Essential reporting in volatile times.

Click here to stay informed and subscribe to The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Click #isupportlocal for more information on supporting our local journalists.


Learn more about HD Media

If nothing else, the novel coronavirus pandemic has forced Gov. Jim Justice to pay a lot closer attention to his job.

You’ll recall that Justice was conspicuously absent during the 2018 teacher strike, as thousands of teachers came to Charleston for sustained protests. Then, upon finally arriving, the governor announced that an agreement had been reached. The problem, though, was that it actually hadn’t. The strike continued until a real agreement was settled on.

Folks had always wondered just how much time Gov. Justice was spending at the Capitol and whether he was even living in Charleston, “the seat of government,” as the West Virginia Constitution requires. The 2018 strike drew much more attention to the issue.

His absence during a subsequent strike and tense negotiations of a controversial education bill in 2019 didn’t help. Turns out, as we all know now, Justice was spending most of his time in his native Lewisburg, more than two hours away, and only showing up when issues became critical. Often upon arriving, the governor was behind on his grasp of particular issues.

Not that Jim Justice cares what I think, but I believe he actually did a pretty good job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He stepped up and took action to defend the health of West Virginians while other governors and the president folded. I think Justice’s surprisingly decent response was due, in no small part, to having to brief the public every day as the situation changed.

As the pandemic has worn on, though, the briefings have become more sparse, and the governor’s attention has wandered. He’s made some good decisions, like the mask mandate and temporarily shutting down bars and nursing home visitations as problems have cropped up. But of those decisions have been more reactive than proactive.

It’s also evident that Justice is more than a tad out of touch after he offered up a plan to somehow test high school athletes and band members in three counties so they would be eligible to play sports beginning Friday.

He obviously didn’t run the idea past those three counties, all of which declined the help. You have to wonder if he even shared the plan with his own state school and public health officials before rolling the idea out during a briefing on Monday. Those officials certainly seemed a little short on details when asked how they could possibly test so many students, much less get the results back, in such a short span of time. And even if such an effort were possible, might it be better applied elsewhere?

Add to that the unexplained dismissal of a highly qualified public health official, Dr. Cathy Slemp, during the middle of a pandemic and it paints the picture of an administration that is in at least some degree of disarray. Even when the governor is on the job, he’s not on the same page as everyone else.

That needs to change quickly. The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests nearly tripled Tuesday, and took a huge jump in Kanawha County. Public health officials say it’s not a surge, but an artificial spike caused by the delay of relaying proper information. That explanation isn’t comforting, either.

We’re relying on Gov. Justice’s actions and assurances as parents, teachers and students prepare for the opening of school next week. Justice says he doesn’t want to endanger a single West Virginian’s life. I believe him. But if he’s making decisions from outside the loop, intentions won’t matter.

Ben Fields is the Gazette-Mail opinion editor. Reach him at ben.fields@wvgazettemail.com or follow @BenFieldsWV on Twitter.