Coronavirus concerns cause Mississippi lawmakers to pack up and go home

Published 1:20 pm Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Mississippi legislators said Tuesday that they will suspend 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.

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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.

The bill was expected to pass. 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.