Kansas adjutant general says draconian measures feared in social media posts aren’t in realm of possibility, state’s jobless claims grow 10,000 in one week and KDHE lab running short on virus testing kits.
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TOPEKA — First-time unemployment claims surged 10,000 in one week as the coronavirus infiltrated deeper into Kansas communities and the administration of Gov. Laura Kelly created a $5 million loan program targeting the hospitality industry in wake of a widespread economic slowdown, officials said.
"While our top priority is to keep Kansans safe and healthy, there is no question that these major disruptions to our daily lives pose a serious economic threat to Kansas businesses and workers," Kelly said. "During this turbulent time, our affected small business owners need support."
The Kansas Department of Labor reported Friday the agency logged 11,355 unemployment claims in the past week. That was a massive increase from the 1,296 jobless claims submitted the previous week.
"We are in uncharted waters right now, which underscores the importance of us working together," said Delia Garcia, the state’s labor secretary.
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the agency’s supply of COVID-19 testing kits would be exhausted sometime Saturday unless resupplied.
If that occurred, he said, the state would retain a certain number for hospitalized patients but otherwise redirect samples to private laboratories. KDHE had kits for about 300 tests and was on pace to use 150 to 200 per day.
"We’re precariously low on the test kits. We’ve put out appeals to our supply chain. By the way, this is not unique to our state. Everybody is struggling with this," Norman said.
Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard, said speculation about establishment of martial law, adoption of heavy-handed quarantines or imposition of other draconian measures was beyond the "realm of possibility."
Resources of the Kansas Guard remain dedicated to logistical operations in support of state and local officials, including distribution of medical supplies, he said.
"There’s all kinds of social media saying the National Guard is taking over, they’re on the streets, they’re going to do this or that," Tafanelli said.
The number of Kansans testing positive for COVID-19 stood at 44 based on latest reporting Friday by KDHE. However, Riley County officials subsequently announced its first case as the unofficial Kansas total continued to rise. Two out-of-state visitors to Kansas tested positive but weren’t included in the state’s count.
KDHE said state and private labs documented 23 cases in Johnson County and nine in Wyandotte County, where the state’s only known fatality occurred. Other confirmed cases are in Butler, Cherokee, Douglas, Franklin, Jackson, Leavenworth, Linn, Morris and Sedgwick counties. Kansas’ rate of testing positives has been around 4%, KDHE said.
In Kansas, K-12 schools were closed until May by the governor and university officials transferred classes to online instruction. The state recommended gatherings of no more than 50 people, but some county health departments set the cap at 10. Restaurants and bars have been shut down at the direction of local officials.
New business loans
David Toland, secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce, said Kansas expected to make available through the U.S. Small Business Administration loans of up to $2 million to companies disrupted by the economic whiplash of COVID-19.
This working capital will be available to small businesses in all 105 Kansas counties, he said. These federal loans can be used to pay fixed debts, payroll and other expenses. The interest rate will 3.75% for small businesses and 2.75% for private nonprofit organizations.
"SBA’s disaster loans are a powerful tool to help our state’s small businesses weather this temporary storm," Toland said.
Kelly said a $5 million hospitality industry relief fund, or HIRE, had been created by the state to offer loans to more than 10,000 hotels, restaurants, bars, event centers and other establishments in need of financial aid.
The HIRE fund would extend loans of no more than $20,000 at 0% interest for a term of three years to hospitality businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Of the total, $2 million would be earmarked for Johnson, Wyandotte, Shawnee and Douglas counties, $1 million for Sedgwick County and $2 million for the state’s 100 other counties.
"This stunning downturn has taken an immense toll," said Chuck Magerl, owner of Free State Brewing Company in Lawrence. "Programs like this, in addition to the just-legislated enhanced unemployment provisions, while not enough on their own to promise continuing operations, certainly are steps to keep the important hospitality industry on a pathway to possibilities."
The governor signed a bill Thursday passed by the House and Senate to extend Kansas jobless benefits by 10 weeks to a total of 26 weeks.
Banking, water issues
David Herndon, the Kansas banking commissioner, said consumers shouldn’t react to news of the virus by withdrawing bundles of cash from bank accounts.
"Kansas banks are safe and they are sound," he said. "No depositor has ever lost a penny of insured deposits since the FDIC was created in 1933. I urge Kansans to be safe, protect yourself and your funds by leaving them in your account."
He said lending institutions across the state were assisting Kansans by making new loans, amending terms of existing loans and working with borrowers adversely impacted by the pandemic.
Officials at the Kansas Water Office advised Kansans to continue to use and drink water from their tap as COVID-19 wasn’t present in drinking water supplies. There is no need to hoard bottled water, officials said.
"The state shares a deep understanding of the importance of a reliable, good quality of water and wastewater services in our daily lives and during a public health crisis," said Earl Lewis, director of the Kansas Water Office. "There isn’t a need to switch your normal routine or increase purchase of bottled water to address COVID-19."
The 2020 Legislature reached a budget deal that created a $50 million fund for the state’s response to COVID-19. In addition, the budget contained $15 million for the adjutant general’s office to navigate the pandemic.
Kansas Guard’s role
Tafanelli, the state’s adjutant general, said the Kansas National Guard was dedicated to relieving pressure on local communities in the same way it would after a tornado, flood or other natural disaster. That could mean transporting medical supplies from a clandestine location to hospitals throughout the state, as well as collection and delivery of test samples.
He said the Kansas Guard had 14 airmen and seven soldiers on active duty in Topeka assigned to this crisis. About 6,500 could be called upon to serve, but Tafanelli said the actual number would be much lower. Some of the servicemen and women provide critical resources to local communities, including law enforcement officers and medical professionals, and it would defeat the purpose to pull them away.
Even in the most extreme scenario, where fear and panic gives way to riots and looting, it is unlikely Kelly would call upon the Kansas Guard to police the streets.
"We would provide support to law enforcement on the administrative side so they can free up more of their officers to deal with those situations," Tafanelli said.
He urged Kansans to pause for a moment and adhere to recommendations for social distancing and sheltering at home.
"We’re going to get through this," Tafanelli said, "but the way we get through this the quickest and get back to a normal day-to-day life is if we all can cooperate, if we all make sure we do those things we can do individually to make sure we’re not contributing to the spread of the disease."
Before adjourning until late April, the 2020 Legislature adopted a measure designed to limit Kelly’s emergency powers.
Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said she didn’t want lawmakers to interfere with the governor’s ability to call upon resources of the Kansas Guard. She said troops possessed special skills if the state needed to stand up emergency hospital beds in university dormitories.
"I would want them available to do that," she said.