Gov. Jim Justice made the right decision in shutting down bars in Monongalia County for 10 days. Such establishments contributed to what the governor and others termed a “hot spot” for new coronavirus cases.
Overall, though, the state needs a more complete response to these types of situations and quicker, more decisive action.
As he did with the mask mandate, the governor teased that bars might have to be shut down because of the problem late in the week, then he made the decision the following Monday. Wanting to wait and gather more information is understandable in some cases. However, COVID-19 spreads through social gatherings and is transmitted to multiple people rapidly. Making the call earlier might have stopped multiple new cases. West Virginians won’t really know for a couple weeks because of the incubation period associated with the virus.
Shutting down only bars also leaves some areas of concern. Patrons could simply go to restaurants that have bars in them, which Justice said would not be closed down, or hit the bars in another county. There are occupancy and distancing regulations in place with the mask order, but the burden of enforcement is on the business, not the state, leaving bar and restaurant managers, employees and owners in a difficult spot.
That’s not to say the governor should have shut down bars and restaurants with bars in them across the entire state. The administration needs the flexibility to address different areas with some finesse. For instance, case spikes in Monongalia County, according to the governor, are linked to West Virginia University students returning for the fall semester or more people in the area venturing out as classes approach.
Not many other counties in the state, aside from Cabell, will deal with a similar concern, at least not with a comparable volume of people suddenly injected into the equation. A statewide shutdown would have punished businesses that aren’t part of the problem at a crucial time for small-business owners.
It might be time to call the West Virginia Legislature into a special session to get some laws on the books that present more concrete legal consequences for ignoring public health mandates in what is, hopefully, a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Any such legislation needs to be specific to this particular crisis, so it does not infringe on basic rights, intentionally or not, now or in the future. It would take a while to debate such legislation, but the governor still would maintain the power to manage the crisis on a daily basis.
Even a special session would have to be done carefully. Multiple COVID-19 cases among legislators in Mississippi have been linked to a recent session in May, although it’s important to note that, in that case, many lawmakers did not wear masks or practice proper social distancing.
Many West Virginians have the best interests of their fellow citizens in mind when they venture out. But there still are some who refuse to take precautions with a virus that is somewhat treatable but not yet totally curable, causing more than 135,000 deaths in the United States so far. And it’s not just in bars. Cases continue to be traced back to irresponsible church gatherings or traveling to vacation spots without taking proper safety measures while there or upon returning home.
No one should lose his or her life or needlessly suffer because someone else didn’t have the courtesy to wear a mask or follow other basic public health practices. Gov. Justice’s administration needs to act more quickly when these situations develop, and there needs to be a consequence for ignoring executive orders regarding COVID-19. Otherwise, the only solution becomes issuing another stay-at-home order, and West Virginia’s economy, indeed its collective sanity, probably would not survive something like that.