Gov. Jim Justice announced a flurry of executive orders on Friday aimed at holding the coronavirus pandemic at bay — ramping up a mask mandate, declaring an extra few days of Thanksgiving break for students and delaying winter sports for schools.
“Today, we’re moving to get more restrictive and do stuff,” he said.
Adjutant General James Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard called on residents to fulfill their duty by helping.
“The governor is doing this to prevent the wave we’re seeing at other places in the United States of America,” Hoyer said. “We’re looking out for your best interests.”
The most significant move calls on West Virginia residents to wear a mask any time they’re in an indoor business. West Virginia already had a mask mandate, but this would raise the stakes.
“We are making this as an ultra-mandatory requirement for all of our businesses,” Justice said.
Businesses, he said, would need to enforce compliance or risk their licenses. If patrons refuse, the governor said, then businesses should call the police, who could bring obstruction of justice charges.
“To our business owners, I am telling you straight up, the next thing that follows this is you know what and that is the shutting down of businesses,” Justice said.
For schools, Justice suggested breaks would need to be a little bit longer to account for the likelihood of the virus being spread as families get together. So, he said, there will be no classroom instruction from Thanksgiving until the following Thursday.
“That will give us that seven-day period the medical experts tell us will help us from the standpoint of our families all being together,” Justice said.
Superintendent Clayton Burch later clarified that the days following the holiday would continue as remote learning. Students enrolled in virtual instruction could continue that way for those days, he said.
On school sports, Justice described continuing fall seasons, which have playoffs underway. But he said winter sports would not start until Jan. 11.
Even at that, he said he couldn’t imagine how wrestling would work with social distancing requirements.
The nation and West Virginia have each experienced an uptick in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. West Virginia reported 696 confirmed cases over the past 24 hours on Thursday morning and 742 over the next 24 hours by Friday morning.
“West Virginia, this thing’s bad, and it’s getting worse all across our land,” Justice said.
Up to now, when Justice has been asked during his regular briefings about further steps, he has often talked in terms of either doing nothing or shutting everything down.
But he has repeatedly said all options are on the table and on Wednesday dropped a brief reference to the possibility of shutting schools early.
“If you can tell me something else other than just going out and wholesale shutting things down, shutting down our businesses that will cause us more and more and more repercussions — and it may very well be that we have to move in that direction,” he said.
“It may very well be that we have to revisit and think about just this, from the standpoint of our kids: When we go home for the Thanksgiving holiday should we come back for the next two or three weeks and then go home for Christmas?”
Weeks ago, Justice established a map of community spread to determine the status of classrooms. Red or orange halts classroom instruction and extracurricular activities.
Thirteen counties were orange on today’s DHHR map. None were red.
Justice suddenly shut down schools last March 25 and eventually extended the shutdown through summer.
Schools reopened this fall, with a lot of public discussion of cleanliness, personal protective equipment, social distancing and virtual options.
Burch on Thursday told state school board members the year has gone reasonably smoothly so far, considering the many changes required by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have seen some wonderful, wonderful examples out there of how the schools are dealing with this,” Burch said during a state board meeting Thursday.
The Department of Education also tracks school outbreaks, considered to be two or more related cases in a school.
Burch said there were 25 outbreaks in September and 37 in October.
Most of those cases, he said, were adults.
But in a significant number of cases, Burch said, schools wind up having to shut down because contact tracing results in recommended isolation of teachers or staff.
Fred Albert of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, at the same Thursday meeting said teachers are struggling with the balance of classroom instruction with virtual instruction. Some have wound up having to do both at once, Albert said.
“Teachers and service personnel are at a breaking point,” Albert said, citing teachers in Marion County who have filed a grievance.
“They are being asked to do more than one job. Face to face plus remote learning. They’re finding that it’s impossible.”