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Video showing New Year's Eve party at The Greenbrier prompts investigation

Related story: Struggling WV restaurant owners, managers find Greenbrier party hard to swallow

Health officials are investigating a New Year’s Eve gala at The Greenbrier resort after a video showed revelers without masks and appearing to violate coronavirus social distancing guidelines.

Complaints about the party at the iconic West Virginia resort owned by Gov. Jim Justice prompted the probe, Sarah Woody, environmental health supervisor for the Greenbrier County Health Department, said Monday in a statement.

Outrage rippled across West Virginia after state Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, tweeted video from the event over the weekend. The video had generated more than 1 million impressions as of Monday morning, Ihlenfeld said.

Allan Asseo of New York City, who spent the holiday weekend at The Greenbrier with his wife, described the scene as “mass pandemonium.”

In the upper lobby, he said, “Easily 200 people were packed wall-to-wall like sardines right next to each other, no masks on, with drinks in their hands, screaming and yelling, waiting for the ball to come down.

“At the bar, which is right next door to there,” he added, “people were packed four-deep against the bar, screaming and looking for drinks. Very few were wearing masks.”

Coaches, student-athletes and parents across the Mountain State cited the contrast between the gala and the governor’s decision to delay the start of winter sports until March 1.

Ihlenfeld wrote Justice last week calling for local school districts to be given greater autonomy over scholastic sports and extracurricular activities.

“It got some attention throughout the state over social media,” Ihlenfeld said of his letter. “A lot of people said thanks for standing up for the kids.”

A Twitter follower directed the senator to the New Year’s Eve video, he said.

“I was not a guest at The Greenbrier,” Ihlenfeld said.

The governor fielded numerous questions about the video during his Monday COVID-19 briefing, first dismissing it as a “political ploy” by Democrat senators whom he did not identify.

“It’s a political hit at me. That’s all there is to it,” he said.

Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, the incoming minority leader, initially posted a statement on social media in defense of The Greenbrier, saying, “The hotel has been a regular engaged member of our Greater Greenbrier COVID Task Force since March. As a private business, they’ve made continual efforts to keep guidelines while keeping the county’s largest employer open.”

Baldwin’s wife, Kerry, is director of event services at the resort.

Justice said he was not at the resort on New Year’s Eve: “I surely don’t know what’s going on at the New Year’s Eve celebration when I’m lying at home in bed asleep.”

The governor said he did not learn about the celebration at The Greenbrier until the public did. The Governor’s Office did not respond to a list of questions sent Monday inquiring about Justice’s role in the event and whether he knew about it beforehand.

The Greenbrier’s website promoted the resort’s New Year’s Eve celebration in the days leading up to the holiday.

“New Year’s Eve is backed with events around the clock,” text on the site’s New Year’s page declared. “The day begins with the Resolution Fun Run at 8:00 a.m., with workshops taking guests up to the dinner hour. The New Year’s Eve Served Dinner gives guests an opportunity to feast before the countdown, and the evening will end with a countdown to the New Year in The Greenbrier Casino Club or a balloon drop in the Upper Lobby.”

The cost of the New Year’s Eve dinner was $175 a person.

Justice’s daughter, Jill, is president of the resort and the author of a letter appearing at the front of The Greenbrier’s nine-page COVID-19 response plan, issued in the spring.

“Each department throughout the resort put a significant amount of time and thought into polices for their areas,” she wrote, “and guidelines from local and national health officials were consulted in every instance.”

Resort officials did not respond to requests for comment.

During Monday’s briefing, Justice indicated that the easiest option would be to close the resort during the pandemic. That, he said, would cost 1,500 jobs.

“This time of year,” he said, “it loses so much money, it’s unbelievable.”

Resort management goes to great lengths to comply with COVID-19 protocols, the governor said.

“The bottom line is just this: Protocols are in place, and I will promise you — I will promise you to God above — that The Greenbrier is absolutely following every protocol that you can possibly follow.”

He said people have “called to tell me [how safe it is].”

But, Justice said, he also has heard about the gala.

“I’ve been in touch with people in Greenbrier County who called the hotel and complained about the event,” he said. “People have called and raised concerns with the hotel over the video.”

Justice took exception during the online call with reporters to the suggestion that wealthy Greenbrier resort patrons are not obligated to follow rules he has set for others by executive order.

“Why do we need to pit one another against one another?” Justice said. “This doesn’t have anything to do with rich people. This doesn’t have anything to do with kids playing basketball.”

Workers Kyle Hayes and Mark Vanhoy, of Cincinnati-based Durable Restoration Co., seal joints between gable stones with lead and caulk at St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Charleston, Monday afternoon.

TEnding the block

Holliday out as Marshall football coach

HUNTINGTON — After 11 seasons at Marshall University, Doc Holliday will not return as head coach of the Thundering Herd football team.

At 10 a.m. Monday, Holliday released the news on social media that his contract was not being renewed by the university.

“I have been informed that Marshall President Dr. Jerry Gilbert will not be extending my contract as Head Football Coach at Marshall University,” the statement said. “To Athletic Director Mike Hamrick and former University President Dr. Stephen Kopp, thank you for the opportunity in naming me Marshall’s 30th Head Football Coach, 11 years ago.”

Holliday’s contract was set to expire on June 30, 2021, the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Marshall announced later Monday morning that a search committee is being formed to help identify candidates for the vacant head coaching spot.

Hamrick will serve as chairman of the search committee that, according to Gilbert, will be made up of eight to 12 members representing different facets of the Marshall community.

“We have already started reaching out to potential committee representatives and look forward to moving forward very quickly,” Gilbert said. “I have great confidence that this process and the input of the entire committee will help us hire the best coach for our football program.”

Gilbert also stated that the decision on Holliday was his after consulting with Hamrick, which was a response to reports that political factors and those on the university’s Board of Governors were behind the decision.

“Just to be clear, there was no outside influences in this decision,” Gilbert said. “I consulted with the athletic director and made this decision.”

The move comes less than three weeks after Holliday was named Conference USA Coach of the Year and the AFCA Region 4 Coach of the Year. This was following a season in which Marshall started 7-0 and was ranked No. 15 nationally in both major polls.

Holliday also was named to the watch list for the Bryant Awards National Coach of the Year as part of Marshall’s early season success.

However, the Herd struggled down the stretch, losing the final three games of the season, which included the 2020 Conference USA Championship — a 22-13 loss to the University of Alabama, Birmingham — and the 2020 Camellia Bowl — a 17-10 loss to Buffalo.

Marshall’s 7-3 mark in 2020 was the eighth time in 11 seasons that Holliday’s teams won at least seven games.

“I am proud of what we have accomplished together, both academically and athletically,” Holliday said. “We’ve been able to graduate student-athletes and develop them to their highest potential while competing for championships.”

During his 11 seasons, the Hurricane native coached in 139 games with the Herd, compiling an 85-54 record during his time in Huntington. Those figures include 77 wins over FBS schools, which was the most in program history.

In a release, Hamrick thanked Holliday for his 11 years with the program, which included three 10-win seasons (2013-2015).

“I want to thank Doc Holliday for the leadership he has provided this program over the past 11 seasons,” Hamrick said. “In addition to his success on the field, he ran a clean program, graduated his student-athletes and prepared young men for life after football.”

The pinnacle of Holliday’s tenure came in 2014, when he guided Marshall to a 13-1 record, a Conference USA Championship and a No. 23 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

Following that season, Holliday was named the Gazette-Mail Sportsperson of the Year by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Lowell Cade Sportsperson of the Year by The Herald-Dispatch.

In addition to the 2020 C-USA Coach of the Year honors, Holliday had two players named to superlative awards this year: linebacker Tavante Beckett as the Defensive Player of the Year and quarterback Grant Wells as Freshman of the Year.

Those were two of 13 players named for league superlative awards during his tenure. In his 11 seasons, Holliday had 115 players honored by Conference USA among the first and second teams, as well as honorable-mention selections.

Many more in GOP rejecting Trump's bid to undo his defeat

WASHINGTON — With mounting desperation, President Donald Trump appealed to Republican lawmakers Monday to reverse his election loss to Joe Biden when Congress convenes for a joint session this week to confirm the Electoral College vote.

Trump’s unprecedented attempt to overturn the presidential election is splitting the Republican Party. Some GOP lawmakers backing Trump are rushing ahead, despite an outpouring of condemnation from current and former party officials warning the effort is undermining Americans’ faith in democracy.

All 10 living former defense secretaries wrote in an op-ed article that “the time for questioning the results has passed.”

It’s unclear the extent to which GOP leaders in Congress will be able to control Wednesday’s joint session, which could drag into the night, though the challenges to the election are all but certain to fail. Trump himself is whipping up crowds for a Wednesday rally near the White House.

Trump’s allies are taking up his unfounded claims of voter fraud. But according to a consensus of election officials in the states he’s disputing — as well his former Attorney General William Barr — there is no evidence of fraud that could change the election outcome. Officials who have control over elections in their states, including battlegrounds Biden won, have certified those results as valid.

Of the more than 50 lawsuits the president and his allies have filed challenging results, nearly all have been dismissed or dropped. He’s also lost twice at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The effort to keep Trump in office is being led by Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, along with rank-and-file House members, some on the party’s fringe.

“Just got off the phone with @realDonaldTrump,” tweeted newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who is aligned with a conspiracy group backing Trump.

“He wants you to call your Rep & Senators TODAY, ALL DAY!” she tweeted Monday. “Don’t let Republicans be the Surrender Caucus!” She later said she joined the president on Air Force One as he traveled to Georgia

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has tried to prevent his party from engaging in this battle, which could help define the GOP in the post-Trump era. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Trump ally, has declined to say much publicly on it.

Both Hawley and Cruz are potential 2024 presidential contenders, vying for Trump’s base of supporters. Vice President Mike Pence, who is under pressure to tip the results for Trump, will be closely watched as he presides in a ceremonial role over Wednesday’s joint session.

“I promise you this: On Wednesday, we’ll have our day in Congress,” Pence said while campaigning in Georgia for Republicans ahead of Tuesday’s runoff elections that will determine control of the Senate.

One of those Georgia Republicans, Sen. Kelly Loeffler who faces Democrat Raphael Warnock, announced she will object to Biden’s win. The other Republican seeking re-election, David Perdue, who is running against Democrat Jon Ossoff, will not be eligible to vote Wednesday in the Senate.

Biden, speaking at a drive-in rally in Atlanta, said Trump “spends more time whining and complaining” than he does working on solving the coronavirus pandemic. He added dismissively: “I don’t know why he still wants the job — he doesn’t want to do the work.”

During the day Monday, more current and former GOP officials rebuked the effort to upend the election.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said in a statement Monday that none of the investigations or lawsuits surrounding the 2020 presidential election has resulted in evidence of fraud to the standard for rejecting a state’s electoral votes.

“Our democracy permits enjoying electoral victories, but its survival requires accepting defeats. Despite a landslide victory in West Virginia, President Trump lost his re-election bid by a margin of 306-232 in the Electoral College. I voted for President Trump in the presidential election, and I wanted him to be re-elected. As a United States Senator, I supported many of his policies over the past four years, and I will continue to advocate for these on behalf of West Virginia — even with a new administration,” Capito said. “Several of my congressional colleagues have made clear their plans to object to counting certified electoral votes from certain states. I will oppose their effort because the will of voters in each state — not political considerations or the individual preferences of senators and representatives — must determine the winner of the presidential election.

“Some have argued that the electoral votes of several states should be rejected due to fraud. Our Constitution contemplates each state holding its own election and certifying electors who will cast ballots for president. It would be a grave step for Congress to refuse to count electoral votes that are certified by their own state government.”

Former three-term Sen. John Danforth of Missouri said in a stinging statement: “Lending credence to Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen is a highly destructive attack.” He said, “It is the opposite of conservative; it is radical.”

Two current Republican senators, Rob Portman of Ohio and Mike Lee of Utah, joined the growing number who now oppose the legislators’ challenge.

Portman said in a statement, “I cannot support allowing Congress to thwart the will of the voters.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the giant lobbying organization and virtual embodiment of the business establishment, said that the electoral vote challenge “undermines our democracy and the rule of law and will only result in further division across our nation.”

Massachusetts GOP Gov. Charlie Baker said at a press conference that Biden “won the election fair and square.”

So far, Trump has enlisted support from a dozen Republican senators and up to 100 House Republicans to challenge Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win. Cruz convened a private strategy call late Monday with some of the House and Senate Republicans involved.

With Biden set to be inaugurated Jan. 20, Trump is intensifying efforts to prevent the traditional transfer of power. On a call disclosed Sunday, he can be heard pressuring Georgia officials to “find” him more votes from the Nov. 3 election he lost in that state.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who convened a private call of House Democrats on Monday, said in a letter to colleagues their job now “is to convince more of the American people to trust in our democratic system.”

The challenge to the presidential election is on a scale unseen since the aftermath of the Civil War, though the typically routine process of confirming Electoral College votes has been hit with brief objections before. In 2017, several House Democrats challenged Trump’s win, but Biden, who presided at the time as the vice president, swiftly dismissed them to assert Trump’s victory.

States run their own elections, and Congress has been loath to interfere.

“The 2020 election is over,” said a statement Sunday from a bipartisan group of 10 senators, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Mitt Romney of Utah.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, another potential 2024 presidential hopeful, announced he, too, would not oppose the counting of certified electoral votes.

A range of Republican officials, including Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland; Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House GOP leader; and former House Speaker Paul Ryan, have criticized the GOP efforts to overturn the election.

Hawley defended his actions in a lengthy email over the weekend to colleagues, saying his Missouri constituents have been “loud and clear” in insisting Biden’s defeat of Trump was unfair.

Cruz’s coalition of 11 Republican senators vows to reject the Electoral College tallies unless Congress launches a commission to immediately conduct an audit of the election results. Congress is unlikely to agree to that.

The group, which presented no new evidence of election problems, includes Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Steve Daines of Montana, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike Braun of Indiana, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

WV launches information hub for COVID-19 vaccines

West Virginia has created an information hub for residents with questions about COVID-19 vaccines, Gov. Jim Justice said Monday.

The hub can be reached by phone at 1-833-734-0965 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Information also can be found online, at vaccinate.wv.gov.

West Virginia’s vaccination plan worked to get front-line health care workers and nursing home residents and staff vaccinated first. The state is now turning to vaccinate West Virginians 80 years of age and older, as well as public school service personnel and teachers.

Justice said a schedule for school-related vaccinations would be released Tuesday.

For West Virginians 80 years old and older, vaccines will continue to be available at county health departments, according to the state’s vaccine information page. Health departments will individually announce availability and locations for vaccinations.

People who are 80 years old and older who are patients at community health centers will be contacted by their own center regarding access to a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the page. There will be private vendors offering the vaccine to this population in the future, with information on those supplies to be released at a later date.

Justice said Monday that 8,300 residents who are 80 years old and older had received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine so far. He also said that, until the state can stockpile enough vaccines, health departments will have to continue with appointment-only vaccinations.

“I think we’re trying to go to an appointment situation until we really are absolutely comfortable that we’ve got enough vaccines,” Justice said.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said West Virginians who participated in the first rounds of vaccinations are coming back this week for their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

For West Virginians 79 years old and younger, Justice will announce in the future when vaccines will be available, according to the information page. The state has projected March and April for when vaccinations will begin for the general population.

West Virginia National Guard Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, who is now the former adjutant general but still is leading the state’s vaccine distribution, said Monday that the rollout has been a “balancing act.” He said what appears to be uneven distribution is a result of challenges with the supply chain.