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The Check-Up: State will offer call-in, online 'town halls' to help navigate unemployment

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With this daily feature, The Eagle runs down breaking local developments in the coronavirus crisis.

THE NUMBERS: After only a slight bump Thursday, coronavirus cases in Berkshire County rose from 73 to 105 as of Friday afternoon, state health officials said. The day brought two deaths in the county. One was a man in his 60s and had been hospitalized with preexisting conditions. The second death involved a woman in her 90s. The total of deaths is now four in the county and 35 for the state.

LIFELINE ON JOBLESS BENEFITS: The state will offer call-in and online "town halls" to help people navigate what's proven to be a difficult system to obtain jobless benefits for those put out of work by the virus.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance will host sessions at noon daily. For information on how to sign up, search for the department's name online, then select "Important Unemployment Benefits Information" at the top of the page. Then look for a link to "Virtual town halls." Use that page to register for a session; the site allows visitors to select among several, including ones offered in Spanish.

The department promises to take applicants through the process of applying for benefits. People are asked to enroll by 5:30 p.m. the night before a session. The site also offers an instruction sheet that can be downloaded.

ENVIRONMENTAL GET-OUT-OF-JAIL FREE CARD? The Environmental Protection Agency this week bowed to requests from some of the industries it monitors, including oil and gas, to be spared certain provisions of existing laws.

That drew a rebuke Friday from Environment Massachusetts's state director. "The EPA's decision to stop enforcing key provisions of our environmental laws puts our air, water, and health at the mercy of polluters," said Ben Hellerstein. "The whole framework of the Clean Air Act depends on monitoring and reporting, without which we have no idea what facilities are releasing into the air we breathe."

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Hellerstein finds irony here. At a time when public health is on all minds, due to the virus, polluters won't be held to account, he noted.

"If EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will not rescind this policy immediately, we urge Congress to exercise its oversight authority to ensure the safety of our air and water," Hellerstein said in a statement.

PLAYGROUNDS CORDONED OFF: Playground equipment in Pittsfield will be roped off to keep children away. Other pieces will be removed. Both steps were announced Friday, as the city works to keep people away from areas that could bring people into contact or provide a means for the virus to be transmitted.

The mayor's office had already prohibited use of equipment in playgrounds. The step taken Friday underscores the importance of keeping people away from what her office called "non-sanitized surfaces." Parks remain open, however. If officials feel other steps should be taken to avoid contagion, they will be announced later.

NORTH ADAMS MAYOR OFFERS CONDOLENCES: In a letter to his community Friday, Mayor Thomas Bernard offered sympathy to relatives of the North Adams resident who died of COVID-19, the city's first victim of the disease.

"I offer these words that will be familiar to those who share my Catholic faith, but which I hope will resonate with everyone today," he wrote. "May perpetual light shine on them, and may it shine on all of us, especially now as this loss has reached our community and the path ahead of us may feel unclear."

Bernard also noted a "significant" increase in cases in North County, including at the Williamstown Commons nursing home. "This situation makes us realize that the virus moves faster than our testing capacity, our data reporting, the capacity of our healthcare system, and our response plans. That means there's a lot we don't know," Bernard wrote.

To contribute news to The Check-Up, please email lparnass@berkshireeagle.com or call 413-588-8341.


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