Health officials are investigating a New Year’s Eve gala at The Greenbrier resort after a video showed revelers without masks and appearing to violate coronavirus social distancing guidelines.
Complaints about the party at the iconic West Virginia resort owned by Gov. Jim Justice prompted the probe, Sarah Woody, environmental health supervisor for the Greenbrier County Health Department, said Monday in a statement.
Outrage rippled across West Virginia after state Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, tweeted video from the event over the weekend. The video had generated more than 1 million impressions as of Monday morning, Ihlenfeld said.
Allan Asseo of New York City, who spent the holiday weekend at The Greenbrier with his wife, described the scene as “mass pandemonium.”
In the upper lobby, he said, “Easily 200 people were packed wall-to-wall like sardines right next to each other, no masks on, with drinks in their hands, screaming and yelling, waiting for the ball to come down.
“At the bar, which is right next door to there,” he added, “people were packed four-deep against the bar, screaming and looking for drinks. Very few were wearing masks.”
Partygoers rang in the new year last night at Governor Justice’s resort, with COVID protocols apparently optional. Meanwhile, the Governor won’t let high school sports begin until March 1. Kids continue to sacrifice while adults celebrate. pic.twitter.com/YhypNKGGk0— William Ihlenfeld II (@IhlenfeldWV) January 2, 2021
Coaches, student-athletes and parents across the Mountain State cited the contrast between the gala and the governor’s decision to delay the start of winter sports until March 1.
Ihlenfeld wrote Justice last week calling for local school districts to be given greater autonomy over scholastic sports and extracurricular activities.
“It got some attention throughout the state over social media,” Ihlenfeld said of his letter. “A lot of people said thanks for standing up for the kids.”
A Twitter follower directed the senator to the New Year’s Eve video, he said.
Matt Welsch, owner of Vagabond Kitchen in Wheeling, said he typically does several thousand …
“I was not a guest at The Greenbrier,” Ihlenfeld said.
The governor fielded numerous questions about the video during his Monday COVID-19 briefing, first dismissing it as a “political ploy” by Democrat senators whom he did not identify.
“It’s a political hit at me. That’s all there is to it,” he said.
Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, the incoming minority leader, initially posted a statement on social media in defense of The Greenbrier, saying, “The hotel has been a regular engaged member of our Greater Greenbrier COVID Task Force since March. As a private business, they’ve made continual efforts to keep guidelines while keeping the county’s largest employer open.”
Baldwin’s wife, Kerry, is director of event services at the resort.
Justice said he was not at the resort on New Year’s Eve: “I surely don’t know what’s going on at the New Year’s Eve celebration when I’m lying at home in bed asleep.”
The governor said he did not learn about the celebration at The Greenbrier until the public did. The Governor’s Office did not respond to a list of questions sent Monday inquiring about Justice’s role in the event and whether he knew about it beforehand.
The Greenbrier’s website promoted the resort’s New Year’s Eve celebration in the days leading up to the holiday.
“New Year’s Eve is backed with events around the clock,” text on the site’s New Year’s page declared. “The day begins with the Resolution Fun Run at 8:00 a.m., with workshops taking guests up to the dinner hour. The New Year’s Eve Served Dinner gives guests an opportunity to feast before the countdown, and the evening will end with a countdown to the New Year in The Greenbrier Casino Club or a balloon drop in the Upper Lobby.”
The cost of the New Year’s Eve dinner was $175 a person.
Justice’s daughter, Jill, is president of the resort and the author of a letter appearing at the front of The Greenbrier’s nine-page COVID-19 response plan, issued in the spring.
“Each department throughout the resort put a significant amount of time and thought into polices for their areas,” she wrote, “and guidelines from local and national health officials were consulted in every instance.”
Resort officials did not respond to requests for comment.
During Monday’s briefing, Justice indicated that the easiest option would be to close the resort during the pandemic. That, he said, would cost 1,500 jobs.
“This time of year,” he said, “it loses so much money, it’s unbelievable.”
Resort management goes to great lengths to comply with COVID-19 protocols, the governor said.
“The bottom line is just this: Protocols are in place, and I will promise you — I will promise you to God above — that The Greenbrier is absolutely following every protocol that you can possibly follow.”
He said people have “called to tell me [how safe it is].”
But, Justice said, he also has heard about the gala.
“I’ve been in touch with people in Greenbrier County who called the hotel and complained about the event,” he said. “People have called and raised concerns with the hotel over the video.”
Justice took exception during the online call with reporters to the suggestion that wealthy Greenbrier resort patrons are not obligated to follow rules he has set for others by executive order.
“Why do we need to pit one another against one another?” Justice said. “This doesn’t have anything to do with rich people. This doesn’t have anything to do with kids playing basketball.”