Grants shopping masks

Tarsheima Watterson and daughter Ah’Vaeh shop with their masks on at the Grants Supermarket in Bluewell Monday afternoon. Gov. Jim Justice issued a mandate on Monday that West Virginians must wear masks whenever social distancing is not feasible. The mandate went into effect today.

CHARLESTON — In a move to slow down the growing number of positive COVID-19 cases in the state, Gov. Jim Justice has ordered the mandatory wearing of facial coverings in public indoor spaces where social distancing cannot be achieved.

The Executive Order went into effect today.

Justice made the announcement Monday afternoon, following up on his promise from Thursday to make a decision regarding the order.

Citing the rising number of new cases around the state, including 100 reported over the weekend, Justice said the requirement is necessary, and includes everyone 9 year old and older and exempts people with medical conditions that may prevent them from breathing properly.

“In the last few days our positive numbers have now moved to a level in excess of 3.7 percent (positive rate to the total number tested),” he said. “We are absolutely in a situation to where we have to make a move right now. If we don’t do it now, we will be in a world of hurt.”

West Virginia reported over 100 more cases on Sunday, raising its confirmed case count to 3,230. An additional 105 cases are considered probable but not yet confirmed. Another death was also reported in the state, raising the toll to 95.

In Mercer County, 44 new cases have been reported with three hospitalizations just in the last two weeks, with 54 percent of the the result of community spread, 27 percent were related to travel to Myrtle Beach, S.C. and the remaining 19 percent resulted from travel to other locations. 

Justice said the requirement to wear a facial covering will include at work in an office and in all retail stores or any indoor public facility where the 6-foot distance is not maintained.

Using Texas as an example of how quickly the number of cases can grow without proper precautions, he said that on June 6 Texas was in a similar position as West Virginia, or even a little better, as far as the percentages of cases and deaths based on population.

But after 30 days of reopening, Texas has “big-time problems,” he said, with new cases soaring and hospitals facing overcrowding.

“We surely can’t become Texas,” he said. “But you see we surely can become Texas and very, very quickly.”

Justice said the state is “a long ways” form starting to shut things down again, and the hope is the masks will stop the spread so that will never happen.

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 Czar, has repeatedly detailed how effective facial coverings are and how quickly the virus can spread without them.

“The number of Covid positives are at all-time highs around the country,” he said, mentioning Texas, Florida and Arizona as states where hospital capacities are starting to be challenged.

Marsh also said younger people are now seeing more infections and more people are being found who are positive but don’t have symptoms. The age category with the highest percentage (almost 20 percent) of positive cases in the state is now between 20 and 29.

“Facial coverings provide us the best opportunity to protect ourselves and each other,” he said.

Justice also said violating the facial covering requirement is not a criminal offense and no one is going to be “hauled off to jail.”

Rather, he said he will depend on West Virginians to respect each other and protect each other, adding that it is a minor inconvenience.

“What is the downside?” he said. “What could it possibly hurt if we wear masks for two or three months?”

Some residents need to “lay the macho aside” and do the right thing, he added.

“The killer is still with us and the killer is growing,” he said. “West Virginia, you have got to respond and you’ve got to respond now. If you don’t, absolutely we are going to have bad days in front of us.”

Justice said if the virus is not stopped, “we are going to have funeral after funeral after funeral. I know this is the right thing to do.”

“I would say that is a move that will save lives,” Dr. Kathy Wides, Mercer County Health Officer, said of Justice’s mandate, adding that despite mandates in Virginia and other states, people continue to avoid using masks. “I don’t get it. What happened to people looking after their neighbors?”

Justice has mentioned the possibility of this order for weeks, pointing out how effective masks are in helping to curb the spread of the virus, which is primarily transmitted through tiny particles in the air from an infected person’s cough, sneezes or loud talking.

That was a point he made as church services started taking place again and on Monday he said two more deaths were reported in Greenbrier County, and both were associated with a coronavirus outbreak at the Graystone Baptist Church.

“I hoped and prayed this would not be the case,” he said, referring to the initial outbreak at the church when he said it would be a “miracle” if no deaths occurred. “Well, we have lost multiples and that is not good.”

Justice questioned whether church members followed the proper protocol, again emphasizing the state is the “most vulnerable” to the virus because of the high number of elderly residents and people with chronic health conditions in the population.

They must be protected, he said, and that makes the wearing of a facial covering even more crucial.

“Experts tell me repeatedly if we have 80 percent (compliance on wearing a facial covering in public) we would have tremendous successes (on keeping the numbers down),” he said. “Please take heed.”

Also on Monday, Gov. Justice’s General Counsel Brain Abraham said that, while there is a law in West Virginia that prohibits the use of face coverings in public, there is an exemption to that law for emergency situations such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Abraham went on to explain that the new face covering requirement does not restrict the right of West Virginians to carry concealed weapons.

“As far as West Virginia goes, there will be no prohibition on the wearing of a mask and the concealed carrying of a firearm at the same time,” Abraham said. “We would urge all West Virginians to check with other states before you would travel out-of-state and do the same thing, as each state’s laws might not be the same as West Virginia’s.”

Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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