Let’s begin with a little analogy: On most interstate highways in non-urban areas, the speed limit is 70 mph. However, on the West Virginia Turnpike, the combination of sharp curves, steep grades, heavy truck traffic, and Ohio drivers contributed to high rates of traffic accidents on certain sections of the roadway a few years back.
Consulting with highway safety experts, the state Parkways Authority responded, lowering the speed limit on portions of the Turnpike to 55 mph, and in some spots, to as low as 50 mph.
While that produced some grousing from locals who resented being forced to slow down because some other drivers aren’t particularly good at driving in mountainous terrain, there were no “Let us drive 70” protests at the Capitol.
Even if there had been, it would have been irresponsible for the Parkways Authority to permit more injuries and deaths on the Turnpike just so drivers could cut 10 minutes off their commutes from Beckley to Charleston.
Parkways officials recognized a problem, and heeding the advice of highway safety experts, took the corrective action of lowering the speed limit in more challenging sections of the roadway.
However, imagine for a moment, that there had been a sustained uproar, and that the whole issue of lowered speed limits had become politicized. Let’s also suppose that the governor at the time was not a particularly strong leader, and didn’t simply uphold the speed restrictions as a way to reduce injuries and save lives.
We can imagine that the governor might have made a series of tweaks to the law to appease the protestors.
It might have begun by raising the speed limit to 60 mph during daylight hours on dry pavement. If that didn’t satisfy the protestors, the next tweak might have been to raise the daylight dry pavement speed limit to 65 mph, and set 60 mph as the speed limit on dry pavement after dark or wet pavement in daylight.
If those tweaks didn’t end the uproar, our hypothetical weak governor might have further diluted the law, maybe by permitting a 10-mph speed differential for drivers traveling alone, presumably on the theory that people traveling solo decrease the likelihood of multiple injuries in an accident.
Obviously, this is an exercise in absurdity, since instead of improving highway safety by lowering speeds, it would in fact be making the Turnpike more dangerous, while providing the false narrative that safety measures had been taken.
Jump to the pandemic, and after the initial quasi-shutdown of the state, Gov. Jim Justice’s administration needed to come up with a county-by-county metric to measure COVID-19 risk factors, and to take appropriate steps to curb the rate of spread in high-risk counties.
They found a very good model in the Harvard Global Health Institute’s COVID-19 risk map, a map that breaks risk factors into four color-coded categories, ranging from green (spread of virus essentially contained) to red (rampant spread of virus, requiring mandatory stay-at-home orders).
Counties go red when the seven-day rolling average of new cases exceeds 25 cases a day per 100,000 population. The next most severe category is orange, when there are between 10 and 24 new daily cases per 100,000 population, signifying enhanced spread of the virus.
These metrics were not arbitrarily drawn out of a hat, or selected by throwing darts at a dartboard.
The metrics were the work of a collaboration of some of the nation’s leading scientists, epidemiologists, and health care professionals from Harvard, Georgetown, the universities of California-Berkeley, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Washington, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, among others.
However, once the Justice administration appropriated the risk map, uncredited, they began tinkering with it immediately.
(It’s as if Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and the people looked them over, and said, “You know, some of these commandments are awfully stringent. Let’s tone them down to the point where we have something we can actually comply with.”)
The first major tweak was to apply the risk map essentially only to public schools, not to society as a whole as Harvard Global envisioned.
Since then, multiple tweaks have followed, designed to make easier for counties to stay in the green or yellow categories, thus allowing in-classroom learning, sports and other extracurricular activities.
Yet, the Justice administration hasn’t been able to water down the metrics fast enough to keep up with West Virginians, who have failed to comply with the simple steps to avoid COVID-19 spread, wearing face masks, social distancing, crowd avoidance and hand-washing, resulting in the current surge of cases.
Instead of the beautiful green-yellow map that Justice envisions, West Virginia’s risk map has been rapidly turning orange and red.
Justice’s response? Instead of showing leadership and enforcing measures to slow the spread of the virus, his administration has come up with more steps to further weaken the metrics, including creating an orange-lite category, dubbed gold, to allow schools to open in direct contradiction of the health guidance of the Harvard Global experts, who have concluded that 10 to 14.9 cases per 100,000 signifies high risk — not a negotiating point.
Watering down the metrics doesn’t make the virus go away, and it may have the unintended consequence of giving West Virginians a false sense of security to further let their guard down — if that’s possible.
Finally, got back from vacation and returned to “scanning” VISTA for the latest batch of $5,000 Small Business Grants that Justice is handing out from the $1.25 billion of federal CARES Act funds.
The first thing that caught my eye is that dozens upon dozens of grants have been denied payment by the state auditor’s office, and returned to the governor’s office.
By my count, the auditor’s office has rejected at least 150 $5,000 grants totaling $750,000, and I quit counting after going through the first 50 pages of grant applications. I’ve written previously about some of the “returned to agency” grants, including the Silver Creek Association, a homeowners’ association at Snowshoe; and BatJac of South Carolina, an out-of-state company that operates a pharmacy in Gassaway.
Other rejected grant applications include Fairmont Bowling Center, Laury’s restaurant, Minardi’s Spaghetti Inn, and the Wonder Bar Steak House, the latter of which has hosted Justice campaign fundraisers.
I made an inquiry of the auditor’s office for an explanation of why so many grants couldn’t be processed, and got a response from Nathan Takitch, Justice’s press secretary, stating that, per the auditor’s office, the grants applications were rejected for one or more reasons, some of which include:
Vendor name on application does not match wvOasis vendor name.
Documents do not have attachments to support request.
Vendor doesn’t exist — the applicant entered something other than their wvOASIS vendor ID.
Issues with the grant application, such as duplicate applications.
Out-of-state address. (Which would explain Batjac’s rejection.)
Out of compliance with the Tax Department (unpaid taxes, etc.).
Meanwhile, in an effort to maintain full transparency, I can verify that Justice’s $5,000 grant to the Avalon nudist resort has been approved by the auditor’s office and paid in full.
Also while scanning the grants, I noticed that three retailers receiving grants are tenants at Justice’s Greenbrier Resort.
Those are: Atlantis Leather Co., Gillespie’s Flowers and Productions, and Yarid’s.
Granted, both the retail and hospitality industries have been hard hit by the pandemic, and The Greenbrier was closed for a period of time, but as far as retail goes, it’s probably easier to bounce back without taxpayer assistance when you’re selling $500 pairs of shoes and $1,000 handbags to well-to-do clientele.