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In this Tuesday, May 19, 2020 photo, a Stewpot Community Services volunteer, right, loads boxes of fresh produce into a truck for the nonprofit Grace House in Jackson, Miss. Throughout the morning, 500 boxes of fresh produce, part of the Farmers to Families Food Box program, were distributed to 12 local groups from the Stewpot location in Jackson, Miss. The Farmers to Families Food Box program is part of the USDA Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program. (Barbara Gauntt/The Clarion-Ledger via AP)

:Associated Press 5/21/2020

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Wednesday that he is signing a bill that creates a $300 million grant program for small businesses hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

Legislators passed the bill with broad bipartisan support last week, using part of the $1.25 billion Mississippi has received from a federal relief package. Republican Reeves and his staff helped write the legislation, but the governor said he wanted to thoroughly review the bill before signing it into law.

Asked on Wednesday how soon the state might start sending checks to businesses, Reeves said: “As soon as possible.”

The program is divided into two parts. One has $60 million to provide $2,000 for businesses that were forced to closed by government orders, including barbershops, salons, dance studios, gyms and child care centers.

The other part has $240 million for grants ranging from $1,500 to $25,000 to cover expenses for virus response. For the first 21 days, the only applications considered would be from businesses that did not receive aid from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. And for the first 60 days, $40 million of this money is reserved for minority-owned businesses.

Mississippi casinos are allowed to start reopening Thursday for the first time in two months, with precautions to mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus. Reeves said Wednesday that he continues to consult with health officials about when it might be possible to open other tourist attractions and leisure activities, including youth baseball tournaments.

The state Health Department said Wednesday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — had at least 11,967 confirmed cases and 570 deaths from the coronavirus as of Tuesday evening. That was an increase of 263 cases and 16 deaths from the numbers reported a day earlier.

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, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

The Health Department said Wednesday that at least 120,680 coronavirus tests had been conducted in Mississippi as of Tuesday. The department said at least 1,568 cases of the virus had been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 281 virus-related deaths in those facilities.