Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin declared a state of emergency for West Virginia’s capital city Sunday night as the threat of the new coronavirus grows.
The proclamation will not mean any immediate changes to city operations or services, Goodwin said. Instead, it will grant city leadership flexibility in dealing with complex issues, like the future spread of COVID-19.
“What this does is it initiates the powers of the mayor to help in situations like natural disasters or here, with a public health emergency,” said Jonathan Storage, Charleston’s city manager. “While we have somewhat of a calm period right now, that may not last. This proclamation imbues in the mayor access to some powers that could help in those times.”
As of Sunday night, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in West Virginia. According to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, 39 residents have been tested in the state for the virus. Of those, 38 were negative and one is still pending.
While there is not a confirmed case, leaders in Charleston and Kanawha County are being realistic about the spread of the disease. They acknowledged at a joint news conference Friday they will act as though there are confirmed cases, and that not doing so would be irresponsible.
“We’re not doing this to instill panic, it’s about getting the word out. We all know ... the number of tests [for COVID-19] going on in West Virginia, it’s safe to say, is woefully insufficient,” Storage said. “As [Gov. Jim Justice] said, this is a monster. We’re not trying to be scary about it, we’re trying to be prepared.”
Goodwin said the decision to proclaim a state of emergency came after she and others watched cities and states across the nation doing the same.
“This isn’t a big-city problem,” Goodwin said. “This is an everywhere problem. We have to do all we can, knowing that.”
The decision also is allowing the city to practice a bit of what they’ve been preaching, Goodwin said. With a City Council meeting slated for tomorrow, Goodwin wanted to avoid physically gathering if possible.
“We keep asking people not to be in crowds, social distance, you know,” Goodwin said. “A lot of people come to those meetings. That’s against what we’ve been advising, so we’re switching things up.”
Now, city officials will conduct the meeting electronically.
As the virus continues to spread throughout the United States, some mayors and governors have taken to restricting business hours and operations to help stop the disease’s spread.
Goodwin said that is a conversation city officials are going to “continue to have” over coming days. Since the city, itself, operates more than 30 public buildings and services for various aspects of residents’ daily lives, it’s not an easy choice to consider.
“We have to be very careful in talking about limiting access to places,” Goodwin said. “Local government is nothing like any beast out there. We have so many essential employees, we can’t tell everyone to work from home. People still need [their] trash picked up, you still need to know if you call 911 someone will respond.”
There are no plans at this time to limit daily operations around the city, Goodwin said. This situation, however, is fluid — things are changing quickly, so it’s hard to say what will happen in a week.
“[Proclaiming] a state of emergency for the city does bring this to a level of seriousness we believe is called for right now,” Goodwin said. “Again, I go back to this. It’s not a time to panic, this is the time to be thoughtful and, most important, realistic to the challenges we’re watching other cities face. We as a city want to be proactive rather than reactive.”