Past week sees big changes in COVID-19 executive orders, mask mandates, and school year

By Bobby Bordelon

Changes to the school year, cancellation of winter sports, remote non-profit fundraising, and the newly strengthened face covering requirements are all results of the COVID-19 pandemic in West Virginia and Greenbrier Valley this week.

We have a real problem all across our land, not just in West Virginia, but all across the United States of America,” said Governor Jim Justice during his Wednesday, Nov. 18, press briefing. “In the past day alone, in the United States, we lost 1,707 people. What does it take to get our attention? In the past week, in the United States, we lost 8,091 people; that’s more deaths in one week than we’ve lost in the entire War on Terror over nearly 20 years.”

As of Wednesday, Justice reported that the current number of active cases in the state has reached a new record high of 11,172. This includes 6,097 new positive cases in the past seven days and 953 in the past 24 hours. A record high of 429 people are currently hospitalized and a record high of 129 patients are currently in the ICU.

Meanwhile, the cumulative percent of positive cases is now 3.35%, up from 3.27% on Monday and the highest such rate seen in West Virginia since April 24, 2020.

In Greenbrier Valley, Greenbrier County schools are shifting to remote learning to allow the school system to catch up on staffing shortages. This comes on the heels of positive COVID-19 cases throughout several Greenbrier County schools last week.

All Greenbrier County students will learn remotely on Thursday, Nov. 19, and Friday, Nov. 20, due to the increased COVID-19 infection rate and staff shortages,” reads an update from Greenbrier County Schools. “Staff report on Wednesday and work remotely on Thursday and Friday. We look forward to welcoming students back to school on Thursday, Dec. 3. Staff report on Monday, Nov. 30.”

The county-level announcement came on the heels of several major school-year adjustments from Governor Jim Justice, including executive orders on:

The extension of Thanksgiving break for all public and private schools by three additional days, last until Thursday, Dec. 3. Justice explained “we all know that families are going to come together over Thanksgiving, and as families come together, we all know the probability of more of a spread is right at our fingertips again. So, from Thursday of Thanksgiving, until the next Thursday, no one will go to school. … that will give us at least a seven-day period that the medical experts tell us will be a big help in making sure any potential spread from Thanksgiving is contained before it becomes a problem.”

Prohibiting all youth winter sports teams and leagues, whether school-sanctioned or otherwise, including but not limited to basketball, swimming, wrestling, and cheerleading, from bringing players and/or spectators together into a common area within West Virginia for practices, games, or any other type of competition until no sooner than Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. In addition, any winter sports teams that have begun to practice must cease immediately. Fall sports underway will be allowed to continue if they meet the state’s color-coding guidelines.

At the request of the West Virginia Bandmasters, who oversee all the public school bands across the state, all band festivals scheduled for this coming spring have been canceled. This also means the cancellation of all concert band festivals for the rest of this year.

The pandemic is also shifting how local nonprofits work and fundraise. In addition to the Alderson’s Store annual book drive, the Greenbrier Historical Society and Family Refuge Center are both adjusting their major annual fundraisers.

This year the Greenbrier Historical Society invites you to enjoy a Stellar Evening at Home,” announced the historical society on social media. “As we are unable to gather this year for our annual Stellar Evening Gala, one of our largest fundraisers of the year, we are instead asking you to spend the first Saturday in December safe and cozy at home. Your support comes from simply making a donation, and using the time you would have spent attending our regularly scheduled event to take a night for yourself. … Purchase your non-event ticket here:”

Each year, Family Refuge Center hosts its signature fundraising event, Women’s Night Out,” announced the Family Refuge Center. “Due to COVID-19, our event will appear much different this year than it has in years past. Rather than Women’s Night Out, we are hosting Women’s Night In – a virtual three-part series which will include a game night, painting class, and auction. These events will stream live on our Facebook page during the week of Nov. 30 through Dec. 4. … If you are interested in supporting Family Refuge Center this year, please visit our Facebook page, stop by one of our offices, or email Community Coordinator Jessica Benderat Be sure to also follow our Family Refuge Center and Women’s Night Out Facebook pages for more information and updates!”

In addition to school and sports executive orders, Justice also strengthened his indoor face covering requirement, explaining that they are now mandatory even when social distancing is possible, and those not in compliance could face consequences.

West Virginia, I know you’re tired of this virus,” Justice said. “So am I. And I know you don’t want to wear a mask. Neither do I. But we’ve absolutely reached a time where we all have to step up and do something, because this killer is stronger than ever,” said Justice. “Right now, we need to some way try to break the chain of this killer that’s eating us alive. That’s all we ought to be concentrating on, but I really need your help.”

The order strengthens a previous order from July 7 – previously if social distancing could be maintained inside, masks could be removed. This is no longer the case, now requiring masks at all times, with exceptions for anyone who has trouble breathing, actively consuming food or beverages, anyone inside a closed room by themselves, or inside of one’s own residence. It also requires “all businesses and organizations that invite the public into their facilities must post adequate signage advising guests of the requirement and are also responsible for enforcing the requirement to ensure it is being followed.”

Enforcement, however, has become a back and forth between Justice and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. In order to get West Virginians to wear masks, Justice suggested that police could be called if a person refuses to wear one while entering a business. According to Justice and his legal counsel, if someone enters a business refusing to wear a mask and police are called, the continued refusal to wear a mask or leave the building could result in criminal obstruction charges.

If a business asks you to put on a mask or leave, and you refuse to do so, you are violating the law,” Justice said. “If a police officer orders you to put on a mask or leave, and you refuse to do so, you are also violating the law. If a police officer orders a business to enforce our indoor face covering requirement, and they refuse to do so, the business is violating the law. There are real penalties for these violations. I am trying with all in me to avoid a loss of our businesses and your jobs. But I am also trying with all in me to avoid a massive loss of life in West Virginia.”

In a social media post, Morrisey called on law enforcement not to use obstruction charges for this purpose.

During this pandemic, I will continue to ensure that any efforts to use the criminal code for any purpose are not applied in an arbitrary, improper, or heavy handed manner. Let’s be clear: no one is going to send people to jail and that simply should not be occurring with respect to the Governor’s executive orders,” Morrisey wrote. “… Significantly, our office will utilize its criminal appellate enforcement discretion to ensure that no one impinges upon our constitutionally protected freedoms. This is a serious virus and everyone must do their part to protect the public.”

Justice, in response, said he was “saddened” to see Morrisey take this position, saying that the “overwhelming majority of West Virginians in favor of wearing masks, it is extremely disheartening that [Morrisey] doesn’t also strongly support the wearing of masks, especially after all our medical experts on a state and federal level have made it abundantly clear that wearing a mask works to stop this virus.

Although the potential of a shut down was noted in several press briefings, Justice pointed to his executive orders and hoped they would do enough to hold down cases until one of several promising vacines are available to the public.

I also want to address some rumors that I’ve heard recently, and I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I want to make one thing clear: Jim Justice does not want to shut anything down in this state,” Justice said. “I’m trying, with all in me, to just go one teeny step: asking you to wear your masks. There is not a part of me that has a thought, today, to shut anything down. Stop this nonsense. All we’re trying to do is to get to that vaccine by asking everyone to wear their masks. … Stop the hogwash. That’s just all we’ve got to do.”

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