There’s been a common argument among those in West Virginia education and news media circles that, if Gov. Jim Justice thinks students, teachers and school service personnel should all be back in person, then the governor should allow reporters to attend his COVID-19 briefings in person, too.
It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s not wrong, either.
One of the basic arguments for returning to in-person learning, which already has happened across the state, is that public school students are young people, and young people do not contract or spread the COVID-19 virus at a high rate. Low outbreak numbers at schools across the state are offered as evidence, along with preliminary studies on the subject. And, while there certainly have been school outbreaks, the results so far seem to generally validate the theory.
It will get more complicated when sports are allowed to resume, as was the case in the fall, but you also have to factor in that most schools are taking measures to reduce risk and teachers now have been prioritized for vaccinations.
A news briefing in the Governor’s Office is a different animal. Put Justice and Gazette-Mail reporter Phil Kabler in the same room, and that’s going to pull the average age much higher, regardless of who else is in attendance. Kidding aside, it’s generally going to be an older, more vulnerable population indoors with each other for a conceivably lengthy bit of time.
However, it’s not like there would be a ton of people crammed into a small space in the governor’s briefing room, as opposed to the situation in some classrooms. Reporters would be able to spread out. Masks would be required.
Maybe it’s not feasible for someone like coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh, who works at West Virginia University in Morgantown, or certain other panel members to be physically present at each briefing. Fine, they can still be present on Zoom. That’s even less risk for virus transmission.
Also keep in mind that Justice and a lot of his team have been vaccinated, so their risk of contracting the virus is at least lower than 5%, according to efficacy rates. With other mitigation factors — masks, plenty of distance — it’s virtually nil. And the governor himself continues to remark on the downward trend in cases and the lower risk of infection across all portions of the state.
The fact is, the health risk has little to do with why Justice doesn’t want to open these briefings up. It’s more about control.
As the Gazette-Mail’s Feb. 14 “JimboTV” feature explained, the governor is allowed to stump for long periods of time, uninterrupted and unquestioned. He can veer into political ramblings if he wishes, and has, more than once, pronounced a fair bit of misinformation.
The number of news media members allowed to ask questions is controlled by his team. Reporters get to ask their question, and then they’re essentially silenced, unless Justice or a member of the panel ask for some sort of clarification. Follow-up questions aren’t necessarily forbidden, but the format isn’t conducive to such and allowance has been granted only a handful of times in hundreds of briefings that have been ongoing for nearly a year.
This has allowed the governor to tout successes — many of which, fair enough, have been earned — while downplaying glaring inconsistencies and failures, such as issues surrounding federal relief spending.
Justice can’t have it both ways. For months, handling things this way was understandable, but that’s not the case now. If he wants to make broad policy decisions — popular, unpopular, scientifically prudent, fiscally responsible or not — he needs to be accessible and thoroughly answer questions.
Already, this format is transitioning into use in how the governor is attempting to repeal the state income tax — a major decision that could have huge implications for West Virginia’s budget, residents’ pocketbooks and services people rely on.
A series of virtual town hall meetings have proved, so far, inconvenient for many of those with an interest in the issue. The governor seems to be answering more questions in these sessions — some submitted by the news media, others by constituents — but the same problem of keeping him accountable for his answers and on-topic remains.
Justice has done a lot of things right over the past year, but he’s also made some questionable calls on important issues. He can’t continue to operate with such little accountability or scrutiny. The governor works for the people of West Virginia, and their questions and concerns need to be properly heard.