MORGANTOWN — Monongalia County’s Chief Medical officer equated the current state of COVID-19 in the county to a wildfire on Monday during a special meeting that saw unanimous support from community leaders for a two-tier plan to help douse the flames.
The idea is to couple an executive order from Gov. Jim Justice forcing Monongalia County businesses to require and enforce the use of masks by employees and patrons with a three-strike process to handle businesses which experience outbreaks — defined as three or more cases from a single location.
The plan comes in response to a recent dramatic jump in cases in the county — some 360 since July 1. For perspective, Monongalia County had a total of 160 cases between the beginning of March and June 30.
Dr. Lee Smith of the MCHD explained that 79% of those new cases come from the 18-29 age range.
The goal of the plan was to avoid shutting businesses back down out of fear of pushing returning students out of bars and restaurants to house parties and out of the MCHD’s reach.
“We’re seeing a vast majority of these younger people sharing a common denominator of not observing social distancing, not wearing masks,” Smith said, later adding “Monongalia County has been called out by the governor. Under the division of epidemiology, Morgantown has been considered an outbreak.”
The first part of the community-backed plan would isolate businesses experiencing positive tests in employees or patrons.
After three positive cases, the business would be forced to close for deep cleaning and MCHD inspection. If an additional three individuals test positive, the business would need to close for 14 days, get cleaned and inspected. Three more positive tests after that and the business would be closed until the outbreak in the county slows and it is deemed safe to reopen.
A complementary piece would be an executive order from Justice requiring Monongalia County businesses to require and enforce the wearing of masks by employees and patrons. Any patron who refuses would be subject to arrest under trespassing laws.
Both items were sent to Justice’s office shortly before his 12:30 p.m. press conference, which Justice opened by singling out Monongalia County’s bars for a 10-day closure.
While Justice made comments during the press conference that appeared to indicate he would not support giving individual counties leeway to implement enforcement measures, efforts to convince him otherwise will continue according to Monongalia County Commission President Ed Hawkins.
“To say that you’re not going to treat counties differently and yet to single out Monongalia County and specifically say ‘This county’s bars are closed,’ is doing exactly that,” Hawkins said. “I’m still hoping that by pressing forward we’ll get what we all agreed upon today in a community forum. All of us. There was not one person who dissented.”
The Monongalia County Commission hosted the special meeting, which included Smith, officials from Morgantown, Star City, Granville and Westover, as well as representatives from WVU, Monongalia County Schools, state lawmakers, law enforcement and others.
Among those attending over the phone was County Prosecutor Perri Jo DeChristopher, who explained that not following the governor’s order is considered obstruction.
“He’s issuing executive orders — which, actually, it’s a misdemeanor for a police officer not to enforce an executive order — but then he says, ‘Don’t enforce this order.’ DeChristopher said of Justice’s current mask mandate.
Smith said he’s hopeful that Justice will allow the county to take the lead in getting its numbers trending in the right direction.
“Because of the numbers we’re experiencing, the state has now designated Morgantown as an outbreak because we have such widespread disease,” he said. “As a result, there is talk in Charleston of how to control this … if we don’t take steps to bring this under some form of control, it will be done for us.”