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Alarmed by COVID-19 outbreaks at six churches in six counties around the state, Gov. Jim Justice again called on West Virginians, during Wednesday’s daily coronavirus briefing, to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

He also again stopped short of mandating that masks be required in indoor settings, saying he is concerned such an order would be divisive.

“I don’t want to start mandating things on West Virginians that could divide us,” Justice said.

He said people would have to “live in a cave” to be unaware of directives to wear masks in public settings or of health professionals citing the effectiveness of mask wearing in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

However, he said of an executive order mandating mask wearing, “I don’t want to divide us. I want us all pulling the rope together.”

Nationally, the issue of mandatory masks has become a political and cultural touchstone, with many Republicans and conservatives refusing to wear masks, following the lead of President Donald Trump, who has generally eschewed mask wearing and has mocked some people, including likely Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden, for wearing masks in public.

Justice made his sternest statement to date on wearing masks Wednesday, though, telling West Virginians, “If you don’t listen and wear your mask, you’re going to have loved ones die.”

The issue of wearing masks came up Wednesday over concern of COVID-19 outbreaks at the churches, including Graystone Baptist Church, outside Lewisburg, where 32 churchgoers have tested positive.

Overall, about 55 to 60 members of congregations of the six churches have been infected, along with an additional 25 to 30 people infected through community spread, according to Dr. Cathy Slemp, West Virginia’s public health officer.

During Monday’s briefing, Justice indicated there is evidence the churches experiencing outbreaks had not strictly followed guidelines for social distancing and masks during services. Justice said Wednesday it will be a miracle if all 32 infected Graystone Baptist parishioners survive, although he said he is aware of only one hospitalized so far.

Justice also said reports of outbreaks at the churches, as well as the report of seven family members in Preston County who’ve tested positive after a vacation to Myrtle Beach, is making him hesitant to proceed with larger gatherings around the state.

Currently, under Justice’s multi-week plan for reopening the state, summer youth camps and outdoor sporting events with spectators may resume June 22.

Also Wednesday, Justice said he would not object to removing the statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson from the Capitol grounds, but he said he believes it would require an act of the Legislature to do so.

“I feel that our Capitol is a place where I want everyone to always feel comfortable and at ease,” the governor said.

A number of cities nationally have been removing statues of Confederate generals and others since the slaying of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.