As Gov. Jim Justice has repeatedly stressed during daily state COVID-19 briefings, he’s in a balancing act, trying to maintain efforts to protect the public health and welfare while preventing the state’s economic slowdown from turning into a collapse.
Or, as he put Friday in a way that only Justice can: “We know there’s a downside to doing nothing, and there’s a downside to doing something.”
There’s been reasonable skepticism over Justice’s original metric for reopening the state, requiring 14 consecutive days of declining positive cases, being replaced with a requirement for three consecutive days of positive cases below 3% of the total cumulative number of tests in each given week.
That’s clearly a much lower bar.
I tend to think simplistically, frequently using baseball metaphors, to wit, even a bad team can have a three-game winning streak, but it’s uncommon for even the best teams to put together 14-game winning streaks.
Likewise, regarding the use of the cumulative number of tests rather than a rolling number of recent tests, it’s the equivalent of a batter hitting .260 going into the last two weeks of the season. That batter would have to go on an impossibly wicked hit streak to finish with a .300 average.
Clearly, the new metric is designed to make it easier for Justice to move forward with his plan to bring the state back on line, moving this Monday into week two of the six-week program to phase-in state reopenings. Had the 14 days of declining cases requirement stayed in place, Justice would not yet have reached the starting gate for week one.
While it’s evident the state budget can’t absorb too many more $192 million plunges in revenue, as it experienced in April, evidence from Germany and elsewhere warns that reopening too quickly can have traumatic consequences, possibly resulting in a second spike of infections more severe than the first.
Over the next few weeks, Justice will have to precisely maneuver a fine line to recovery.
Err too far to one side, and he plunges West Virginia into a second, severe round of illnesses and death. Err too far to the other side, and the current economic downturn becomes a severe recession or even depression, which carries its own litany of harm, both to society and to individuals.
So far, on matters of health and welfare, Justice has relied on the guidance of health care experts, such as West Virginia University’s Dr. Clay Marsh, who has endorsed Justice’s plan for gradually reopening businesses and social activities.
As the weeks go on, Justice will increasingly be under economic and political pressure to hasten the pace of reopening and his legacy as governor likely will be made or broken by how well he can walk that tightrope.
It remains to be seen how quickly the public and individual businesses will embrace Justice’s plan.
It’s one thing to be told it’s OK to go back to eating out at restaurants again, and entirely another to feel it’s safe enough to actually do so.
Likewise, although Justice’s plan allowed dental offices to begin reopening Thursday, the state Board of Dentistry is advising dentists to hold off on reopening until May 11, and I’ve been told that a shortage of personal protective equipment could make it difficult for many dentists to reopen on that date, with the current situation leaving many suppliers of masks and gowns with huge backorders for product.
A couple weeks ago, I referenced an opinion piece in Politico by contributing editor Bill Scher, which rated Justice’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic to that point as one of six “busts” by U.S. governors.
I suggested that well might have been true with Justice’s initial erratic words and actions, but that he had made a strong recovery from there.
Now comes an expansive 50-state survey with more than 22,000 participants, conducted by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, a group made up of researchers at Harvard, Rutgers and Northeastern universities.
The study found that residents of all 50 states believe their state’s governor is doing a better job handling the coronavirus pandemic than President Donald Trump, who had an overall approval rating of 44%.
West Virginians surveyed gave Justice a 78% approval rating, fifth highest among U.S. governors.
The results might be taken with a grain of salt, given that 57% of West Virginians surveyed approved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, second only to 59% approval in Wyoming — two of only five states nationally with positive approval ratings for Trump.
Those results might have been skewed, given the breakdown of those surveyed by political affiliation, which in West Virginia was 34% Republican, 26% Democratic, 36% independent and 3% other.
Obviously, the survey over-polled Republicans, many of whom have a distorted view of the realities of the pandemic, having partaken of too much Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.
Nonetheless, being among the top five governors is surely preferable to being one of the six gubernatorial busts in every way, shape, form or fashion.
Finally, I finished Eric Eyre’s “Death In Mud Lick,” and I have to say, I found the book at times to be stomach-churning, not just because his recounting of efforts to uncover the actual numbers of opioid pill distribution in the state frequently read like a detective novel, or because of the depictions of families and entire communities left devastated by the epidemic, but because it forced me to relive difficult times at the paper, including the merger with the Daily Mail and the bankruptcy.
Eric encapsulated the paper’s financial woes in one sentence, describing how Christmas bonuses went from two weeks’ pay to a crisp $100 bill, to nothing but pizzas in the conference room. (For the record, the bonuses are back, in the form of Kroger gift cards.)
That got me to thinking about how much the industry and this particular paper have changed in the short time I’ve been in the business.
I can remember a time when reporters frequently went out on overnight out-of-town assignments and were given generous cash advances to cover our costs. Publisher Ned Chilton took it as a personal affront if reporters came back with unspent balances.
I recall being sent to Washington, D.C., in 1989 to cover the unveiling of new state tourism and economic development campaigns and being put up in a four-star hotel near the Kennedy Center, at Editor Don Marsh’s direction.
In 1992, covering the Democratic National Convention in New York City, I had a suite in the West Virginia delegation’s hotel on the Upper West Side.
In those days, when reporters covered events at The Greenbrier, we were put up, not at The Greenbrier — even in Gazette’s halcyon days, only editors and executives stayed at the resort — but at the General Lewis Inn.
The last time I had an overnight stay in that part of the state, for out-of-town legislative interim meetings in Lewisburg, I was put up at the Super 8, which drove home how much belt-tightening had occurred.
Much has changed since then, but also much has not.
Thanks to modern video streaming technology, I’ve probably attended more newsroom meetings virtually in the past two weeks than I had attended in person over the past five years.
From those meetings, I have to say I find it reassuring to see the paper has a stable of bright, talented, hardworking and aggressive young reporters who soldier on, even though the job no longer offers the kind of perks and creature comforts that I enjoyed when I was their age.