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Governor: Nevada nowhere close to easing virus restrictions

April 15, 2020 GMT
A worker helps finish construction at a coronavirus isolation and quarantine complex for homeless Monday, April 13, 2020, in Las Vegas. The facility, scheduled to open Monday evening, was built to house homeless with suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus that don't require hospitalization. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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A worker helps finish construction at a coronavirus isolation and quarantine complex for homeless Monday, April 13, 2020, in Las Vegas. The facility, scheduled to open Monday evening, was built to house homeless with suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus that don't require hospitalization. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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A worker helps finish construction at a coronavirus isolation and quarantine complex for homeless Monday, April 13, 2020, in Las Vegas. The facility, scheduled to open Monday evening, was built to house homeless with suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus that don't require hospitalization. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said the state is nowhere near ready to begin reopening parts of its shuttered economy due to the coronavirus and is working to address a deluge of residents trying to get unemployment benefits.

The Democratic governor said in a Tuesday night news conference that he doesn’t have specific benchmarks he’d like to see before considering easing closures. He said he will rely on doctors who have been advising him about the pandemic while considering factors such as rates of infection and deaths, the impacts on hospitals and input from business. But he said he didn’t want to give anyone the idea that discussions about easing restrictions and reopening are happening anytime soon.

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“This is not going to be a political decision for as to when to open,” he said. “We’re going to take it slow and steady and listen to the doctors.”

Some neighboring states have announced they formed coalitions to work together on how to emerge, including California, Oregon and Washington.

Sisolak did not answer a question about whether he was asked to join the coalition of Western states but said he shares their goals and has communicated several times with California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

With Nevada’s powerhouse casino industry shuttered, along with all other businesses deemed nonessential, Sisolak said the state has seen 300,000 people file for unemployment in the last month, or about 10,000 people a day.

That volume has overwhelmed the state’s unemployment office, which the governor said is not designed to handle that many calls or attempts to file for benefits online.

Sisolak said the state is adding staff to help people seeking benefits, which will be retroactive so residents eventually get the money they need even if they can’t get through the system initially.

Kimberly Gaa, the director of the state Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation, said people getting unemployment benefits will begin receiving as soon as Wednesday an additional $600 a week from the federal government, as part of a $2.2 trillion aid package approved by Congress and signed into law by Trump.

The aid package also provides benefits to self-employed and gig workers, who typically are not covered by Nevada unemployment benefits. Gaa said the state is still working to set up the system for those workers, but it might not be ready until May.

To stagger the phone and online traffic for unemployment claims, the state is asking people whose last name starts with the letter A through K to file claims on Sunday; L through R on Monday; S through Z on Tuesday; and all other days are unrestricted.

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Health officials reported Tuesday that almost 3,100 people have tested positive for COVID-19 statewide, and 130 have died.

Most people with the virus experience mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can face severe illness including pneumonia and death.

In other developments:

— Sisolak activated 700 additional National Guard members to help respond to the outbreak, the largest activation in state history. The personnel will provide medical support and logistical help and join 106 soldiers and airmen already helping to manage donations and distribution operations in Las Vegas and Reno.

— Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada was closed to visitors. The park covers more than 120,500 square miles (312,135 square kilometers) and is known for its ancient bristlecone pine grove and Lehman caves. Near Las Vegas, the vast federal Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area are closed, along with some state parks.

— A Nevada commission has recommended that state officials decide if nonviolent felons and elderly inmates should be freed from Nevada prisons to prevent the spread of the coronavirus behind bars. The proposal now goes to the state Pardons Board. Sisolak said Tuesday night he has many concerns he wants answered about releasing inmates, including where they might stay, how they could find work and whether they could get medical care.