60K more file for unemployment amid debate over reopening

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — About 60,000 additional Virginia workers applied for unemployment benefits last week, a figure that declined for the fourth straight week but was still far higher than before the coronavirus led to widespread business closures.
For the week ending May 2, 61,138 people in Virginia filed initial claims, according to federal data released Thursday. New applications have been falling since initial claims reached a record-setting nearly 150,000 in the week ending April 4.
The Virginia Employment Commission said in a news release that although “the volume of initial claims has retreated from its recent peak, it may not return to pre-pandemic levels for some time.”
In the month prior to impact from the coronavirus, initial jobless claims in Virginia averaged around 2,600.
Nationally, nearly 3.2 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week. Roughly 33.5 million people across the U.S. and about 625,000 in Virginia have filed in the seven weeks since the coronavirus began forcing millions of companies to close their doors and slash their workforces.
On Friday, the federal government will release April jobs data that’s expected to show epic losses and soaring unemployment. The unemployment rate is forecast to reach 16%, the highest rate since the Great Depression.
In Virginia, for the most recent filing week, continued unemployment claims were up over 10% from the previous week at 376,689, according to the employment commission.
“That total is more than ten percent of March private sector payroll employment in the Commonwealth,” the news release said.
In the comparable week last year, there were 18,478 continued claims.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced earlier this week that he expects to begin the first phase of reopening on May 15, when an executive order mandating certain types of nonessential businesses closures is set to expire.
The governor, a Democrat, has come under increasing pressure from Republican lawmakers and others to reopen as some other Southern states have done. But he’s also faced criticism from some who say Virginia isn’t prepared to relax its restrictions.
The Legal Aid Justice Center said in a statement Wednesday that doing so would be “reckless and cruel,” in part because of what it called Virginia’s relatively low testing rate for COVID-19 and the lack of an “established system” for contact tracing.
“There is no acceptable margin of lives lost or families devastated that justifies prioritizing economic pressures over the health and safety of people, especially when Black and brown Virginians would bear the brunt of this deadly calculation,” the center said in a statement.
Jason Coppage, who worked as a massage therapist in northern Virginia, has been out of a job for weeks because spas and massage parlors were among the businesses forced to close under Northam’s executive order. But he said he questions whether Virginia is on a path to reopening because it is safe or because of increasing pressure to address the economic downturn.
Coppage said he’s been applying for other jobs because he doesn’t feel comfortable returning to one where it’s impossible to distance himself from others.
Liz Kincaid, the co-owner of four Richmond restaurants —Tarrant’s Cafe, Tarrant’s West, Bar Solita and Max’s on Broad — said she worries about reopening her businesses too soon, not only for health reasons but for financial ones.
Three of the four restaurants are closed and the fourth is currently doing takeout only, bringing in about 5% of usual sales, she said.
“It’s slow. It’s crickets,” she said.
But to bring back staff at their usual salaries but not bring in the usual sales if customers stay away, “that would be the nail in the coffin,” said Kincaid, who’s envisioning a phased reopening.
As of Thursday, the state health department reported Virginia had over 21,500 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19, with 769 confirmed or probable deaths.
Millions of people around the world have been infected.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death. The majority of people recover.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.