As the Governor’s Office continues to authorize a wide variety of businesses and activities to reopen in West Virginia, the different rules and guidance for each can be confusing, the governor’s general counsel conceded Wednesday.
“Quite frankly, sometimes we’re confused ourselves,” Brian Abraham, general counsel to Gov. Jim Justice, said during Wednesday’s state COVID-19 briefing.
A particular source of head scratching, he said, has been over whether a policy limiting public gatherings to a maximum of 25 people applies to businesses.
Abraham clarified that the 25-person limit applies to nonbusiness entities and activities, noting that, under the 50% capacity rule for dine-in restaurants, many eateries would exceed that 25-person limit. Justice’s executive orders allow dine-in restaurants to reopen beginning Thursday.
Thursday also sees approval to reopen a number of nonessential retail businesses, including malls and tanning salons.
Justice said state officials will carefully monitor for any outbreaks of coronavirus as West Virginia comes back online, particularly in the Eastern Panhandle, where border counties have much higher numbers of positive cases and COVID-19 deaths.
“We’re still really dialed in and watching our panhandle counties,” he said. “We’ve got to be super, super careful there.”
When later asked about the likelihood people from closed counties in Virginia and Maryland will flood into panhandle restaurants — and next week, bars — Justice said, “You can be daggum if you do and daggum if you don’t ... . I think what we have got to do is all the proper things in restaurants and bars that we can possibly do.”
Also during Wednesday’s briefing:
- State Corrections Commissioner Betsy Jividen said a second inmate, as well as a second staffer, at the Huttonsville Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19. She said both inmates were isolated Monday after running low-grade fevers.
As of Wednesday morning, she said more than 200 day-shift employees and all 43 inmates in the unit where the positive cases were reported have been tested.
- Scott Adkins, executive director of WorkForce West Virginia, said the state has paid out more than $600 million in unemployment claims to more than 200,000 residents.
He conceded there have been glitches in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments to self-employed and gig workers, including a system issue that delayed payments on May 12 and 13. He said delayed payments should be made by Friday.
Additionally, Adkins said about 200 PUA applicants submitted incorrect bank account information for direct-deposit payments and will be paid by check.
Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar, encouraged residents to wear face coverings when around others, citing an unnamed multinational study that said the spread of the virus can be contained if 80% to 90% of residents wear masks.
Justice picked up on the theme, stating, “Just wear your mask if you’re going outside and you’ll be in a crowd of people.”
While encouraging wearing masks, Justice has stopped short of mandating usage of face coverings.
Justice downplayed tweets from President Donald Trump earlier Wednesday threatening to cut federal funding to Michigan and Nevada if those states proceeded with efforts to expand absentee voting by mail in light of the coronavirus.
Trump claimed those states had illegally mailed ballots to all registered voters, when both states actually mailed applications for absentee ballots — something West Virginia did earlier this year for the June 6 primary election.
Justice said that, while he is not a fan of absentee balloting, he commented, “I can’t imagine the president is going to withhold funding in any way to West Virginia.”
In closing, Justice again urged residents to wear masks and practice social distancing, comparing successful efforts by Japan to curtail the spread of coronavirus with the United States. He noted that Japan, with a population of 126 million, has had 784 COVID-19 deaths, while the United States, with a population of 330 million, will soon surpass 100,000 deaths.
“In a half of a day,” he said, “we are going to lose as many people as Japan has lost.”