Gov. Jim Justice said Thursday he will announce initiatives on Friday intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle — possibly including mandatory face coverings — after the number of new cases in Berkeley and Jefferson counties spiked.
“Tomorrow, we may have to pull the reins back. We may have to go to mandatory masks,” Justice said during the daily state COVID-19 briefing. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Justice said the two counties reported 35 new cases Wednesday, contributing to a statewide 3.1% daily growth rate, marking the third straight day that coronavirus cases, in Justice’s words, have started to “blip up.” On Tuesday, the daily growth rate was 2.4%.
“These numbers are not good. That’s all there is to it,” he said Thursday.
The upturn in coronavirus cases comes two weeks after Justice rescinded a statewide stay-at-home order for nonessential workers and also authorized reopenings of a number of businesses, including barbershops, hair and nail salons, and outdoor dining at restaurants.
Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said Thursday the spike in cases in the panhandle was inevitable when businesses started reopening there while neighboring counties in Virginia and Maryland remained shut down.
“I’ve been saying for a month, when [Justice] started relaxing the closure orders, he needed to go slow on them in the two counties up here,” Doyle said.
“I think the governor in the first month of the pandemic did almost everything right. Since mid-April, however, I don’t think he’s done as well,” Doyle said of Justice’s plan to rapidly reopen businesses and activities.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said he’s been trying to warn the administration that a one-size-fits-all statewide rollout of reopenings would not work in the Eastern Panhandle, but to no avail.
“It’s really a mess here,” Unger said Thursday. “It could have been prevented, but the governor seems to want everything to move forward.”
Justice said Thursday he was sending the National Guard into the panhandle and, on Friday, likely will be announcing more strenuous guidelines for the affected counties, possibly including making the wearing of masks or other face coverings mandatory.
He admitted, though, that such a mandate could be difficult to enforce.
Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar, on Thursday continued to advocate for wearing masks or face coverings, noting that Japan, where mask-wearing is universal, has a COVID-19 death rate of 0.61 per 100,000 people, compared to a rate of 28 per 100,000 in the United States.
“The issue here is, if we wear masks, if we can get that to 80% [participation], we know we can protect ourselves and each other,” he said.
Doyle said of Justice, “I think he absolutely needs to have a mandatory mask order in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.”
Unger, however, said mandating masks could be a knee-jerk reaction in lieu of a comprehensive plan to address the spike in COVID-19 cases.
Despite the troubling figures, Justice also used Thursday’s briefing to announce the next rounds of openings under his six-week plan to bring the state back online.
Justice announced that swimming pools, bowling alleys, roller rinks, pool halls and other indoor amusement facilities may reopen on May 30, with tentative plans to allow movie theaters to reopen June 5.
“We’ve got to reopen. We’ve got to go back to work. Our president is leading us that way every single day,” Justice said.
Justice, who rarely criticizes the Trump administration, on Thursday took umbrage at a White House plan to end National Guard federal COVID-19 deployments in June after 89 days — one day short of the 90 days needed for Guard members to qualify for retirement and educational benefits.
“We need to push Washington in every way to support these men and women who are doing just unbelievable work,” Justice said. “To penalize them, and run them right up to the 90th day, and say, we’re going to cut them off at the 89th day, are you kidding me? Really?
“I’m not very happy with that, and we’re going to push back as hard as we can.”