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Justice closes Mon County bars for 10 days, imposes some statewide rollbacks

MORGANTOWN — It’s last call for Monongalia County bars – for 10 days.

Gov. Jim Justice announced the closure Monday, as a means to curb the ongoing community outbreak in the county. He also announced a few statewide rollbacks regarding crowd sizes and fairs and festivals.

Monongalia County outbreak

The Department of Health And Human Resources reported 340 active COVID-19 cases as of Monday morning in Mon County, up from 246 Friday morning. That’s 25.4% of active cases in all 55 counties. The span of July 6-12 saw 256 new cases in Mon.

This was once a disease of the elderly but Justice pointed out that the 20-29 age group has more than half of Mon’s active cases, 52.59%. The 10-19 age group is second, with 10.93%. “You talk about a hot spot, it is a real hot spot.”

Justice said that just before his Monday briefing he was on a phone call with Mon County government and health officials to discuss possible measures.

“We’re re going to work hand in hand with them, with the exception of one thing,” he said.

That one thing is ordering the Mon bars closed for 10 days, effective 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Students are returning and more are expected. Many congregate at bars. He hopes the temporary closure will help correct the numbers by curbing asymptomatic spread, and give local officials time to help bars comply with current orders.

Justice displayed a chart given to him by COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh showing a Texas virus-spread risk chart. It divided activities into five tiers – blue, green, yellow, orange and red, with red the worst. Bar attendance falls at the bottom of the red tier. Restaurant attendance falls at the bottom of the green tier, illustrating why he also didn’t close restaurants.

“We still have no problem whatsoever serving alcohol in the restaurant while you’re dining there,” he said.

Asked by The Dominion Post to elaborate on the content of the call, he said, “We’re working through all that.” He hadn’t seen the letter from the Mon officials; Marsh and Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Ayne Amjad were on the phone taking the information.

“The one thing I’m concerned about in all this,” he said, “when we end up having 55 different rules in 55 different counties for 55 different situations, we’re going to run in a lot, a lot of different areas that we don’t want to go in.” He wants to listen to everyone but keep everyone pulling the rope in the same direction.

Later in the day, in a phone interview, Marsh said he had talked with County Health Officer Dr. Lee Smith but not with any county commission members. His understanding was that the county leaders are cognizant of the community spread and want to take a collaborative approach to the issue, including more rigorous follow-up and enforcement of mask policies.

The governor can’t impose penalties for violation of the mask mandate without legislative action, Marsh said, but local authorities can look at enforcement and other measures.

Asked if he thought county official were approaching the problem wisely, he said yes. “This is just an unusual, challenging environment.”

Mon is the state hot spot, and back at the beginning of The Comeback he’d said Mon was expected to be one along with both panhandles, Kanawha County with the Capitol, and the Cabell/Huntington area, which has Marshall University. And state COVID-19 leaders expected they’d have to take a local scalpel approach if those spots suffered outbreaks.

Before the briefing, local leaders offered varying comments on the bar closure.

County Health Officer Dr. Lee Smith said, “My personal concern as the health officer is that – one, we support commerce. That’s the lifeblood of the community. If the governor takes the position to close the restaurants and bars, we have lost any opportunity that we might have to work with business owners, proprietors and managers, because it will just generate house parties and backyard barbecues in places where we do not have the authority to intervene as a health department.”

At WVU, Rob Alsop, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, said, “We do think there’s a difference between a bar, where it’s difficult to wear a mask while you’re having a cocktail or where you are in close quarters, and a big box store.

“We think we need to now,” Alsop said, “in addition to what the governor has done with the executive order, support additional remedial measures that’s going to slow the spread and get us out of the red and into an orange or yellow spot. We think a scalpel as opposed to a butcher’s knife is much better in terms of how we’re dealing with this because we do want to have an economy.”

Other rollbacks

As context for his additional rollbacks, Justice cited some national numbers. The U.S. Saw 66,786 new

COVID cases in a single day. West Virginia had 1,338 active cases Monday morning, 206 more than Friday, with 62 hospitalized.

“We see the numbers moving in a way that is not becoming of the way we want to go,” he said. “This is not playtime stuff. This is not a time to be macho and stand up and say, ‘Well I don’t have to do this.’”

As a result, also effective Tuesday, Justice reduced the crowd-size limit from 100 back down to 25 statewide. He re-closed fairs, festivals and outdoor concerts. For the rare fair or festival that can have a socially distanced crowd of 25 or less, “We’re good to go,” but otherwise they’re closed.

He held up a printout of a social media posting of a Sunday church service in Fairmont, where every row was filled and no one was wearing a mask. He understands the importance of worship, he said, but, “We’re just asking for it. … We cannot keep doing this, we just can’t.”

The 25-person limit doesn’t apply to churches, which were identified as essential at the beginning of the state of emergency. But people need to understand the danger and follow the guidelines. The behavior displayed at the Fairmont church exposes not just attendees but their friends and relatives outside of church. Following the guidelines is an expression of the biblical mandate to love your neighbor.

Marsh supported Justice’s views with some additional information. Positive active cases in the state have doubled in the last 10-14 days.

Nationally he said, younger people are getting infected and going into hospitals and into intensive care units. Florida has 55 hospitals without available ICU beds; parts of Texas, Arizona and California are seeing the same problem.

In this phase of The Dance, he said, there will be times to slow down, stop or step backwards. “We see Mon County as really that county right now.”

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