West Virginians now will be required to wear face masks in public buildings, Gov. Jim Justice announced Monday.
The executive order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, applies to everyone 9 years or older.
“West Virginia, we are absolutely in a situation to where we have got to make a move right now,” Justice said during his regular COVID-19 briefing Monday afternoon. “I know there’s going to be pushback. I know there’s going to be people saying, ‘I don’t have to do that.’ I’ll tell you, West Virginia, if we don’t do that and do this now, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”
The order requires state residents to wear an “adequate face covering” when they are in a confined space and social distancing isn’t possible. The order does not apply to anywhere outdoors. In addition to face masks, the order says face coverings can include such things as bandanas, handkerchiefs, face shields and dust masks.
Justice said it will be up to businesses to enforce his order, adding there would not be any criminal charges or other governmental action for people who do not wear a mask outside of their own homes.
Justice said he had “all the confidence in the world” that local businesses would “encourage enforcement” and that West Virginians would “do a great, great job with just this.”
Justice said to impose fines for not wearing a mask would be divisive.
“As far as it being a criminal offense, if you choose not to wear a mask, well, there is no criminal offense,” Justice said. “As far as hauling you off to jail, well, we’re not going to haul you off to jail.”
Justice referred to his general counsel, Brian Abraham, who said the general counsel for the state’s Department of Homeland Security had advised law enforcement officers that it would be acceptable under the governor’s order for people carrying concealed firearms to wear a mask.
The order also said a state law prohibiting people from wearing certain face coverings outside of costumes, work masks or to protect themselves from the weather also will be relaxed.
Last Thursday, the governor said he was considering mandating that West Virginians wear masks, but declined to make a decision until after the July Fourth holiday weekend, saying he wanted to look at the state’s coronavirus numbers before making his decision.
Justice made the mask announcement Monday, the same day the Mountain State recorded its highest number of new COVID-19 cases. The West Virginia Division of Health and Human Resources reported Monday that 119 new cases of the virus were diagnosed during the July Fourth weekend.
Two deaths were reported over the weekend — the 94th and 95th since the pandemic began. The victims, an 84-year-old woman and an 89-year-old woman, both contracted the virus amid an outbreak involving a church in Greenbrier County, Justice said.
In issuing the executive order, Justice said he wanted to avoid a spike in cases, like what’s being seen in Texas, where he said they were experiencing “a disaster beyond belief.”
Texas reported 8,258 new cases of COVID-19 Saturday, a record for that state, according to an NPR report. NPR reported at least two hospitals in South Texas said they were at full capacity as of Sunday.
“You see an absolute catastrophe right now going on in front of your eyes in Texas,” Justice said.
West Virginia’s data reported Monday didn’t include any cases that may have been contracted during any Independence Day festivities. It takes the virus between seven and 14 days to incubate, Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s COVID-19 czar said during a press briefing on May 6.
Marsh, who also is the vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University, said data from the National Governors Association indicated that states where masks had been mandated had an 11% decrease in the number of people who tested positive for the virus. States where there was no mask requirement saw an 84% increase in the infection rate, Marsh said. States where masks were mandated for employees of open businesses but not for customers still led to a 70% increase in the virus’ spread.
Marsh said the state’s R0 rate had taken a sharp increase in the past 10 days.
The R0 is a measurement of how contagious the virus is, with any rating below 1 indicating the virus is being contained and a rating above one indicating the virus is spreading.
On Monday, West Virginia’s R0 was 1.27, the seventh highest in the country, Marsh said. West Virginia’s R0 on May 4 was 0.76, Marsh said during the May 6 briefing.
Marsh and Justice both pointed to West Virginia’s at-risk adult population, as the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in March that West Virginia had the largest population of at-risk adults in the country.
Marsh additionally noted there was an increasing number of COVID-19 diagnoses in West Virginia in people who had not yet started to experience symptoms of the virus.
“We want to make sure we are protecting our very vulnerable population and protecting each person by doing the altruistic and courageous thing by wearing masks,” Marsh said.
This story has been updated to clarify data from the National Governors Association shared during Gov. Jim Justice’s press briefing Monday.