Gov. Jim Justice had choice words Monday for anti-mask activists who are, in his words, calling him a “communist or a dictator” for imposing stricter face mask mandates in West Virginia — and for the politicians he said are egging them on.
“Can you imagine these people who are prompted to call me a communist or a dictator? It’s silly,” Justice said during the state COVID-19 briefing Monday. “I just want us to get more control over this terrible virus that’s absolutely just eating us alive.”
With state COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths soaring to record levels, Justice enacted several executive orders on Friday aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, including mandating that face masks be worn in all public buildings at all times, with few exceptions.
That was a modification of an executive order the governor issued July 6, mandating face masks in public buildings, but with an exception for locations where it is possible to maintain social distancing.
Without identifying them by name, but referring to them as failed gubernatorial candidates, Justice criticized Delegate Marshall Wilson, I-Berkeley, and former delegate Mike Folk for stirring up the anti-mask sentiment. Folk finished a distant third in the Republican gubernatorial primary; Wilson attempted a write-in campaign for governor in the general election.
In September, Capitol Police escorted a group of Wilson supporters out of the Capitol after they refused to comply with face mask requirements set for attending Constitution Day ceremonies Wilson was hosting in the House chamber.
“We need to stop listening to this noise coming out of people who want to take your money to buy their campaign rhetoric, or are just wanting to be relevant,” Justice said.
The governor said Folk had posted Justice’s personal cellphone number on social media over the weekend. Justice said he is being forced to get a new number after being inundated with irate calls over the face mask mandate.
Justice said he fielded calls from people insisting that COVID-19 is not real and is a media fabrication, with many callers saying they want West Virginia to be like South Dakota — where Gov. Kristi Noem has refused to mandate mask wearing, even though the Dakotas are the two states hardest hit by the current COVID-19 surge, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute.
Justice noted Monday that South Dakota has half the population of West Virginia but has nearly twice as many active cases of COVID-19.
“If you’re just hell-bent on going to South Dakota, then go to South Dakota,” Justice said.
Responding to claims that the face mask mandate is a first step at undoing constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms, Justice cited his conservative bona fides: “I am Donald Trump’s best friend. I am absolutely all for guns and life.”
Justice expressed empathy for people who find face masks uncomfortable and inconvenient, saying, “How do I feel about the masks? I don’t like them. I don’t want to wear them either.”
He added, “I need you to just wear your masks. I know it’s a pain in the butt.”
Justice said that, if the mask mandate goes unheeded, his only other option to curb the spread of COVID-19 would be ordering another shutdown of nonessential businesses around the state.
“The last thing I want to do is shut down our businesses again, and have more people unemployed,” he said. “Absolutely, the last thing we want to do is to shut our schools down, shut our businesses down.”
The governor on Monday also commented on a photograph widely circulating on social media showing him without a mask at a group event Saturday at the Marshall University football game.
“I had my mask on 100% of the time I was at the game,” Justice said, saying he was asked to pose with the college football national championship trophy, which was in Huntington as part of a tour of various college football venues during the season.
The governor said organizers of the event asked him to take his mask off for the photograph, saying, “The people that had the national championship trophy asked me to take my mask off so they could take that picture, and then I put it back on.”
As for people attempting to use the picture to show hypocrisy over the face mask mandate, Justice said, “You don’t need to send it to me anymore.”
Also Monday, Justice continued to refuse to recognize the election of Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president.
“From my standpoint, I want all the legal votes to be counted,” the governor said, echoing the Trump campaign. “How that falls, it falls. If it falls to Vice President Biden and Kamala Harris, I’ll try to work with them, and recognize them as president and vice president.”