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Justice extends Mon bar closure another 7 days; suspends nursing home visitation as outbreaks grow

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice extended the Monongalia County bar closure another seven days, through Aug. 20.

Under the current order, bars were set to open Friday. Justice said during his Wednesday COVID-19 briefing that the extension will allow the various stakeholders – bar and restaurant owners, landlords, the medical community – to develop safety protocols.

Justice said WVU recommended to him that the bars stay closed another week, which conforms to what WVU previously told The Dominion Post: It wanted the bars to stay closed through move-in.

However, Justice’s comments on the Monongalia County Commission’s input on the decision doesn’t dovetail with what the commission told the newspaper.

Justice said, “Now they’re kind of diving in the ditch and saying, ‘We don’t really have any input.’ … To be perfectly honest, that’s their county and they should surely to goodness have an input.”

The Dominion Post’s Ben Conley spoke with Commissioner Ed Hawkins before Justice’s announcement. Hawkins relayed a conversation with Justice’s advisor Bray Cary.

Hawkins reports, “I stated, ‘well, our position is the same as it was before, but we believe the governor is going to do what the governor is going to do.’ And he replied, ‘No, we’re asking you.’ ‘Then I will say that with proper safety precautions in place, we would prefer that businesses be open, but note, with proper safety precautions. In other words, it’s not going to be a free-for-all. There’s going to have to be proper safety guidelines for opening these businesses that are now closed.’”

Hawkins reports that Cary replied, “Ok, I’ll take that to the governor.”

Hawkins told Conley, “We want to have things open. We would prefer that the ban be lifted, but all safety precautions must be in place first. In other words this isn’t just go ahead and open up and pack kids into one of these subterranean establishments.

Hawkins added, “I did note that this may be in contradiction to what WVU may want to hear, and we appreciate WVU. We appreciate all that is going on. We’re hopeful safety standards can be maintained. So we’ll see what he does.”

The Dominion Post asked Justice about the conflicting information. He replied at length.

Justice said he instructed Cary to call the commission and he was just 10 feet away during the call. “I don’t want to start a food fight in any way.”

The commission, he said, they had no objection to starting back “but if things got bad again they’d want us to shut it right back down.” He didn’t find the equivocation helpful. “We need inside information. … That’s not an answer. … It’s a nothing burger response, We have got to have real opinions.”

He continued his comments during his closing remarks. “We’re in this together. Everybody’s got to have some level of skin in the game. … We have got to have our local leaders be willing to make recommendations just as WVU did.”

Justice said he is trying hard to get the bars and all the businesses back to work.

Asked by another reporter about WVU’s input, Justice said he didn’t allow WVU to dictate the extension. “WVU’s input is respected and important,” but it wasn’t the only input. Among others, the medical experts said they wanted time to get the safety protocols in place. “This decision lies with your governor.”

Conley interviewed the commissioners after the briefing. Here are some of their comments.

Commissioner Sean Sikora said, “He said we didn’t want to have a dog in the fight. Well, they first texted Ed and said ‘The order expires tomorrow, what do you think?’ And we were like, ‘Well, the last time you asked us our opinion, we gave you our opinion. We gave you a plan and you closed them and said we requested it. So what’s it really matter if you’re just asking us’ … We feel like we’re being used to cover a decision that’s being made by someone else. … What we said was why can’t we work with these bars so they can safely open. I don’t know how that’s any different than what he said. He’s basically not giving us credit for suggesting that then saying we didn’t want to weigh in.”

Commissioner Tom Bloom said, “The concern is that we gave an opinion, point blank, at 11:30. So for him to come out and say that we weren’t taking part. … We are the elected officials. WVU is an integral part of this county, but they are not the entire county. … This is very disturbing to me. … We’re concerned because if he believes he can’t work with us on this,what other issues coming down the road is this going to affect. That worries me.

Hawkins said, “Honestly, I was livid when I listened to it to be honest. My blood pressure spiked all over the place. To be talked about like we’re running from making a decision. This commission has never ran from making a decision.”

The Dominion Post asked WVU for comment on Justice’s decision. Rob Alsop, WVU vice president for strategic initiatives, said in an email, “We did touch base with the governor’s office this morning and provided input for his consideration. We appreciate his continued leadership on this issue. As we’ve previously stated, while we do not want any businesses to be closed, we believe these actions now – in combination with the measures WVU has undertaken to educate our campus community about safety protocols – may be the best way to ensure long-term success for our community’s health and the local economy.”

Nursing homes and COVID numbers

Justice also announced that he is again suspending nursing home visitation effective Thursday, to try to stem the outbreaks at 28 homes.

“We have got to to try in some way to calm this down,” he said. Visitors and asymptomatic staff appear to be bringing it in. “And then it goes like wildfire straight through the nursing home and then we read death after death.”

The COVID death numbers continue to climb: 127 reported as of Friday morning, 141 Monday morning, 153 Wednesday morning.

Total positive cases stood at 1,895 Wednesday morning, up a bit from Tuesday morning’s 1,865 but down from Monday morning’s 1,915. Daily positive cases were 91 Tuesday morning and 132 Wednesday morning.

West Virginia’s Rt value, which calculates the rate of spread, stood at .89 Wednesday – fifth best in the nation.

Relative to the nation, Justice said, “Our numbers are not bad. Our nursing home situation is bad.”

Because people are bringing in the virus from out-of-state travel Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said they are preparing some educational efforts to teach people about quarantining and other mitigation measures.

They are seeing double-digit outbreaks among staff and patients at at least four, probably six homes, Crouch said. They are developing an alert system to account for such issues community spread.

Justice said they will work on a way to have local metrics to allow nursing homes reopen to visitors on a local level. “Not something that’s going to be out in a month, something that’ going to be out in days.”

Other COVID news

Justice also updated on the outbreak at South Central Regional Jail, where 26 inmates and one staff member are positive. The jail is now on complete lockdown to prevent internal movement and facility-wide testing is underway.

COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh talked about gaiter masks, which extend from the nose down to the base of the neck, but are only a single layer. He cited a recent study that tested the gaiters and found them less effective than three-ply masks.

The study said gaiters might make spread worse by turning big droplets into small droplets. A subsequent WVU test on one type of gaiter didn’t increase risk and was better than nothing, but masks are better.

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