Governor Jim Justice ...

CHARLESTON — If the numbers of positive COVID-19 cases around the state keep trending in the wrong direction, the mandate to wear facial coverings in public indoor facilities may include penalties for those who refuse the comply.

Gov. Jim Justice said Wednesday during his pandemic briefing that West Virginia saw 147 new positive cases on Tuesday and the daily rate of positive cases jumped to 5.4 percent (of the total number of people tested) when it has been trending below 2 percent.

“That’s not good, that’s not good at all,” he said, adding that Monongalia County alone now has 202 positive cases with an increase of 62 in the last 24 hours.

Wearing a facial covering is crucial in stopping the spread of the virus, he has said, and on Monday he issued an Executive Order mandating the wearing of masks for anyone 9 years old and over when they enter a public indoor building where social distancing cannot be maintained. But the order did not include penalties for non-compliance.

“I entrusted West Virginians to handle that on an honor system,” he said. “If you can’t, we have to move to assess some level of penalties for non-compliance.”

Justice said the surge in new cases, which he called a “whiplash,” is here and across the nation, referring to more than 60,000 new cases in the country Tuesday, a record for a 24-hour period.

“‘This killer is moving across our land and it’s moving rapidly,” he said. “We don’t want that killer on our back door.”

Justice, who described the order to wear facial coverings as the “only bullet I have” for the virus, said the penalties may be started on a county by county basis if need be.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 Czar, said the trend is clear across the country not only in the growing numbers but the average age of those now being infected.

It took 99 days for the U.S. to reach 1 million cases, he said, then another 43 days to reach 2 million, but only 28 days to hit 3 million, which happened Wednesday.

The average age of those infected is now below 50, he said, and some states, like Florida, seeing that average as low as 35.’

“We have this false belief if younger people get infected it’s somehow okay, they don’t get sick,” he said. “But that is not true.”

Marsh said older people or those with chronic illnesses may have more severe problems, but people who are 20, 30 and 40 are being hospitalized and in ICUs and put on ventilators.

They are being infected and the rest of their lives may be impacted with a higher risk of stroke, heart attacks and amputations, he said.

Marsh also said the rate of spreading the virus from one person to the other is also rising, from .6 to 1.3, which means one person on average is passing the virus on to at least one other person whereas before the average was less than one.

That means a more rapid spread, he said, and it’s not confined to congregate settings.

“This is community-based spread where all of us are at risk,” he said. “We all need to work together to slow this down.”

Hospitalizations in the state are also rising, he added.

“Right now is the time to enforce the mitigation measures,” he said, pointing to the Monongalia County surge that may have been attributable to “shared experiences in bars and restaurants.”

Justice said he knows the issue of mandating the wearing of facial coverings is divisive, and he initiated a “process.”

“For weeks I have urged people in every way to wear their masks,” he said, referring to the first step in the process. The second step was taken on Monday with the Executive Order.

“Some believe they have a right not to wear a mask,” he said. “This (assessing penalties for non-compliance) is not the most popular thing Jim Justice could do.”

He hopes people will voluntarily comply with the mandate so that third step will not be needed.

“If what we have done works and the numbers start to decline, then we have won the game,” he said. “If they don’t, we will do it with penalties.”

The numbers in this area have also seen a surge recently, with Mercer County reporting 59 cases as of 5 p.m. Wednesday. Monroe County is now up to 14, and McDowell County, which had held at six cases for several weeks, rose to seven on Wednesday.

As with many cases in Mercer County, the case is in McDowell County is travel related, according to a statement by the McDowell County Health Department.

“This individual is currently quarantined at home, and the health department is working to identify all the individual’s contacts,” the statement said. “Anyone who is identified as being a contact will be notified by the health department.”

Justice said Wednesday travel to Myrtle Beach remains a problem with more than 140 confirmed cases related to that.

Also on Wednesday, Justice announced that plans are in the works to expand the initiative to provide $150 million of the state’s federal CARES Act funding to small businesses across West Virginia.

Previously, the Governor announced that only businesses with 5-35 employees would be able to apply for this funding. But he said he intends to expand the scope of his initiative to allow all businesses with 1-35 employees to be able to apply.

“What we’re going to do is start with being able to send out up to $5,000 to all of those that qualify,” Gov. Justice said. “And then, the dollars that are leftover from the $150 million – as well as any other dollars that we might possibly be able to add – we’re going to go back and distribute those dollars equally across the board.”

The Governor said that additional details, including more information on the process for applying, will be provided soon.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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