Gov. Jim Justice had an interesting tell at Monday’s COVID-19 briefing in his defense of a New Year’s Eve gala at The Greenbrier, where revelers, many without facemasks, packed into the upper lobby
“At that location on that day, like it or not like it, there’s 3,000 people there, and they’re spread out all over the place, and they’re expected to be spread out all over the place.”
This seems to confirm the conjecture of Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, based on the New Year’s Eve itinerary published on The Greenbrier’s website, that party-goers were spread out at various activities in various locations at the resort before assembling en masse for a “Champagne Toast and Balloon Drop” in the upper lobby, where a video was taken.
If that’s what happened, it calls into question management’s judgment in having carefully separated event locales only to have a mass assembly leading up to the midnight countdown.
I talked to a Greenbrier guest who arrived at the upper lobby only to find it packed beyond capacity (as depicted on the video) and was directed outside to watch the countdown.
What Justice is missing in trying to play the victim, either of partisan politics or hostile media coverage, is that at a time when restaurants, bars, hotels and other hospitality industries in the state are suffering major losses — with no reprieve for New Year’s Eve — The Greenbrier seems to be swimming along famously, and on New Year’s Eve, by Justice’s own admission, hosted 3,000 guests – many multiples larger than maximum crowds under Justice’s own executive order.
To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the rich are different from you and me — and the rules that apply to common folk don’t apply to them.
While The Greenbrier’s occupancy rates or restaurant/retail sales figures are private, there are public records that give us a little peek into the fiscal health of the resort – and that’s the revenue from the resort casino, which is reported monthly by the state Lottery Commission.
For comparison, let’s look at how the four racetrack casinos have performed since June, the first full month open after Justice ordered a two-month shutdown of casinos, bars, clubs and Limited Video Lottery locations early in the pandemic.
From June through November 2020, monthly racetrack casino revenues significantly under-performed same-month figures for 2019. Not surprising, given reduced hours of operation, social distancing requirements and reluctance among many to gather in enclosed settings.
The best month for the racetrack casinos was October, when gross revenues of $37.54 million equaled 88% of October 2019 collections of $42.48 million.
The worst month was November, when revenues of $28.47 million were just 67% of November 2019 collections.
Overall revenues in six months of 2020 totaled just 80.8% of 2019 collections.
Conversely, while racetrack casinos were struggling, the casino at The Greenbrier has been performing well above its 2019 numbers, with 2020 revenues coming in at 115.2% of 2019 collections.
June revenues of $495,000 were down just 3% from June 2019.
Then, July and August were boom months for the casino, perhaps a factor of the resort hosting the 2020 World Team Tennis season.
July 2020 revenues of $822 million were 68% better than July 2019 revenues of $490 million. In August, the casino raked in $890 million, up 47% from the $605 million collected in August 2019.
After revenue drops in September and October, November 2020 revenues of $594,000 were up 20% from November 2019 collections of $496,000 — perhaps driven by Thanksgiving holiday weekend promotions at the resort that drew controversy at a time when Justice and his health experts were discouraging large gatherings over the holidays.
Now, casino revenue is not a perfect estimate of the resort’s performance, particularly given the vagaries of operating a small, guests-only casino that frequently caters to high rollers, where a hot streak can impact monthly profits. However, it seems to match anecdotal comments from staff and guests who tell me that occupancy rates at the resort have remained comparatively strong during the pandemic.
I get it that anti-maskers and let-them-players want to embarrass Justice by catching him in “do as I say, not as I do” mode, of which the New Year’s Eve celebration was a prime example.
(A Gazette-Mail photographer was denied access to Justice’s reelection victory party Nov. 3 over concerns the paper would publish “gotcha” photos of attendees sans masks.)
However, the social media explosion over the New Year’s Eve celebration reflects the chasm between haves and have-nots in this country.
If you’re rich, the pandemic is a minor inconvenience, and life goes on pretty much unhampered — even to the extent of continuing to visit posh resorts, where ringing in the new year as part of a large crowd remains the norm, while New Year’s celebrations for the less-affluent are put on hold.
When pictures of large, unmasked crowds at a few bars in Morgantown surfaced on social media, Justice ordered bars throughout Monongalia County shut down, including, no doubt, some hole-in-the-wall bars in the hinterlands where West Virginia University students have never crossed their thresholds.
When pictures of large, unmasked crowds at The Greenbrier surfaced, Justice alternately blamed partisan politics, did the everybody-picks-on-me routine and asserted the incident wasn’t as bad as it appeared in the video.
(I like the official explanation from Greenbrier management as to why all those guests were sans masks: because they all were “actively drinking.” Personally, I didn’t know there was any other way to drink.)
Justice, who has refused to place The Greenbrier and most of his other assets in blind trusts as his predecessors have done, complained Wednesday that he’s damned if he knows what’s going on at the resort and damned if he doesn’t — as he claimed with the New Year’s Eve festivities.
Lucky for Justice, officials with the Greenbrier County Health Department were able to complete their investigation of the incident in less than 24 hours, quickly giving The Greenbrier the proverbial clean bill of health, concluding that a few bad apples had inadvertently violated protocols. In other words, move on, nothing to see here.
Back in November, I wrote that, based on history, the GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate would not necessarily assure the Legislature would function monolithically, given the likelihood for the supermajorities to break into factions over the course of the session.
Sure enough, even before the Legislature convenes Wednesday, the House of Delegates is thrown into major turmoil, as one of its more extremist new members, Derrick Evans of Wayne County, took part in the insurgency at the U.S. Capitol.
Obviously, one would think no self-respecting legislative body would seat Evans, who was arrested Friday on federal charges, but an expulsion vote requires a two-thirds majority, and the question is, can House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, be assured there won’t be 34 defectors, particularly if an expulsion vote is seen as repudiating the Trumpites who installed the Republican supermajority in the House?
If the House chooses not to expel Evans, who filmed himself breaching the Capitol, it will be the ultimate irony considering that less than two years ago, the body came close to removing Democrat Delegate Mike Caputo for slamming a chamber door.
At any rate, for those concerned that the current Legislature will lead an insurrection of sorts on public education, voting rights, tax fairness, women’s and civil rights, and other institutions of the state, the fact that the House will open the session in chaos, albeit for one day before recessing to February, could be a positive development.
As 2020 was a year critically lacking in good news, it is heartening to learn that national radio audiences for “Mountain Stage” have soared 24% during the pandemic.
This is at a time when ratings in general for terrestrial radio have plummeted, given that millions of Americans are spending less time in their vehicles for commuting, vacation travel, errands or other outings.
While the sum of my knowledge of pop music consists of songs played between innings at the ballpark, if I had to speculate about Mountain Stage’s popularity at the moment, I’d say it probably has something to do with people being starved for live music venues. Mountain Stage has something of an open mic vibe — but with spectacularly talented performers.
Considering that the show’s top markets are Philadelphia and Boston, perhaps in these chaotic times, there’s comfort in hearing a simple song emanating from a small city in the hills of West Virginia, much as a generation of radio listeners sought nostalgia in a little place called Lake Woebegon.