With planned expansion of statewide business and restaurant re-openings this week, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, is concerned the Eastern Panhandle will be the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
A more appropriate metaphor might be sitting ducks.
On Monday, Gov. Jim Justice authorized a wide variety of businesses, including dine-in restaurants and a large number of retailers, to reopen Thursday.
On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, citing a 25% positive test rate, ordered northern Virginia counties and cities to remain on shutdown through at least May 28.
Human nature being what it is, expect northern Virginians to flood into the panhandle cities. If people can drive across the bridge from a closed county into a one where stores, services and restaurants are open (though there’s no Bob Evans in the Eastern Panhandle), it’s likely some will.
Unger says it’s happening already, with people packing into reopened barber and beauty shops and visitors streaming into Harper’s Ferry.
As of my deadline, Berkeley County reported 200 COVID-19 cases and six deaths. Across the river, Loudoun County, Virginia, reported 1,374 cases and 48 deaths. In Frederick County, Maryland, there were 1,398 cases and 87 deaths.
Those border counties have had nearly as many positive cases and more deaths than the entire state of West Virginia. Not a reassuring place to be.
Unger, a pastor, theorizes that Berkeley County’s low numbers are the result of a.) divine provenance, with a benevolent God wrapping the county in an invisible barrier that shields it from the virus; b.) under-testing; or c.) underreporting.
While the state remains below that mythical 3% cumulative positive rate, Unger frets that the numbers in the panhandle are running closer to 7%.
With cases there possibly under-measured and underreported and with the likelihood that reopening will bring in throngs of out-of-staters, Unger is worried Justice’s plan is a recipe for disaster for the Eastern Panhandle.
“I’m very, very concerned that West Virginia will fail when all is said and done,” Unger said. “I’m so fearful we’ll have the worst number of coronavirus deaths per capita.”
Assurances from Justice that the state will react quickly if there is a surge in the panhandle (or elsewhere in the state) is, in Unger’s mind, the equivalent of sending a football team onto the field without helmets or pads, telling them, “We can get you equipment if it turns out the other team is hitting really hard.”
From a political perspective, it’s not surprising Justice has opted not to set stricter standards for the Eastern Panhandle, as Gov. Northam has done for northern Virginia.
In statewide elections, carrying the Eastern Panhandle is becoming more and more critical, particularly for Republican candidates.
Keeping the panhandle shut down while the rest of the state reopens would subject Justice to criticism, particularly from the “reopen now” crowd, and would give his primary challengers a wedge issue that would play to the GOP mindset that Justice is kowtowing to bureaucrats and academics and allowing Eastern Panhandle businesses to die on the vine.
Last week was the first that Justice seemed to be buckling to pressure to more rapidly reopen businesses and activities, and not just in the Eastern Panhandle.
Justice began to diverge from a measured, reasoned slow phase-in plan to bring the state back online toward bending to the will of whoever made the most calls or complained the loudest.
Abandoning the week-by-week phase in, Justice made spur of the moment pronouncements authorizing the reopening tanning salons (because, can we really claim to be a democracy if the people are barred from artificially damaging their epidermis?), gyms and fitness centers, whitewater rafting, among other businesses and activities.
Justice conceded some of the reopenings were motivated by calls to the governor’s office or by the reality that some business owners were ignoring executive orders and reopening without authorization — an action Justice referred to as “pushing the envelope.”
Justice empathically denied he was bending to pressure, saying Thursday, “That is absolutely, 180 degrees wrong.”
(Like many of Justice’s metaphors, that one left a decidedly mixed message, since if something is 180 degrees wrong that would, in fact, make it right.)
Seeing others’ success at pressuring the governor, Limited Video Lottery operators were, at press time, launching a campaign to flood the governor’s office with calls urging Justice to order that the video lottery machines be turned back on.
Many observers feared that Justice, having handled the initial days of the pandemic so well, might give in to pressures, political and otherwise, to reopen too quickly. As we know from history, the second wave of the Spanish Flu was by far the deadliest.
Justice says politics has nothing to with decision making on the pandemic response. He spent Tuesday and much of Friday’s COVID-19 briefing railing against legislative Democrats in general and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in particular, because they’ve questioned why the governor’s office is moving so slowly to release some of $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money to county and municipal governments and small businesses.
“The more we politicize this right now, the more it will hurt,” Justice said, before saying the House’s current coronavirus relief bill is “so irresponsible it makes me sick.”
Finally, now that it’s safe to reopen barbershops, beauty parlors, tanning salons, gyms and fitness centers, many retail locations and restaurants, and now that we’ve established that seven people can social distance in a whitewater raft, it’s time to reopen the governor’s daily COVID-19 briefings to the media.
During the pandemic, after some initial briefings where reporter seating was spaced out at 6-foot intervals, Justice has locked out the press, instead conducting the daily briefing using video conferencing technology. From the press’ perspective, the arrangement is less than ideal.
For one, although reporters are supposedly drawn at random to ask questions, regular viewers will note that some reporters are called on daily, while some, like AP’s Anthony Izaguirre, Public Broadcasting’s Dave Mistich, me (or whichever Gazette-Mail reporter is filling in) and furloughed Register-Herald reporter Erin Beck got called on less frequently.
A common thread, I would like to think, is that we tend to ask tougher questions. (Or the opposite of the reporter from a radio station nobody’s heard of who used the limited time available for questions to ask Justice if he could put into words how much he appreciates the military and the National Guard.)
Additionally, the current setup, by design, does not permit followup questions. In fact, reporters have had their microphones muted mid-sentence while attempting followups.
For goodness sake, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 briefings have been open to the media throughout the pandemic, and as Justice frequently points out, New York is at the epicenter of the coronavirus.
When I posed the idea of reopening briefings to Justice Friday, he took great offense.
He said he’s an open book and all about transparency. He said the governor’s reception room — a space larger than many of the restaurant dining areas he is authorizing to reopen this week — is simply way too small to accommodate a Capitol press corps of some half-dozen reporters.
“I could turn into a situation we wouldn’t want it to be,” Justice said.
By that, he means a situation where he wouldn’t have complete control over the messaging.