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Paper seeks clarification on Mon bar closure orders during Friday COVID briefing

MORGANTOWN — Monongalia County bar and restaurant owners have express some confusion over the governor’s bar closure orders so The Dominion Post aimed to get some clarification during Gov. Jim Justice’s Friday COVID-19 briefing.

The Post posed a two part question. One, how do you distinguish a bar that serves food from a restaurant that serve alcohol. Two, go to Outback and have a steak at the bar but not a Foster’s with it?

On the first part, Justice and Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said there are two types of licenses: a business license and a liquor license. They didn’t clarify beyond that.

The second part of the question was based on language that was lifted from the second order. Justice’s first order, effective July 14, said (paraphrased to remove legalese) that tables in bar areas of restaurants and hotels may be used for general seating, but service from the bar directly to patrons is prohibited and no patrons are permitted to sit or stand at the bar.

The second order eliminates the prohibition on service from the bar and patrons sitting or standing at the bar. So The Post asked if this means a person could go to Outback (for example) and sit at the bar and have a steak but not an Old Fashioned or a Foster’s.

Justice said the new order means anyone can sit and eat and drink alcohol at the restaurant or hotel bar. “But you cannot go to Outback and sit there and have a sandwich at the bar and then sit there for 3 ½ hours having 25 beers.”

ABCA updated its guidance Friday afternoon. It says Mon bars shall not allow on-premises consumption of food or drink or occupancy by the general public for purposes other than picking up food or drink for take-out.

Restaurants and hotels, ABCA says, “may sell and serve freshly prepared food and alcohol at tables, seats and bar tops within bar areas when dining, and also throughout the rest of the facility when dining.” That’s all subject to existing restaurant rules. “Patrons should not be permitted to sit, stand or congregate in the bar area or around the bar or bar top when not dining.”

It’s not perfect, Justice said, but they hope to see the case numbers keep going down and release the order.

“The problem,” he said, “is young people just piling in on top of one another with no mask or whatever the situation may be.” The closure order was meant to halt the county outbreak and so far it is working.

Mon County’s positive case numbers continue to decline, Justice noted, from a previous high of 394 to 231 Friday morning. Kanawha, meanwhile, is trending up and had the state’s highest case total at 253. That may lead to him considering closing bars there.

On other COVID-related matters, Justice said he’ll be issuing an executive order allowing public and private colleges to open this fall, and to allow K-12 schools to open Sept. 8.

Justice said he has to issue this order to counteract portions of his March 23 stay-at-home order affecting schools. The new order doesn’t mandate K-12 schools open Sept. 8, is just allows that option to fit the current plan,

COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh said positive case numbers are surging nationally in the 18-29 ages group, and he and Justice fielded, again, a question on whether it’s therefore realistic to reopen colleges and universities in August.

Justice said, “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that I’m concerned.” But each has done incredible planning to ensure safety for all. And he wants to continue to believe the schools will open and be ready because the students need to return. “Everyone knows, if you’re not concerned then you’re not thinking.”

A subsequent question focused on the outbreaks among student athletes at WVU and Marshall.

Justice said, “This situation is totally fluid. … We have got to keep on moving and keep on going.” He said again that the universities are planning for safety for all. We don’t want to harpoon ourselves.

Marsh said that it’s important to reduce the amount of COVID in that community. If we can further suppress the spread between now and the time schools restart, “that is the best investment in a thriving future for students, for student athletes, for businesses and for communities.”

DHHR has been issuing COVID-19 data updates twice a day but has wanted to simplify the process and match other states in reporting just once a day. Justice said Friday DHHR is now working toward that and the change should occur in the coming weeks. “It seems like it’s more efficient to do it that way.”

Justice also provided an update on federal COVID-19 grant funding available to the state. It now totals $1.147 billion – almost as much as the separate $1.25 billion in CARES money. “Our legislature is going to help in every way” how to allocate it, he said. “It’s absolutely unbelievable what you can do.”

And the Division of Highways has carved out $130 million, including $50 million from CARES, for additional road paving and projects, he said.

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