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Council approves COVID relief grant for transit

A CARES Act grant aimed at keeping city buses moving has been accepted by St. Joseph and could help recover losses brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The City Council approved by emergency ordinance the execution of a $4.4 million grant through the Federal transit Administration on Monday night. Public Works Director Andy Clements said that these funds could help make up for lost revenue, at least for awhile.

He said the federal government intends for the funds to help get cities through around six months, and while every city’s economy is different, that could be the case here.

“I would say in an average year, that will plug the gap for about six months here in St. Joe,” Clements said. “I think it was a good model coming out of D.C. and applying it here. That’ll give a good six-month window.”

He said the funds act as a reimbursement grant and can cover financial losses from any source.

“The idea with the stimulus money that’s come our way is that they’re making that available to plug in for lost revenues,” Clements said. “So, that is lost ridership, lost advertising sales. Probably the biggest area for us is going to be lost local (tax) revenue.”

Last month, budget talks revealed that the city is preparing for a 30% hit in revenue, largely due to a loss of income taxes as businesses were forced to close and the public held off on shopping. Transit sees its largest local source of income from locally generated taxes, including income and utility taxes.

“All reports are that those are really going down severely,” Clements said. “So, these funds are going to be able to be used to plug those gaps and, hopefully, by the time those funds run out, sales and revenue sources will start going up and the economy will be doing better.”

St. Joseph Transit told News-Press NOW last month that ridership had seen a decline of about 60% before steadying out with those who need to ride the bus no matter what. The system also is spending more on cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment in order to keep riders and drivers from coming into contact with COVID-19.

Clements said funds from the new grant could be available in the next two weeks.

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Central to success: Teachers support grads with kindness

In the years a teacher interacts with their students, they often come to know them better than anyone, save only their parents, and it is this truth that Amy Barnette relies on in trying times.

She knows that the students she guides through studies at Central High School are putting up with a lot right now, just like everyone else, only the experience of COVID-19 is even more traumatic for children, who are coming of age in a time of crisis. There may be many ways to help them with that, but the first, most tried and true prescription is love, and it is this love that drove her to volunteer to visit CHS graduating seniors around town in recent days to congratulate them on their success, with colleague Ashley Stanton.

“A lot of our students yesterday, they were just excited to see us,” Barnette said. “They were real excited, they were happy, they were smiling. I just think they felt complete. I think felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, someone’s there for me.’ And I am there for them. I will be, every day.”

It’s been a busy process, with a share of 320 seniors lined up for the closest thing to a graduation ceremony that can be managed right now. On a journey out to Avenue City, Missouri, with News-Press NOW tagging along, Barnette and Stanton made a special visit to one of the Class of 2020 academic and athletics leaders. Nicolas Steele is not Barnette’s pupil, per se, but as a fellow Avenue City resident, she has guided him throughout the course of his high school education, as she does for several local students.

Students who graduate from the K-8 Avenue City Elementary have the option — as there is no immediately local public high school — of attending Central, Benton or Lafayette high schools, among others, although most of them live in rural Andrew County and are outside of the St. Joseph School District bus service area.

So, Barnette and Steele drove to Central together every day until Steele was old enough to obtain a driver’s license. There have been obstacles, from deer popping out of nowhere on the highway to the far more complex challenges posed by the public health situation, but now arrives the moment Steele has anticipated for years.

He is only mildly bothered by the lack of a graduation ceremony, choosing instead to focus on how this will all be a unique story he will be able to share with the children and grandchildren he may have someday. Graduation is all about making memories. Well, he’s got plenty of those.

“I was pretty disappointed, but then I realized it was a really unique opportunity,” Steele said. “I thought this was a great chance to just see how we can reinvent how we go about it.”

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Courthouse to open despite rise in COVID-19 cases

The Buchanan County Courthouse is set to open Monday, May 11, despite the county failing to meet a White House benchmark for when localities should open up.

While the physical courthouse building will be open, the Missouri Supreme Court has extended its closure of many in-person court hearings to Friday, May 15.

“I don’t know, I mean we’re trying to look at what the state is doing, we’re trying to look at where we’re at from a county standpoint,” Lee Sawyer, the Buchanan County presiding commissioner, said. “We’ll be very careful and cautious in our reopening, but it seems like it’s the time to do it.”

Those who enter the courthouse have their temperature taken, something that likely will continue further into May, according to Buchanan County Western District Commissioner Ron Hook.

“We’ve been handing out masks to people who don’t have them,” Hook said. “We ask them to use it while they’re here.”

A News-Press NOW reporter who visited the courthouse on Monday saw many employees not wearing masks, including sheriff’s deputies, and observed a line of people waiting for service outside in a line near one of the courthouse entrances.

One courtroom did have a sign requiring those who attend now rare in-person court proceedings to wear a mask and practice social distancing.

President Donald Trump’s plan for “Opening Up America Again” calls for regions to have a “downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period” or “Downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period.”

According to St. Joseph Health Department data, Buchanan County has experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases over the past week, and thus cannot achieve the White House criteria.

“We actually had to turn somebody away last week (from the courthouse),” Sawyer said, citing that person’s temperature. He added that having to turn people away hasn’t been prevalent.

Even though the commissioners are opening back up the courthouse building, Sawyer said individual officeholders can choose how rapidly their employees return to the premises.

“Some offices might come back slower than others, but for the most part on the 11th we’ll have pretty much a full staff,” he said.

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341 COVID cases in Buchanan County

Buchanan County is recording 341 COVID-19 cases, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, up from 229 Sunday.

The DHSS initially reported a second death earlier Monday. This was a mistake due to a data entry error, according to the St. Joseph Health Department. Currently, one person in Buchanan County has died of COVID-19.

The St. Joseph Health Department is recording 253 confirmed cases and 23 probable cases of COVID-19 for a total of 276 cases.

Mosaic Life Care has issued 2,107 tests, with 84 returning a positive result, 1,984 a negative result and 39 still pending. Four patients are inpatients, all others are outpatients.

Across the state, Missouri recorded 8,754 cases of COVID-19 on Monday, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The number of cases is up by 368 from 8,386 Sunday, resulting in a 4.4% increase.

The number of deaths increased from 352 to 358.

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins University, which also counts presumptive positive cases, is reporting 8,706 cases in Missouri and 382 deaths.

Kansas is recording 5,245 cases of COVID-19, up from Sunday’s number of 5,030, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. A total of 136 people have died.