During a COVID-19 briefing that started late and ended abruptly after 19 minutes, Gov. Jim Justice was able to make two points Friday:
- He is modifying his executive order mandating wearing of face masks in indoor public places to conform with new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance eliminating the mask-wearing requirement outdoors and in most indoor settings for people who are fully vaccinated.
- He announced he is cutting off $300-a-week federal supplemental unemployment benefits to about 24,000 out-of-work West Virginians as of June 19, and is hoping to offer state $500 “signing bonuses” to those who go back to work.
Justice joins a dozen Republican governors in cutting off federal benefits to state residents, benefits that were extended under the American Rescue Plan Act to Sept. 6.
The governor on Friday suggested that the majority of unemployed West Virginians are taking advantage of the additional benefits by not actively seeking employment, and told them directly, “If you’re just taking advantage of this program, I think that time is over.”
He added, “West Virginians have access to thousands of jobs right now. We want everybody back to work.”
On Wednesday, Justice recited conservative media talking points claiming that the supplemental benefit is a disincentive for the unemployed to seek work, contending that, “You’ve got a lot, lot, lot of folks that are scamming the system.”
The governor said he hopes to unveil a program on Monday for the state to provide $500 bonuses to unemployed West Virginians who return to work, bonuses he said he hopes will be matched by employers.
“We’re hearing a lot of businesses are willing to step up,” he said of matching bonuses. “We’ve got to have you back to work. America is all about work.”
If the 24,000 figure is accurate, Justice’s elimination of the supplemental benefits will cost the state about $7.2 million in federal funding per week, and a total of as much as $79.2 million.
The governor also announced Friday that he is modifying his executive order mandating the wearing of face masks in indoor public settings to comply with CDC guidance issued Thursday. That guidance lifted the face mask requirement outdoors and in most indoor settings for people who are fully vaccinated.
He stressed that the state face mask mandate remains in effect for all West Virginians who are not fully vaccinated.
“This is for those folks that are fully vaccinated, which means you have had both your shots, other than if you’ve taken Johnson & Johnson, and if you’ve had two weeks after the second shot,” Justice said of the modification to his order.
“Remember, you do not have a constitutional right to not wear a mask,” the governor told those who are not fully vaccinated.
Justice did not say how the modified order will be enforced, but he said schools and businesses may continue to mandate mask wearing for all.
He previously announced plans to lift the face mask executive order on June 20, West Virginia Day, if the state has reached — or is close to — a threshold of 65% of all residents age 16 and older having received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Justice’s teleconference ended abruptly Friday with his image freezing on the screen.
Shortly after, the Governor’s Office sent out a notice blaming internet network difficulties for the outage, later stating, “Due to technical difficulties, the remainder of the governor’s briefing has been canceled. Gov. Justice conveyed all new information unique to today’s briefing before the network outage. There will be a press release sent later this afternoon recapping the new information.”
Justice has been conducting the state COVID-19 briefings virtually since March 2020 and has not been receptive to resuming in-person news briefings, even as he has repealed virtually all other restrictions on in-person gatherings.