Gov. Jim Justice has consistently said his first priority throughout the novel coronavirus pandemic is to keep West Virginians safe. He said it even when his personal friend, President Donald Trump, was leaning on states to reopen prematurely to get the economy rolling again.
Justice realized that reopening businesses across the state wouldn’t do any good if it exposed more people to COVID-19.
Now, the governor is showing signs of bending to pressure — not from the White House, but from business interests — to reopen, when the state still might not be ready. The coronavirus is still a threat, deaths and cases are climbing and it’s not at all clear if West Virginia is in a position to deal with a surge.
Last week, the state slowed its reopening phases after seeing what was happening elsewhere in the country. Coronavirus cases and deaths spiked in Georgia and Texas after those states reopened. Now, Justice is saying tanning bed operations and all gyms and fitness centers need to be allowed to reopen after he or members of his administration received some calls on the issue.
Justice insisted during his Thursday briefing that he was not giving in to pressure in making those decisions. This adds to the confusion surrounding the state’s reopening plan.
The virus spreads in large crowds, but it also spreads in confined spaces and on surfaces that people touch. Abundant cleaning of those surfaces, along with wearing masks and frequent hand washing can mitigate the spread of the virus. But even if a few people stray from the guidelines, it could result in a spike in cases.
The economic strain on businesses and the workforce is understandable, but everything still has to be balanced in view of the threat to public health. It’s not easy and it’s not simple. An economic crash also threatens public health, if the right support is not in place. But reopening in a time when cases aren’t trailing off and there’s no vaccine or other medical treatment in place puts a high demand on civic responsibility.
If Gov. Justice wants to push the throttle, it shouldn’t be because he’s taking some heat, but because it’s a carefully made decision that he believes will help the economy without hurting more West Virginians.