To the extent the gubernatorial election is a referendum on Gov. Jim Justice‘s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the coming days could be critical.
Labor Day weekend, the reopening of public schools and concerns about the start of classes and sporting events at colleges and universities around the state could create a perfect storm for another spike in COVID-19 infections.
As I type this, the signs are ominous.
Daily confirmed cases spiked in the past week to the highest levels of the pandemic. After dropping to some of the lowest levels in the country, the state’s Rt value, a measure of the rate of spread of the virus, jumped to 1.28, the highest in the U.S. and ahead of South Dakota — which has seen cases spike after hosting 250,000 mostly unmasked bikers for an annual rally at Sturgis last month.
West Virginia experienced spikes in cases following the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holiday weekends, almost as if the mindset of some residents is that it’s okay to take a vacation from COVID-19 protocols during the long weekends. That trend seems unlikely to change this weekend.
Particularly troubling, on Friday the Department of Health and Human Resources failed to update the state COVID-19 risk map and announced there would be no update planned until the 9 p.m. Saturday night release the Department of Education uses to determine the viability of in-classroom learning and extracurricular activities at public schools.
When the map finally did update at 12:30 p.m. Friday — after numerous inquiries from the public and media — Monongalia County had, as many expected, climbed into the highest risk level of red — a level at which the originators of the map, Harvard Global Health Institute, recommend mandatory stay-at-home orders.
Taking advantage of the format of the governor’s virtual COVID-19 briefings, which makes follow-up impossible, Justice evaded questions on the initial decision not to update the map. If, as many speculated, Justice had tried to block release of the updated map to allow high school football games in the county to continue Friday evening, that would be the height of recklessness and a dramatic change from Justice’s initial handling of the pandemic.
For all of Justice’s deft handling of the pandemic early on — at least compared to his Republican counterparts — his actions of late have become decidedly more blundering.
In addition to blocking release of the risk map, some examples from last week included Justice’s decision — made, as often occurs, based on who yelled the loudest — to move forward with reopening bars in Monongalia County on Monday, despite a spike in infections that had pushed the county into the orange risk category, signifying an accelerated spread of COVID-19.
Asked at his Monday briefing about the wisdom of reopening bars in Morgantown under those circumstances, Justice was taken aback, saying, “That decision was made when our numbers were coming down, down, down. That decision was made umpteen days ago.”
Effectively, once he had yielded to the demands of bar owners, Justice was not about to weigh the clear evidence and knowledge of human nature and reconsider.
The result was predictable.
At his next briefing two days later, Justice on Wednesday again ordered the bars shut down after social media was flooded with pictures of crowds of (mostly) unmasked West Virginia University students queuing up to get into newly reopened (and packed) bars.
This is Justice’s governing style in a nutshell: Reactive, not proactive. Instead of fireproofing the house, wait until the house is on fire, put it out and see if there’s anything salvageable.
Justice also stumbled last week with a last-minute “test to play” plan to allow high schools in the high COVID-19 spread orange counties of Kanawha, Fayette and Logan to play football Friday.
That many put more emphasis on high school sports than high school academics is a reason West Virginia is in the shape it is.
While Justice claimed he consulted with “every health expert we have” to come up with the Hail Mary plan. He failed to run it by the most vital components to the plan — the school administrators in the affected (or infected?) counties — administrators who immediately slapped down the plan as unfeasible for a number of reasons.
One reason was practical, as to whether the test results could come back in a three-day turnaround. (Which, if so, would look like favoritism, since just last week Dr. Clay Marsh theorized that one of the reasons the CDC was relaxing testing requirements for persons exposed to COVID-19 was that many were completing their 14-day self-quarantines before the test results came back.)
One reason was empathetic, trying to avoid a scenario where one student testing positive would shut things down, likely subjecting said student to much derision. One can imagine some poor guy showing up for his 50th class reunion and still being sneered at as the “goof who cost us our home opener in 2020.”
The third and most likely reason was pure selfishness, in that a positive test among players or coaches would have resulted in a 14-day shutdown of the program, canceling at least two games rather than one.
Nonetheless, instead of being contrite about by the flat-out rejection of his plan and apologizing to the school superintendents for leaving them out of the loop and failing to consult with them, Justice tore into them, seemingly because they were unable to see the brilliance of his proposal.
“Bad decision. We could have helped,” said Justice, as if the checkers-playing superintendents could not comprehend his three-dimensional chess moves.
Justice seems to have the same contempt for schoolteachers who dared question whether he and Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch have actually taken all steps necessary to prepare public schools for reopening. Many teachers, who are putting themselves and their students on the front lines, are uncertain and afraid.
Justice last week took offense at the suggestion he has directed none of the $1.25 billion in CARES Act windfall money to COVID-19 preparedness in the schools (the state has received a separate $90 million grant for that purpose). On Friday, he decided to move $50 million to pay for additional personal protection gear and COVID-19 testing in the schools.
Still, if I were a teacher, I’m not sure I’d be persuaded by a talk about how safe it is to return to classrooms coming from a governor and state school officials who are continuing to meet virtually.
Finally, I was taken aback when an online system in the state auditor’s office stopped updating Aug. 24, one day after I first wrote a column listing some of Justice’s $5,000 CARES Act grants to small businesses, which I tracked using the system. Or, in Justice’s words, “You just scan, and scan and scan,” referring to the hours spent reviewing the hundreds of grants posted in the system.
“That’s not what a journalist does,” Justice said, failing to comprehend that’s exactly what a journalist does, poring over records to find government waste, fraud or malfeasance.
In checking with the auditor’s office, the system was down 10 days as part of a previously announced shutdown to make upgrades to the state’s notorious wvOasis supercomputer. The IT work also delayed compilation of the August state revenue report for a day.
Whether the fact that state revenues have been in the black for the first two months of the 2020-21 budget year is the result of an economic renaissance, as Justice claims, or the infusion of some $2 billion of federal stimulus checks and $600 weekly unemployment supplements may be a topic for a future column.
Once the system cranked back up, I “scanned” a couple of interesting nuggets among what is now more than $12 million in grants.
While we’ve had a number of Limited Video Lottery, or LVL, machine distributors, last week saw the first LVL parlor get a grant. It went to the owners of Tulsi’s in Charleston.
Batjac of South Carolina Ltd. got a grant. In West Virginia, the company operates Pocahontas Pharmacy in Gassaway.
Wiseman Construction, which has done more than $23 million of work for the state in recent years, got a grant, as did the Lewis Automotive Group in Beckley.
Meanwhile, the best company name in the latest batch of grants is Really Cheap Geeks, a computer repair shop in Parkersburg, which, oddly enough, received a grant for $4,500, not $5,000.
Have a good holiday, stay safe and mask up.