Healthcare, Latest News, State Government

Justice tightens mask mandate, suspends winter sports and more as COVID worsens

MORGANTOWN — Gov. Jim Justice announced on Friday a series of new restrictions in response to the ever-worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

First up, effective Saturday, he’s tightening the mask mandate. Masks will be required at all times inside public buildings, not just when social distancing isn’t possible. This won’t apply to kids under 9, to people with legitimate breathing issues, or if people are actively eating or drinking in a restaurant, of if they’re alone in a closed room.

All businesses will be required to post signs about the mandate and will be expected to enforce it, Justice said. If owners and managers don’t step up, closures are next.

Asked about enforcement, Justice said again he can’t create a criminal offense. But an owner or manager can call the police and if a police officer orders a person to comply and the person refuses, the person can be charged with obstructing justice

Justice said fall sports will be allowed to wrap up their seasons but winter sports – basketball, wrestling, gymnastics, swimming, cheerleading – are suspended until Jan. 11. Any winter sports now in training must halt.

Because community spread is an ongoing problem and small gatherings are the source of much of this spread, Justice said school buildings – pubic and private – will remain closed after the Thanksgiving break until Dec. 3, to allow time for possible community spread to become apparent.

Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch clarified that virtual schools will see no disruption. For the Monday-Wednesday after Thanksgiving, schools will conduct remote learning and already have plans in place for that. Meal service also will continue.

He listed three other items: spring band festivals are canceled; concert band festivals are canceled immediately; nursing homes will begin testing staff at least twice a week.

Before listing the new restrictions, Justice read off the numbers: 565 deaths; 742 new cases in the prior 24 hours; 339 people hospitalized and 104 in ICUs, both record highs; 8,531 active cases, also a record high.

Nationally, Thursday saw 163,402 new COVID cases while the death toll fell just shy of 243,000.

“We have got to realize what we’re dealing with here,” Justice said. “It really is a massive, massive killer.”

Justice said he didn’t want to impost more restrictions, people want to live their lives, but it’s necessary. “I want absolutely nothing but good and I want you to be protected.”

COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh said all the bad news can be scary, but he urged people to look at it another way. “It’s really time not time to panic and not be fearful, but to be resolved.”

That means recommitting, re-energizing and following the simple mitigation measures – masks, handwashing, distancing, avoid crowds and prolonged close contact in closed spaces.

While hospitalizations in West Virginia are increasing, he said, hospitals here still have sufficient bed and ICU and ventilator capacity. But as cases increases, hospitalizations typically increase two to four weeks later, so it’s important to act now to avoid placing additional stress and strain on the hospitals and their staffs in the near future.

“This is not panic situation for the hospitals but a warning opportunity,” he said.

Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Ayne Amjad added that St. Francis in Charleston and Fairmont Regional Medical Center remain available to handle any COVID surges.

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