Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday offered the strongest indication yet that he will mandate West Virginians wear face masks, with the official order possibly coming as early as Monday.
Justice said at Thursday’s daily COVID-19 briefing that he is thinking about mandating the wearing of masks in public buildings, in light of a second surge of COVID-19 cases in Florida, Texas, Arizona and other states.
“I am very, very seriously considering, at the beginning of next week, that we may very well have to go to mandating masks in buildings other than your homes,” he said.
“We do not want to end up being Florida. We do not want to end up being Arizona or Texas, where they can’t stop this thing now,” Justice said, noting that the United States recorded a single-day record number of new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.
While Justice has been hesitant to follow the lead of other governors and mayors in mandating wearing masks, saying such a mandate would be “divisive,” he said Thursday that the surge in cases elsewhere is causing him to reconsider.
“My gut tells me, if we don’t watch out in West Virginia, we’re going to get into real trouble,” Justice said. “There’s winds blowing in our nation, and in this world, that are bad winds.”
Thursday morning, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reported 74 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, the highest single-day increase in confirmed new cases to date.
Justice indicated that he will make a decision by Monday’s COVID-19 briefing, but he encouraged people who do not have face masks to make or obtain them over the holiday weekend.
“It may be an inconvenience. You may not like it. Well, there’s a lot of things in life I may not like, but I do it,” he said.
At previous briefings, Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s COVID-19 czar, has said that, if the state could reach 80% compliance with mask wearing, it would be the equivalent of having a vaccine or effective treatment for coronavirus.
Justice said Thursday the state will work with businesses to encourage compliance with any mandatory mask orders.
“We’re surely not going to haul people off to jail who don’t have masks on,” he said.
Also Thursday, Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy said the department has resolved an issue with $1.375 million missing from the coffers when the state closed out the 2019-20 budget year at midnight Tuesday. Hardy noted that a Tax Division account that should have had a $500,000 surplus Wednesday morning instead showed an $800,000 shortfall.
What happened, he said, was a fluke of having the start of a new budget year coincide with a state employee pay period, with state employees receiving paychecks on Thursday.
“It’s very unusual to have a pay cycle straddle the start of a fiscal year,” Hardy said.
On Tuesday, the last day of the 2019-20 budget year, the Tax Division account received a total of $3.8 million in income tax payments. Initially unbeknownst to state Tax officials was that $1.375 million of that $3.8 million was payroll withholding taxes for government employees for the July 2 pay period, which meant that money was credited to the new 2020-21 budget year, creating the apparent shortfall in the account in closing out the 2019-20 budget year.
Justice on Thursday dismissed the error as a “nothing-burger.”
“I hate like crazy for us to be inaccurate for anything at any time, but this is so minuscule as to be unbelievable,” Justice said. Last week, the governor forced state Public Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp to resign, ostensibly over the DHHR’s overreporting of active COVID-19 cases, an error believed to involve fewer than 300 cases.