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Mississippi legislators to consider virus aid to businesses

(AP) — Mississippi legislators will be back at work Thursday to consider proposals to help businesses that have been hurt by the coronavirus outbreak, House and Senate leaders said Tuesday.
It will be the second time in less than a week for legislators to return to the Capitol after putting their session on hold in mid-March because of the pandemic. They passed a bill Friday to give the Legislature control over spending $1.25 billion that Mississippi is receiving from the federal government in a massive coronavirus relief package.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has called that bill a power grab by the Republican-majority Legislature, saying he’s best positioned to spend the federal money as needs arise.
The state constitution gives the Legislature the authority to spend public money, but Reeves says a 40-year-old state law gives the governor some spending power during emergencies.
During a news conference Tuesday, Reeves mentioned the possibility that he would veto the bill, setting up further confrontation with lawmakers. Overriding a veto takes a two-thirds margin. Legislators would easily have that based on Friday’s vote, which was unanimous in the House and nearly unanimous in the Senate. But, it’s not unusual for lawmakers to change their minds.
Reeves also said Tuesday that his administration still intends to hire consultants to ensure that Mississippi follows guidelines for spending the federal relief money. He said the federal government might take back unspent money or demand repayment of money that’s misspent.
“I’m not mad at anybody about it. I’m not trying to threaten anybody,” Reeves said. “I’m just simply telling you: This is what’s going to happen.”
Reeves said he would like to spend some of the federal relief money on barbers and hairdressers who have been unable to work because of shutdown orders from the government.
Legislative leaders on Tuesday did not provide details of their plan to help businesses, but Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn said the House and Senate “will act together to provide relief as quickly as possible this week.”
“The backbone of our economy in Mississippi is our small businesses, and now they need our support,” Gunn said in a statement.
Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said in the statement that legislators represent the whole state.
“We know Mississippi’s small businesses — our local restaurants, barber shops, hair salons, and retail shops — need help,” Hosemann said.
The state Health Department said Tuesday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — had at least 8,207 confirmed cases and 342 deaths from the coronavirus as of Monday evening. That was an increase of 330 cases and 32 deaths from the previous day.
It was Mississippi’s largest single-day increase in virus death numbers. The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said 18 of the deaths happened earlier but were included in the Monday statistics because that’s when the Health Department received information from death certificates.
The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
The Health Department said Tuesday that more than 80,300 coronavirus tests had been done in Mississippi as of Monday. The department said at least 965 cases of the virus had been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 125 deaths from it in those facilities.
The governor’s “safer at home” order started April 27, replacing a stricter stay-at-home order that was in place for more than three weeks. The new order remains in effect until Monday morning and has allowed some to reopen with limits on how many customers may be present. Barbershops, salons, tattoo parlors and entertainment venues such as movie theaters remain closed.
Reeves is easing some restrictions on restaurants and outdoor gatherings, beginning Thursday. Restaurants will be allowed to open indoor dining rooms and outdoor seating areas with masks on servers and limits on the number of customers. Outdoor gatherings such as youth sports practices may have up to 20 people, an increase from the current limit of 10.
Reeves said Tuesday that even though larger gatherings are allowed, those still might be bad for some people.
“There is no government replacement for your personal responsibility and wisdom,” Reeves said. “Please take our warnings seriously. Please do not go back to normal. Please do not give up.”