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Mask mandate for West Virginia

Photo Provided Gov. Jim Justice demonstrates putting on a face mask after announcing an executive order requiring the wearing of face masks indoors Monday. (Photo Courtesy/WV Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — With coronavirus cases coming in higher the last five days than at any point during the worst of the outbreak, Gov. Jim Justice ordered Monday that masks be worn indoors.

Justice, speaking during a coronavirus briefing Monday at the Capitol, said he will sign an executive order requiring face masks or cloth coverings for all public and private buildings except for homes.

“I absolutely think it’s the right thing to do,” Justice said. “I know it’s not the popular thing to do, but absolutely at this point in time it’s the only right thing to do.”

In his executive order effective midnight, Justice said masks and face coverings are required for residents age 9 and up in all indoor facilities where social distancing cannot be accomplished. The mask requirement has no penalty, with enforcement left up to businesses.

During his briefing last Thursday before the July 4 weekend, Justice said he would make a final decision Monday on requiring masks, giving his office time to observe the COVID-19 case numbers and time for the public to acquire face masks should he decide to sign the executive order.

“We are in a situation where we have to make a move right now,” Justice said. “If we don’t do this now, we’re going to be in a world of hurt. I know it’s an inconvenience, but it’s not much of an inconvenience.”

Justice addressed critics of mask wearing, which has been politicized over the last several weeks by some who call it a violation of their rights to wear one. Last week Melody Potter, the chairwoman of the West Virginia Republican Party, said it was her choice to not wear a mask. Delegate S. Marshall Wilson, I-Berkeley, who is seeking signatures for an independent challenge to Justice in November, is among several lawmakers suing Justice over his use of executive orders.

“The governor has no authority to order his employers, the people of West Virginia, to do anything,” Wilson said on Twitter. “The governor is the chief of the executive branch, and his duty lies solely with his management of the executive branch in the name of his employers.”

“What is the downside? Inconvenience,” Justice said. “Maybe if you’d just leave the macho aside just for a little bit, we are being told by experts, the federal government, the medical centers, the television, our numbers, we’re all being told the same thing: the killer is with us and the killer is growing. West Virginia, you have to respond, and you have to respond right now.”

Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said states that require employees and patrons to wear masks and face coverings have seen an 11 percent decrease in positive cases, while states with partial orders have seen a 70-percent increase in positives and states with no requirements have seen an 85 percent increase.

Marsh said many of West Virginia’s positive cases are asymptomatic, meaning the virus was spread by those without symptoms and didn’t know they had it.

“We want to make sure that we are protecting our very vulnerable population and protecting each person by doing the altruistic, courageous thing of wearing masks,” Marsh said. “We know that a number of people spread the virus before they know they have it and before they get symptoms.

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, the number of positive cases over the last 14 days between June 22 and Sunday was 825, a 110 percent increase in positive cases from the previous 14 days.

On Saturday, the state reported 119 positive cases, breaking all previous records for daily positive cases. The previous record was 73 cases on April 6 and April 18. That record was shattered on July 1 with 77 cases. There were 87 new cases Sunday. The number of tests over the last 14 days was 36,095, which was a 6.7 percent decrease in testing compared testing conducted between June 8 and June 21.

Active cases, the number of infected people in self-quarantine or hospitalized, were 826 as of Monday morning. Active cases have increased in 27 of the 55 counties, while cases in 10 counties have decreased and 10 counties have seen no changes in case numbers. Another eight counties have no positive coronavirus cases.

Monongalia County leads the state in active coronavirus cases, increasing from 18 last week to 123 cases Monday. The county with the second highest total of active cases is Berkeley County with 84 cases, down from 110 cases last week. Most of the new active cases are in counties with large cities and populations, such as Cabell County (74), Kanawha County (72), Wood County (60).

Much of the new cases are being driven by young adults. While adults age 70 and up account for 20 percent of all tests, young adults between the ages of 20 and 29 account for 20 percent of COVID-19 cases.

Deaths between June 22 and Sunday totaled six, which is up from five deaths reported between June 8 and June 21. The most recent deaths were reported this weekend from Greenbrier County: an 89-year-old woman on Saturday and an 84-year-old woman on Sunday, both connected to the same church. A total of 95 West Virginians have died since March 23, with the average age of all deaths being 76.

“If you don’t decide to wear it for one of your loved ones and friends, do it for the 95 we have lost,” Justice said. “Putting this little nothing on is a whole lot easier than standing over a casket of a loved one who has passed away.”

Hospitalizations have come down over the last week except for a Saturday spike of 35 hospitalizations. As of Sunday, the number dropped to 27 hospitalizations, with 12 people in intensive care units and five people on ventilators, but the average number of hospitalizations between June 22 and Sunday increased by 4 percent compared to the previous 14 days.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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