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Small business owners fear return of WVU students will result in shutdown

MORGANTOWN — How can COVID-19 be such an emergency in Monongalia County that businesses are being sacrificed when WVU is moving forward with plans to bring 30,000-plus people to the greater Morgantown area?

That question was raised on Wednesday by a group of bar owners who fear the return of students will spell doom for their small businesses — which Gov. Jim Justice  closed for 10 days by executive order at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday due to rising COVID-19 numbers in the county.

Steve Reese, owner of The Mason Jar Saloon, was among those to address the Monongalia County Commission.

“We wish that WVU would not come back into session this fall. Hopefully they’ll move it until spring, because we’re afraid the governor is going to close us clear down when our numbers go up. And if you bring that many students back into this county, there’s no choice but for the numbers to go up. We cannot win that battle. We’re asking you guys to help us with that fight,” Reese said. “We’re losing it all.”

A number of the speakers pointed out that the data already provided by the Monongalia County Health Department demonstrate the spike in COVID-19 is being fueled by the 20-29 year olds who make up more than 75% of the new cases.

“And yet, we’ve got WVU going full speed ahead, but all of us are paying the price,” Whitetail Crossing owner Ron Blosser said. “I have no college students in my place, but I’m shut down. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We’ve been doing everything … But you go downtown and it’s a nightmare, and now we’re going to bring all these students back.”

Commission President Ed Hawkins explained that the commission did not request the closure of bars or any other businesses, but instead worked with other community leaders to forward a two-part recommendation to Justice on Monday that included a mandate for businesses to require masks and a process for addressing businesses deemed outbreak sites — meaning three or more positive cases from one location.

“We did not request a shutdown. What we requested was a different proposal. Our proposal is still on their table, but the governor is the individual at the state level who instituted this shutdown,” Hawkins said.

Commissioner Tom Bloom said that as of 10 a.m., Monongalia County surpassed 600 total cases of COVID-19, with more than 2,000 tests conducted over the weekend still out.

The county had seen  a total of 160 cases as of June 30.

“With WVU students, we’re going to wait to see what happens because I know that they are talking with the governor at this time,” Bloom said.

Even so, Louis Scotchel, of Classic’s 3 Restaurant and Bar, explained, if the university brings students into Monongalia County from all over the country, a number of small businesses likely won’t survive the fallout.

“We’ll have no choice. If you shut us down again, we’re done. There’s no way we’re going to survive,” he said.

In other commission news, the county will forego its portion of lodging taxes for the next three months.

Those funds will go directly to the Visit Mountaineer Country Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The lodging tax is up to 6% of the cost of a hotel room, which is divided between the taxing body — counties and municipalities — and their local CVB.

The move is an effort to help the agency get back up to speed after taking  a number of actions, including furloughing, laying off or eliminating all but the executive director position and closing its High Street visitor center in response to the impacts of COVID-19.

Executive Director Susan Riddle previously said the CVB would be lucky to hit 50% of its projected budget due to the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Riddle said lodging numbers are slowly starting to trend in the right direction. She said the CVB brought back its first two employees this week.

Commissioner Sean Sikora said the arrangement would be reevaluated at the end of the three month window.