Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday extended the Monongalia County bar closure another 10 days. They’ll reopen on Aug. 31.
“It’s not like I’m just stringing people along,” he said. “But now we’re going to tell you for sure that we’re going to reopen unless we just get some terrible thing that happens in Mon County.”
The second and most recent extension of the original closure order ran through Thursday, which would have allowed the bars to reopen Friday.
He offered no reasoning for the decision (and The Dominion Post did not get a turn to ask a question) but said, “I hate it like crazy. I know this is your business. I know that’s part of your life. But at the same time, we’ve got a situation where we’ve got to try in every way to protect everybody in that county and across West Virginia.”
He listed the conditions for the bars to reopen, which were put forward by county officials and a coalition of Morgantown businesses. No one under 21 will be admitted. Dance floors will be closed and there will be no live entertainment.
Justice also referred to expanded outdoor opportunities, which seems to reflect the local proposal to close High Street to traffic in order to allow for outside service and activity similar to a stretch of Capitol Street in downtown Charleston.
Local officials and businesses also proposed to the governor that no one be admitted without a mask, that all staff wear masks, standard COVID screening be given prior to entry, 50% reduction in capacity and notification of Mon County Health Department of employees who test positive. Justice didn’t cover any of these.
Before Wednesday’s announcement, the Mon County Commission wrote to Justice’s COVID team: “The MCC in consultation with our public health officer would agree to the bars remaining closed if the state would apply this closure uniformly across the state to any municipality that has a college town. The MCC is concerned that Morgantown is being unfairly targeted while the same circumstances are occurring at the state’s other educational institutions.
“In addition,” the commission wrote, “we would also like the governor to provide help to local authorities (law enforcement) to allow them to enter establishments to verify adherence to these restrictions as well as any Health Department directives. We would like to again ask the governor to consider financial assistance for this specific entities impacted by these closures.”
The commission concluded: “The MCC and the MCHD stand ready to discuss any of these issues in detail and at any time but when we are contacted within hours of the governor’s press conference it appears that we are only a rubber stamp and that the decisions have already been made.”
The Dominion Post asked WVU for its thoughts on the extended closure. Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives, said they’ve been in talks with Justice’s office along with the county commission and, on Wednesday, with city officials. “We did ask for an extension of the closure.”
Alsop said the governor’s office understands the concerns of WVU and the local businesses and asked for ideas about how to work toward a reasonable goal.
WVU asked to keep the status quo until they got through the first day of classes – Aug. 26 – and the bar owners could prepare for the new guidelines, Alsop said.
“We’re grateful that the governor came up with what we think is a good plan to extend this for a little bit, provide some reasonable protections to avoid overcrowding and prevent the spread once they do open. We understand the concerns of the bar owners. We don’t want to put anybody out of business, It’s not what we’re about. It’s just a hard time during the pandemic.”
Alsop said WVU has been a big proponent of closing off High Street to allow for bar service outside. It accords with what Marsh has said about outdoors being better than indoors in terms of spread risk.
Justice was joined Wednesday by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Rep. Alex Mooney, also R-W.Va. They were at the Capitol for an appearance earlier in day by Dr. Deborah Birx, a lead advisor on Vice President Mike Pence’s COVID task force.
Along with expressing pleasure with Birx’s visit, Capito addressed schools reopening and the importance of including $105 billion in the next relief package (the Senate’s HEALS Act is currently in play).
“Whether it’s sanitation, whether it’s shields, whether it’s extra staff, whether it’s more nurses,” she said, whatever our counties need we need to fund that from the federal level because we know its going to be a big burden to a lot of school systems and to you the governor.”
She expressed disappointment that no deal has been reached yet but said he’s working to find compromise.
In answer to a question, Capito and COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh said Birx was impressed with West Virginia’s good numbers relative to the rest of the country and with the state’s ability to innovate on such things as developing PPE and establishing a color code system to reopen the schools.
Capito said Birx plans to tell other governors about the color code system and Justice may be getting a lot of calls from them.
Other COVID matters
Marsh issued some cautions about WVU and other universities and colleges preparing to reopen. He said several – including University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Notre Dame and Michigan State – have failed in their first week of classes and have to return to all-online.
“We really have to underscore to our students [at all levels] that the ability to maintain our schools is directly related to our ability to control COVID-19 exchange in our communities. This is really about how we behave and how we respond.”
Justice said he’ll be announcing on Friday a tweak to the color-code metrics. They learned the current population-based formula is skewed against smaller counties.
Justice also cautioned nursing home employees about out-of-state travel and then returning to work, in light of the current 26 nursing home outbreaks. “If you bring this back into a nursing home, really and truly we have almost instant deaths.”
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