortunately, I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

She urges people to follow the guidelines involving social distancing and hygiene.

“We just don’t know who has it and who doesn’t. People need to follow these guidelines, especially if you have any underlying health conditions,” she said. “If you can’t give it to somebody it’s going to fizzle out.”

She said she understands children and teenagers who are restless at home.

“The best thing for them to do is stay at home and to do their work that’s being sent to them because they’ll go back to soon. Nobody knows how long this will last,” she said.

Rep. Vince Mangold, R-Brookhaven, who is a cattle and poultry farmer, is spending his time away from Jackson back on his farm in Lincoln County.

Mangold said he and other Legislators will still be available to constituents.

“As we all will, but we’ll go back to our regular work until they call us back. Now they may call us back next week, they have that option should something arise,” he said.

On Tuesday, lawmakers were attempting to finish up one urgent task before pushing the pause button: considering a bill that would give city and county governments and school boards the power to pay hourly employees who are not working during a disaster, including the current pandemic. Final action in the Senate is expected to pass today. State law already authorizes Mississippi state government to pay its hourly employees who can’t work during emergencies.

The legislation would not affect private businesses, although Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez sought changes to make unemployment benefits available to private employees temporarily out of work.

Republican House Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White of West said it was too soon to know what help the federal government might provide private employees.

“This bill is about taking care of what we can take care of,” White said.

All of 26 of Mississippi’s state-regulated casinos closed Monday night, under order from the state Gaming Commission. More than 16,400 employees work in the 26 casinos, which are strong tourist attractions along the Mississippi River and on the Gulf Coast.

The Mississippi Board of Education will have an online meeting Thursday to consider a recommendation from state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright. She is asking the board to suspend state and federal assessment and accountability requirements for this school year. If schools need to be closed for an extended period, Wright will recommend that the state board waive requirements for attendance, promotion and graduation, the state Department of Education said in a news release.

Gov. Tate Reeves issued two executive orders Monday. One makes the National Guard available at testing centers for the virus, with a goal of creating additional testing centers.

The other order allows schools and state and local governments to give time off to “nonessential personnel.” Reeves said he encourages other employers to do the same. He said that executive order also encourages schools to set up distance learning options.

He said the second executive order also instructs schools to continue providing free or reduced lunches to thousands of children, although it was not clear how that would be done. Volunteer groups in Tupelo and elsewhere around the state have been handing out free lunches.

The 21 positive cases of the coronavirus had been found among 389 people tested in Mississippi by Tuesday. The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dabbs, said Monday that labs are accepting samples and testing them each day, and results are generally available in 24 hours or less.

The Mississippi State Department of Health website said that by Tuesday, Hinds County had six cases; Leflore County had four; Forrest County had three; Copiah and Pearl River counties had two each; and Hancock, Harrison, Jackson and Monroe counties had one each.

For most people, coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. People with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover, according to the World Health Organization.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.