Though certainly superior to Donald Trump’s deny, downplay, then deflect-and-blame policy, Gov. Jim Justice’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been, like much of his governorship, a spur-of-the-moment, seat-of-the-pants operation.
The best example: On Monday, Justice rejected calls from concerned parties urging him to close restaurants and bars to avoid concentrated gatherings of people.
In expressing his desire that people go on with their lives as normally as possible, Justice infamously commented, “If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat.”
Just over 24 hours later, Justice reversed course, issuing an executive order closing bars and casinos, and restricting restaurants to carry out, drive-thru, and delivery service.
By the time of his statewide address Tuesday evening, Justice’s tune had changed: “Our power to combat this disease is to be apart from one another.”
Similarly, a day after expressing reluctance to close schools, concerned that children would lose access to meals and a semblance of structure in their lives, Justice on March 13 ordered all schools closed — giving state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch only a few minutes’ advance notice of his decision.
We saw a similar scenario days earlier, when Justice dismissed the necessity of suspending the state high school basketball tournaments to disperse large crowds, only to order the girls’ tournament suspended the next day — hours before the team he coaches was scheduled to play.
As has been the hallmark of his governorship, Justice’s response to the pandemic has been reactive, not proactive.
Executive closure orders have trickled out, seemingly in response to whoever last raised concerns with the governor.
“I guess everybody is looking to me or the government for guidance,” Justice said Thursday, as if dumbfounded by the idea people would look to their governor for leadership.
Gyms, fitness centers and recreational facilities — spelled out somewhat bizarrely by general counsel Brian Abraham as places where people engage in physical activity in close proximity with the “potential transfer of bodily fluids” — came on Wednesday, followed by closure of barber, beauty salons and nail salons on Thursday.
On Friday, seemingly working on the assumption the biggest threat to the spread of coronavirus is an influx of out-of-state visitors, Justice ordered state park lodges and the Hatfield-McCoy ATV trails closed, using those closures as an opportunity to plug his Greenbrier resort, which closed on Thursday.
To work from the assumption that the virus is being imported into the state strictly by infected visitors, at the expense of downplaying the likelihood of community spread, seems shortsighted.
Treating this pandemic with incremental steps may be sufficient, and may not be. We’re in uncharted territory.
Justice on Friday indicated the administration has put together a list of nonessential businesses that could be ordered closed if things get worse, but said this is not the time to take that drastic a measure, as states like Pennsylvania have done.
He also paid homage to King Coal by dismissing Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to order coal mines closed under that state’s decree, saying “you’d absolutely have to be way out there” to conclude coal mining is not an essential business.
(Justice did urge miners to exercise caution in bathhouses, but did not explain how they are to practice social distancing on a mantrip.)
One could point out inconsistencies with Justice’s “close this, not that” policies. Barbers and beauticians are idled because they work in close proximity to potentially infected individuals, but massage therapists can continue to work.
Similarly, Justice on Thursday strongly encouraged families to consider foregoing large gatherings at funeral home visitations and funeral services, given the likelihood that vulnerable elderly individuals will be in attendance, stating, “A funeral home setting seems as if it’s just ripe to cause us more harm.”
On Friday, he walked that back, saying it is not his place to interfere in matters of grieving family members — again, failing to comprehend his role as governor to provide leadership to state residents.
Undoubtedly, Justice is walking a fine line in an election year. If his orders are not sufficiently effective, the virus could spread and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of West Virginians could die. If his orders turn out to be excessively restrictive, he could unnecessarily do further harm to a struggling state economy.
At this point, there’s no way to know what approach is optimal.
Meanwhile, it’s important to put into perspective it was just over two weeks ago that delegates on the House floor were mocking a proposal to set aside $8 million in the state budget bill for coronavirus prevention and treatment by fake coughing and blaming slips of the tongue on the virus.
When Justice ordered state casinos closed Tuesday, I think everyone naturally assumed that meant the racetrack portions of the casinos were also shut down.
Evidently, Justice thought so too, until, I’m told, thoroughbred racing lobbyists (one of whom was on his transition team) convinced to him to leave the decision up to the state Racing Commission, which on Friday approved a somewhat scaled-back racing schedule at Charles Town.
Apparently, Penn National Gaming management acquiesced to pressure from thoroughbred owners and breeders to permit racing at a spectator-less racetrack to provide simulcast wagering opportunities.
The 2020 racing season at the state’s other thoroughbred track, Mountaineer Racetrack, does not begin until April 26, but it is likely horse owners and the HBPA there will also pressure management to permit racing.
No such pressure from greyhound owners and breeders who recognized that, without the $19 million-a-year subsidy from casino profits, greyhound purses would be too puny to justify attempting to put on races.
As I mentioned last week, legislators were able to fund a $16.9 million increase in reimbursements to foster care families and balance the 2020-21 state budget to a large extent because Justice “discovered” some $20 million in state pension fund contributions that would not be needed next year, after a strong year of returns on pension fund investments.
Using that money to avoid a mini-budget impasse seemed dubious at the time, with the state’s six-year budget outlook showing revenue shortfalls in coming years with losses of natural gas pipeline construction projects and the accelerating decline of the coal industry.
Now, with the stock market collapse and coronavirus-driven economic recession or possible depression, shifting those funds is looking positively irresponsible.
Under current law, the state Investment Management Board has a goal of getting a 7.5% annual return on investments on the what was more than $14 billion of assets in state pension funds for teachers and public employees.
There have been numerous debates inside the Legislature and elsewhere as to whether 7.5% annual growth is realistic, or simply was a figure pulled out of the air by legislators many years ago because it raised the amount needed to avoid having to take millions out of the state coffers to avoid pension fund liabilities.
While there have been years where the IMB has missed the 7.5% goal and state agencies have had to kick in funds to make the pension plans whole, it’s been a while since the Dow was down 30%.
It seems clear whoever finds himself in the Governor’s Mansion in 2021 (or finds himself commuting to Charleston from points beyond) will be in a world of hurt when it comes to balancing the 2021-22 state budget.
Finally, the quote of the week: “Go catch a trout. Make ya feel better.”
That was Justice’s closing comment at Friday’s COVID-19 briefing.
The backstory is that earlier in the day, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, had called on Justice to order the Division of Natural Resources to suspend trout stockings of state streams. That was after Sponaugle said he received calls from concerned constituents who witnessed the usual ritual of gaggles of fishermen following the stocking trucks and then congregating in groups of 75 to 100 to fish the spot where the trout were released.
Since Sponaugle is also suing to require Justice to abide by the constitutional requirement that the governor reside at the seat of government, Justice was not inclined to take the request seriously.
“That’s the silliest thing under the sun,” Justice said. “We want people to go out and enjoy fishing.”
(So to recap Friday’s briefing, out-of-state tourists — bad. Crowded funeral services and fishing holes — good.)
Stay safe, and we’ll try to rendezvous at this spot next week.