The high school football season hasn’t even kicked off, and Kanawha County has already dropped the ball.
Kanawha’s status turned from yellow to orange Saturday in the state’s color-coded COVID-19 risk factor map, which means six season-opening games involving Kanawha schools that were scheduled for Friday evening now cannot be played.
Those games include two of Kanawha County’s bigger rivalries — Capital at South Charleston and St. Albans at Nitro — along with George Washington at Jefferson, Cabell Midland at Riverside, Winfield at Herbert Hoover and Sissonville at St. Marys. The change in Kanawha’s status also wipes out several other events next week in high school soccer, volleyball, cross country and golf. Putnam remained at yellow, a lesser threat, so its games can go on.
In the state’s four-color school reopening plan, which also governs school activities, a county’s status on Saturday evening dictates whether it can play sports the following week. Counties in the yellow category, like Kanawha last week, can practice and play games with limitations, but orange counties can only practice and not play games.
Rescheduling those football games will be difficult, since teams only have 10 weeks to play their full allotment of 10 regular-season games because the start of the season was delayed a week when Gov. Jim Justice kept schools closed until Sept. 8. The only option is for teams to play twice in less than a week.
“This may need to be revisited,” South Charleston football coach Donnie Mays said of the system, “because you’re not just affecting Kanawha County, you’re affecting other schools when you cancel games. I understand the safety concerns, but as long as the schools don’t have [COVID-19], why not have the game without fans? This is an opportunity for these kids and as long as they’re fine, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to play.”
Other counties in orange Saturday were Fayette and Logan. Monroe was in red, the highest risk — no games and no practice.
Riley Brothers, the 73-year-old president of Charleston Marine, slowly scanned the 10,000-square-foot showroom that’s the epicenter of his business. He paused only briefly to take a mental inventory of a room that included only one boat along with a handful of desks and tables.
“This room was full when we started this season,” he said.
Translation: The boating business has been good. For some dealers, it’s actually been great.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has stymied — if not shuttered — some businesses, a few have actually experienced hefty growth. That includes boat sales, a niche industry that’s expanding in popularity as the population seeks forms of controllable (i.e., non-coronavirus friendly) recreation.
According to a report compiled by the equity research arm of Baird, an international financial services company, marine retailers turned in record sales totals through July. Of the 91 retailers contributing to the report, 89% reported growth in June when compared to the same month in 2019. Those numbers dipped only slightly in July, as 84% said sales were up from the previous year.
Those numbers are also reflected in the number of boat registrations both nationally and locally.
Statistical Surveys, Inc., a research firm that services the marine, recreational vehicle and powersports industries, among others, tracked data from 22 states. That data shows boat registrations in those states had gone up more than 44% year-over-year — including a 73% jump in ski and wake boat registrations in July. Pontoon boats, which Brothers noted as being his most popular item, had a 53.3% increase in July.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources said there has been a surge in attendance for online boater education courses that are required to operate a motorboat or personal watercraft in the state. However, the state Department of Motor Vehicles said there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in boat registrations. Exact totals for 2020 won’t be available until January, but the number of registered motorboats in the state has increased every year since 2017. Manually operated vessels are not required to be registered in the state.
That established trend, when paired with growing sales totals, has Brothers, industry analysts and other retailers saying the biggest challenge going forward is a simple one: to keep supply on par with demand nationally as well as in the Mountain State.
Production for 2020 was based on forecasts that didn’t consider the affects of COVID-19. Indeed, the pandemic initially hindered the marine industry, with the traditional start to the boat-selling season (late-February and early March) being pushed back. That includes Charleston Marine, which was closed from March 20 until May 21.
Sales exploded as businesses began to reopen in various states, the weather warmed and stay-at-home orders were rescinded. One dealer who was cited in the Baird report said, “I thought it would settle after June and July ended up being fantastic. If we would have had more inventory, we could have doubled what we did [in sales].”
Industry experts predict boat sales will continue deeper into the year than usual. Along with that will be the strain on the supply chain.
According to Illinois-based boatmaker Brunswick, which produces such brands as Bayliner, Quicksilver and Sea Ray, expectations are that it will be “well into 2021 or potentially later” before supply channels are fully restocked.
Brothers, however, doesn’t really consider it to be a missed opportunity. At least not when it comes to the current selling season.
After all, his Charleston-based company has already made its year, ensuring a business that began in 1990 will be open for business in 2021. He’ll make adjustments to his plan for next year as he does following each business cycle, and that might include adding a few more offerings to the inventory.
Otherwise, he said, it’ll be business as normal — or at least as normal as things can be nowadays.
“I didn’t have a lot of inventory on order; a lot of boat dealers did and it’s turned out well for them,” Brothers said. “But I’m at a different stage. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, I’m ready to not do so much.
“We would’ve had a lot more boats in here if I were younger and still building. But I’m not building things right now. I’m cruising.”
The battle against the coronavirus is sapping the resources of those on the front lines of the fight against HIV.
As of Aug. 13, state health officials said, there have been 72 confirmed cases of HIV in West Virginia this year, almost half the record-breaking total of 146 last year, led by HIV clusters in Cabell and Kanawha counties.
“COVID-19 has really set us back. We’re going to need to spend a long time regaining a lot of the ground we’ve lost in the past few months,” said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, medical director at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department. “Compared to , while we had remarkably controlled our HIV outbreak last year, we never actually stopped it. There was always going to be a certain level going forward we were working on stopping, and we’re going to have to get back to that level in years to come.”
Cabell reported 69 cases last year and has reported 17 this year as of July 31, per DHHR. Kanawha has reported 20 cases so far compared to 28 last year.
Almost all of this year’s cases — 16 out of 17 in Cabell and 18 out of 20 in Kanawha — are linked to intravenous drug use, a trend that did not begin until 2018.
Up to then, nearly all cases of HIV in the state were linked to male-to-male sexual contact. The average number of cases reported annually in West Virginia was 77, slightly more than half last year’s record total.
Health experts say drug use is up across the state and nationwide. State Office of Drug Control Policy officials say that in recent months emergency calls and emergency room visits related to overdoses have increased.
“We are taking every opportunity we can to reach people in need, but we know COVID-19 has caused less opportunity for people to reach treatment for drug use and addiction,” said Angie Settle, CEO of West Virginia HealthRight, a free clinic in Charleston. “Looking at overdose rates and if there’s less access to treatment and people are still using, well of course, if we have more people with substance use disorder, of course there are going to be more [HIV cases] tied to that.”
Some rehabilitation centers limited intakes amid the pandemic. While telehealth efforts lead to an increase in call-in therapy and support groups, the services haven’t been accessible to all, and, Settle said, can be less effective than in-person support for people in recovery.
“Seeing your support system, having a routine, all that’s been broken,” Settle said. “Services are adapting, but there are gaps, certainly.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies half of West Virginia’s counties in the top 220 most vulnerable counties in the nation for significant increases in HIV tied to intravenous drug use.
“These are all parts of the same problem. We can’t only treat HIV, we need to look at the entirety of the situation, and that means treating substance use disorder and the factors that cause it, as well,” said Dr. Sherri Young, health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
HIV testing has decreased at both agencies amid the pandemic, Kilkenny and Young said.
Shutdowns because of the pandemic cut off outreach that health departments and organizations like HealthRight use to identify HIV cases and connect patients to care. The added stress of COVID-19 response also meant that resources in some cases are spread too thin to adequately confront other health issues still facing communities.
“It’s clear that we have finite resources and COVID-19 is a resource-consuming disease,” Kilkenny said. “One illness is not better than another, or more valued in treatment than another. These are two deadly diseases and we’re in a very bad position of trying to allocate resources at two threats at once, and we’re having limited success.”
Last year, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department formed an HIV Task Force composed of care providers and nonprofits who work directly with people experiencing homelessness and those suffering from substance use disorder.
The task force hasn’t met since February. Task force members are regularly communicating, but such initiatives as mobile HIV testing have stalled, Young said.
“It’s something we want to do, but we need to figure out how to do safely,” Young said. “We don’t want to expose someone getting tested to COVID-19, and we’re working on figuring out a way to maybe join those two initiatives.”
HIV testing is still available in both Kanawha and Cabell, but many people haven’t sought it amid the pandemic. Settle said people were nervous about going to health offices, where they might be exposed to COVID-19. Clinic visits and traffic has increased recently but still lags normal levels, Settle said.
Nothing replaces personal interaction in treatment, Young said.
“Previously when we would go out and hold testing events, you have people really fearful of HIV and really fearful of their results,” Young said. “To hold their hand, share a story while they wait for the results, just talking to them — a personal connection is made. If you lose them outside of that 10 minutes they’re waiting, or don’t have that connection with them in the first place, it’s harder to reconnect and certainly harder to get them to care.”
Keeping people in care after a diagnosis is difficult, said Christine Teague, program director at Charleston Area Medical Center’s Ryan White Program.
“It’s our biggest challenge in HIV care right now, that engagement and retention piece. We exist to take care of the most vulnerable and most challenged populations, and we have the wraparound support services to do that,” Teague said. “Ninety percent of what we do is dealing with the social services aspect of it — the housing, the homelessness, the poverty issues. The other 10%, the medical side, that’s the easy piece.”
While the unintended consequences of the pandemic are impossible to ignore, Kilkenny said, he’s also noticed “an unintended benefit.”
As evictions slowed in Cabell during the pandemic and fewer people worried about being displaced from homes, treatment and health care became a priority.
“We really saw the public health improve for a lot of our poorest people during that time, and it was not necessarily in ways that we could measure with disease, but just in that stability and that ability to take care of other things,” Kilkenny said. “What we’ve learned from homelessness is that it’s very destabilizing. You cannot launch without a launch pad. You cannot achieve anything but your next meal and next place of shelter if you don’t have those. The true importance of us really tackling homelessness as a social and public health problem, it was an unintended benefit to see how important that is in many ways.”
July 23, 2019, was a very good day for FirstEnergy Corp.
On that date, the Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 6, providing a $1.3 billion taxpayer-funded subsidy for two nuclear power plants and two coal-fired plants the utility operates in northern Ohio.
Also on July 23, while meeting in special session on public education issues, the West Virginia Legislature enacted House Bill 207, exempting Pleasants Power Station, an aging coal-fired plant owned by FirstEnergy subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions, from five years of business and occupation taxes, a tax break worth more than $60 million.
In West Virginia, such tax breaks for coal are so commonplace the bill barely registered in news coverage, as legislative leaders pushed legislation for charter schools and other changes to public education during the special session.
Nothing was made of the timing of the passage of both tax break bills until last month, when criminal indictments came down from U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio charging that FirstEnergy executives had illegally funneled $60 million through Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder to get the Ohio bailout bill passed.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango was quick to call for an investigation to determine whether there had been any improprieties in the passage of the bill in West Virginia.
“The way FirstEnergy has conducted business with elected officials in our neighboring state of Ohio begs questions about their dealings with Gov. [Jim] Justice and the state of West Virginia,” Salango said shortly after news of the Ohio indictments broke.
Justice immediately used his COVID-19 briefing platform to denounce Salango’s call as a campaign stunt by a “Nancy Pelosi liberal trial lawyer.”
“You have got a desperate candidate who is so far behind in the polls that we’re about to lap him,” Justice said.
He did not discuss the bill.
Justice added the legislation on a Friday evening, with the on-again, off-again special session set to resume the following Monday.
After the bill passed, it was revealed that FirstEnergy had a $3.1 million lawsuit against Justice’s Bluestone Energy coal company, claiming it had breached its contract by failing to buy back unused coal stockpiles.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, recalled being blindsided by that disclosure.
“What I can say is, we the members learned about that lawsuit after the bill had already passed the Legislature, and many of us were pretty upset about that,” he said.
Hanshaw said he doubts the disclosure would have affected the bill’s outcome, noting, “I think what people were voting for was to save a local community up there ... but I have said to FirstEnergy Solutions personally that they should have disclosed that to us.”
Also, according to the federal indictments, FirstEnergy’s plot to win passage of the $1.3 billion Ohio tax break began in 2018, when the corporation with other business interests funneled cash into Hardworking Ohioans PAC, a gray money campaign designed to elect House members who would then vote to elect Householder as speaker.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that among the contributors to Hardworking Ohioans was Murray Energy, the St. Clairsville, Ohio-based coal mining company that was the exclusive provider of coal to one of the two coal-fired power plants.
Also in 2018, Murray Energy was a leading contributor to the 1863 PAC, a conservative gray money PAC based in Martinsburg.
After the 2018 general election, the 1863 PAC conducted a possibly unprecedented media campaign encouraging West Virginians to call on their delegates to support Hanshaw for speaker over the more moderate Delegate Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha.
Murray Energy is the primary supplier of coal to the Pleasants Power Station.
Commenting on the 1863 PAC efforts, Hanshaw said, “I don’t have a PAC. I do not have a leadership PAC, have not had one since I’ve been here. That is not my PAC. I didn’t form it. I’m not on the board of it. I’m not sure who is on the board of it.”
Also, the FirstEnergy PAC has been a generous contributor to mostly Republican candidates in legislative and statewide races, contributing a total of $49,050 to state and legislative candidates from Jan. 1, 2019, to June 30.
FirstEnergy execs and lobbyists also contributed some $12,400 at a Justice fundraiser Oct. 24, 2019.
However, West Virginia politicians account for a minuscule amount of the $1.675 million of total contributions made by FirstEnergy PAC during that time, primarily to candidates from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures.
There are notable differences between the two bills, not limited to the significant difference in the total dollar amounts of the subsidies.
According to news accounts, HB6 was controversial, in no small measure because it imposed an 85-cent monthly surcharge on residential ratepayers’ electric bills and $2,400 monthly for industrial customers.
That, perhaps not surprisingly, drew howls of public protest.
According to the indictments, a good portion of the $60 million spent to influence passage of HB6 was used to squelch a petition drive for a statewide referendum on the proposed surcharges in the bill — a referendum that, with passage, almost certainly would have killed the bailout plan.
The contentiousness of HB6 was reflected in relatively close passage votes: 19-12 in the Senate, 51-38 in the House.
By contrast, HB207 unanimously passed the West Virginia Senate 28-0 and in the House with only token opposition, 77-5.
Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, one of the few voices of opposition, questioned whether the antiquated coal-fired plant could viably continue operating for another five years, even with the tax break.
“If I believed that three years from now these jobs will be here, I’d vote for this bill in a heartbeat,” he said during floor debate. “If I am right, then House Bill 207 is not a job-saving bill, it becomes just another corporate giveaway.”
House and Senate leaders recalled that, while there were FirstEnergy executives and lobbyists at the Capitol during the two days it took the bill to go from introduction to a final vote, local officials were the driving force, adamant about trying to save the 160 jobs at the plant.
“The real impetus for the bill came from county commissioners in Pleasants County,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said.
He said that, after crunching the numbers, the Senate concluded the tax break made sense.
“It was the determination that it would cost us as a state less to provide that tax credit than to lose those jobs and the revenue from that plant,” Carmichael said.
Hanshaw had a similar recollection.
“When we were asked to save — and that’s how it was presented to us — save the Pleasants County Power Station, the principal spokesperson for that really was not the company so much as it was the Pleasants County Commission,” he said.
Hanshaw said when he and Carmichael were called to the Governor’s Office to discuss adding the bill to the call, FirstEnergy representatives and county commissioners were present.
“The pitch was we have to save the Pleasants County Power Station and here’s the economic impact on the local community,” he said.
Jay Powell, president of the Pleasants County Commission, said the commissioners began pushing for a tax credit to keep the plant operating in late May or early June 2019.
“I asked if I could speak with the governor’s staff, and we were able to do so. We were then able to speak with the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, and they saw the urgency and the need for this,” Powell said.
“They asked us to speak with other legislators and get the pulse of it, so we did our homework, and as a result, with the governor’s help and with legislative help, we were able to pass it in a very brief period of time,” he added.
Unlike Justice, Carmichael and Hanshaw indicated they would have no objections to an independent review of events leading to passage of HB207.
“I don’t have any problem any time anyone wants to do that with any legislation we’ve passed. It’s all public information, and it should be,” Carmichael said, adding, “I don’t have any problem with reviewing what happened.”
Said Powell, “People are trying to see if there’s a correlation if West Virginia did anything wrong, and I want this to be known: West Virginia did everything right. It’s just the complete opposite. We need to be commending what happened last year because what they did is secured jobs, secured the tax base, secured revenues for the state of West Virginia.”
Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect that the Pleasants Power Station was owned by FirstEnergy Solutions, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp.