by KATE SHUNNEY
Three days after Morgan County Commissioners rejected the idea of seeking looser state restrictions on social gatherings and business operations locally, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice took that step from Charleston.
On Friday, April 24, Justice issued an Executive Order releasing Morgan County from a group of COVID-19 “hotspot” counties. The change became effective on Saturday, April 25 at 12 a.m.
The governor’s order means Morgan County, which has so far confirmed nine cases of COVID-19, will not have to abide by tighter rules in effect in Berkeley and Jefferson counties in the Eastern Panhandle.
Morgan County officials reinforced those rules with a county-level order in cooperation with the Morgan-Berkeley Health Department earlier in April. Commissioners will discuss lifting that local order during a meeting this Wednesday, April 29 at 11:30 a.m.
Those rules cut back sizes of gatherings from 10 people to five, and limited how many customers could be inside a store based on square footage. Statewide orders about those issues still apply here.
Last week’s order from the governor says “implementation of successful public health measures has resulted in few active cases of COVID-19 in Morgan County, as well as ever-strengthening supply chains for personal protective equipment and other medical equipment and supplies, resulting in greater preparedness and response capacity through the state, including in Morgan County.”
The order says the “additional heightened measures ordered by Executive Order 20-20 with respect to Morgan County are, at this time, no longer necessary”.
Local discussion divided
Last Tuesday, April 21, the Morgan County Commission had voted 2-1 against petitioning the governor to remove Morgan County’s “hotspot” designation in light of low case numbers here.
Commission President Joel Tuttle, who proposed the idea, was the sole vote in favor of the move. There was extensive discussion in a live-streamed meeting that attracted more than 80 views and a stream of comments and questions from local residents.
Most of those comments favored keeping restrictions in place until local disease testing is available and cases in nearby areas drop.
Several people in favor of the move to lift the “hotspot” status argued that it gave a false sense to outsiders that there are many COVID-19 cases here.
Tuttle argued said the tighter rules were cutting into lodging business unnecessarily. He said he had heard from local businesses who favored looser rules on being able to rent rooms or allow customers into their buildings.
Both Commissioner Ken Reed and Sean Tuttle, who themselves own businesses that have been shuttered by state rules, said they were caught between wanting to let business continue and needing to keep local disease cases low.
Reed noted that any local resident who contracts COVID-19 and needs to be hospitalized would be sent out of the county into facilities where case numbers are much higher.
After input from Health Department Administrator Bill Kearns, commissioners voted 2-1 against asking the governor to lift local restrictions. The governor lifted the county’s state restrictions on Saturday. County officials will reconsider local restrictions during a meeting today.
Case numbers nearby
As of Monday, April 27, Berkeley County had 133 confirmed cases of the disease and have seen one fatality from it. Jefferson County had 72 confirmed cases.
Counties neighboring Morgan have confirmed a range of other case levels. Washington County, Md. to the north has reported 175 cases and two deaths. Frederick County, Va. to the south has reported 95 cases. Allegany County, Md. to the west has 22 cases and Hampshire County, W.Va. has seven cases and one death from the disease.
Elsewhere in West Virginia, Kanawha County has been a hotspot, with 155 cases and Jackson County has confirmed 127 cases and 11 deaths from COVID-19. Monongalia County has 102 confirmed cases and Wayne County has confirmed 82.
Statewide “Comeback” plan
On Monday, April 27. Governor Justice issued a plan for how public and private operations would reopen in West Virginia if the number of COVID-19 cases stays within a range set by his advisors.
The plan, called “West Virginia Strong – The Comeback,” is available for review on the governor’s website.
It is built on conditions that the state expand its testing capacity, that hospitals beef up their “surge capacity”, that the state increases the supply of PPE and its ability to trace contacts for positive COVID-19 patients.
Gov. Justice and Dr. Marsh, during Monday’s press conference, repeated that West Virginians must continue to physically distance themselves, keep social contact to a minimum and wear masks or face coverings when they have to go out in public, continue to work from home when possible and follow public health regulations.
Justice has said the statewide percentage of positive test results is the key number for slowly letting businesses reopen around the state. West Virginia tests must show three consecutive days of positive test results below 3% in order for restrictions to begin being lifted, he said.
First in the process is the return of elective medical procedures and outpatient health care, and the testing of daycare staff in preparation for reopening day care centers.
A second week could include reopening of small businesses with less than 10 employees, and professional services by appointment for hair and nail businesses. Restaurants could offer outdoor dining, and churches could resume limited gatherings, to include funerals.
Justice said there is no timeline now for opening nursing homes back up for visits, or allowing large gatherings in movie theaters, concerts or sporting events.
All steps lifting restrictions would depend on continued testing and data analysis, Justice said. If COVID-19 cases increase, the “opening” could be slowed or reversed to keep the virus from gaining hold through community spread.