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North Dakota governor: State's COVID-19 disaster declaration approved

North Dakota governor: State's COVID-19 disaster declaration approved

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BISMARCK, N.D. — Gov. Doug Burgum said Wednesday a major presidential disaster declaration has been approved as the number of COVID-19 cases in North Dakota continues to rise.

Burgum also extended closures for many North Dakota businesses by two weeks, until April 20. The order includes barber shops, beauty salons and other personal service and recreational businesses, along with restricting restaurants and bars to delivery and takeout service.

The disaster declaration by President Donald Trump would unlock federal aid to help North Dakota pay for its response to the pandemic, Burgum said at his daily press briefing.

The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in North Dakota increased by 21 on Wednesday to a total of 147. Three people in North Dakota have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. All of the victims were elderly and had underlying health conditions.

Burgum said he's heard from officials across the state that some people aren't taking social distancing seriously. He has so far refrained from issuing stay-at-home orders but he said, "if we have to, we will."

In Minot, a police officer was quarantined at home after testing positive for the coronavirus and five other department employees who were in contact with that officer were self-isolating. Chief John Klug told The Associated Press that the officer who tested positive did not need hospitalization.

One of North Dakota's largest oil producers filed for bankruptcy Wednesday, citing the coronavirus on top of plunging oil prices. Burgum said he expected more may follow and would "create real pressure on state budgets."

While Whiting Oil was filing for Chapter 11 protection, state leaders were looking at an expected $1.2 billion in aid from the federal bailout package - possibly enough with rainy-day money to avert the need to radically rework the state budget.

"There are so many unknowns right now but we can absorb a tremendous budget shortfall without a special session," state budget director Joe Morrissette said.

General fund revenue, which is funded largely by state taxes on income, sales and energy, was ahead of projections for the current two-year budget cycle by more than $106 million, Morrissette said.

The state also has $65 million from the prior budget cycle and a record $726 million in the state's Budget Stabilization Fund that can be tapped by the governor when tax collections fall short of expectations, though only after agencies endure across-the-board cuts.

Burgum and the GOP-controlled Legislature have so far resisted some suggestions for a special session because of the virus and crashing oil prices. They also have not shown an "appetite" to tap the principle from the state's voter-approved oil tax savings account. The Legacy Fund now holds about $7 billion. Approval from two-thirds of the House and Senate is needed to spend the principal.

Morrissette said the state doesn't yet know how it will use the $1.2 billion it's expecting from the federal economic stimulus package.

"We're still trying to determine how or if it can be applied to a revenue shortfall, or if it is only intended to cover the increase in state expenditures in relation to response to the coronavirus," he said.

North Dakota's coffers had been fatter than projected due to near-record drilling in its oil patch. But prices have dropped below $20 a barrel - and far from the $48 barrel forecast that was used to craft the current budget.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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