JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi has established a website where owners of small businesses can soon start applying for grants funded by a federal coronavirus pandemic relief package, Gov. Tate Reeves said Friday.
The site — backtobusinessms.org — has rules for the program created by state legislators and approved by Reeves. Grants of $1,500 to $25,000 are available to businesses with 50 or fewer employees.
Reeves said the state is in the process of hiring a private contractor to administer the program. Although the Republican governor has said many times that he wants to get money to businesses soon, he cautioned that there could be a rush of applications in the beginning.
“There are going to be growing pains. We are starting up a program from scratch," Reeves said.
The governor has gradually eased restrictions on businesses in recent weeks, allowing barbershops, beauty salons, tattoo parlors and casinos to reopen and restaurants to allow dine-in services — all with additional health regulations and limits on customers to try to mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus. Starting Monday, all types of businesses, including movie theaters, will be allowed to reopen under those rules.
“Open for business does not mean risk-free,” Reeves said Friday, cautioning that people should still wear masks and practice social distancing when they're away from home.
Extra precautions have been mandated in eight of Mississippi's 82 counties that have had disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Reeves said Friday that he's revising the list by removing Attala, Leake, Scott and Newton counties. He also said he's adding Wayne County to the remaining four: Holmes, Jasper, Neshoba and Lauderdale.
In those five counties, masks must be worn by people at outdoor events such as flea markets or auctions, and by those shopping inside. Businesses must provide masks for their employees in retail settings, and employees must wear masks while working.
In addition, businesses are required to screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms at the start of each shift, to provide hand sanitizer and ensure employees remain at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart wherever possible. Those who cannot maintain that distance must wear a mask while working, and the mask must be sanitized or replaced daily.
The state Health Department said Friday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — has had at least 14,790 confirmed cases and 710 deaths from the coronavirus as of Thursday evening. That was an increase of 418 cases and 17 deaths from the numbers reported a day earlier. The numbers include four deaths that occurred May 11-15, with information arriving later on 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 that clear up within weeks. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
The Health Department said at least 1,839 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 358 virus-related deaths in those facilities.
The department also said Friday that more than 166,300 coronavirus tests had been conducted in Mississippi as of Thursday. More than 7,300 of those were blood tests that detect whether a person has antibodies that usually show up after an infection is resolved.