BISMARCK — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is telling unemployed workers to get a job or risk losing their benefits as the COVID-19 hotspot in the state's capitol city grows.
Residents receiving unemployment checks from the state will once again be required to look for work and take jobs that are offered to them. Burgum announced on Wednesday, July 8, an amendment to a previous executive order that loosened the requirements for receiving unemployment benefits during the first three months of the pandemic.
Wednesday's amendment re-imposes the pre-pandemic policy that those receiving benefits must register for work and conduct an active search for a job. The amendment, which takes effect July 26, does not apply to those on furlough from work.
"As we work toward economic recovery and restoring consumer confidence in North Dakota, restoring a strong workforce is another important part of saving livelihoods," Burgum said in a press release.
Burgum's move comes as a federal program that provides unemployed Americans with an extra $600 a week is due to end at the end of the month. The program, which is part of the massive coronavirus stimulus package known as the CARES Act, has drawn criticism from many Republican politicians, including Burgum, who say it disincentivizes low-wage workers from returning to the workforce since they can earn more on unemployment.
North Dakotans have filed more than 137,000 unemployment claims and collected $568 million in benefits since mid March. Weekly claims are still four times higher than normal, but they are down significantly from the height of the state's economic distress in late March and early April.
Burgum also spoke Wednesday about the mounting COVID-19 cases in the Bismarck metro area.
Twenty-seven of the 73 new cases reported by the state Department of Health on Wednesday came from Burleigh and Morton counties.
Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, now has the most known active cases in the state at 128 — more than triple the amount it had two weeks ago.
Burgum said state officials are closely monitoring the area's outbreak, but they aren't yet focused on establishing a coronavirus task force like they did in Fargo two months ago. Burgum attributed the rising case count to an increase in testing and contact tracing. He also noted that the rate of positive tests and infections in nursing homes was much higher in Fargo than it is in Bismarck.
The governor once again encouraged Bismarck residents and all North Dakotans to take necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, like hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing. However, he said the outbreak in Bismarck likely won't throw a wrench in the state's plan to stay fully open.
"If other states are having to close up, let's be the one that stays open," Burgum said.
There are 439 residents of the state known to be infected with the illness — more than double the number of active cases on North Dakota's recent low point of June 22. North Dakota's pandemic-high number of active cases came May 21, when 670 residents were infected.
About 2% of the 3,669 test results announced Wednesday came back positive. The latest figures indicate a return to normal levels of testing after the holiday weekend.
Fifteen of the new cases came from Cass County, which includes Fargo and West Fargo. Of the 2,373 residents who once had the illness in the county, only 116 are currently infected.
Other new cases Wednesday came from 15 different counties, including Ramsey County with six and Benson County with four.
The department says 85 North Dakotans have died from the illness, including 70 residents of Cass County. Sixty-one of the deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
The death of a Cass County woman in her 90s was reclassified Wednesday to be included in the state's official count. Previously, the woman's death was part of the "presumed positive" category, which means a medical professional determined that COVID-19 was a cause of death but she was not tested for the illness while she was alive. There are still four people whose deaths remain in this category.
Gov. Doug Burgum said the state has the capacity to perform 5,000 tests per day, and he has urged residents to seek testing whether they have symptoms or not. The state has put on free mass testing events in the state's biggest metro areas for about a month.
Burgum noted Wednesday that the state will soon begin establishing fixed COVID-19 testing sites in large metro areas like Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck, Dickinson and Jamestown. He said testing at the sites will still be free and open to all who come.
A total of 3,971 North Dakota residents have tested positive, but 3,447 have recovered. There are 26 residents hospitalized with the illness, up two from Tuesday.
The state has announced the results of 208,192 tests, but some residents have been tested more than once.
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