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Senators Urge Plan to Reopen West Virginia Businesses

WHEELING — Republicans in the West Virginia Senate — including two doctors — are calling for a plan to again have West Virginia “open for business.” But they are suggesting the plan take “incremental steps.”

Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, both physicians, are among GOP senators who sent a letter to Gov. Jim Justice this week urging him to begin the process of reopening West Virginia businesses, while considering coronavirus issues still prevalent in the state.

“We need to get the ball rolling for preparing for the opening of the state’s businesses, but we have to take the advice of the medical community into consideration,” said Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld. “Now is the time to start the discussion.”

The number of coronavirus cases recorded each day in West Virginia has been decreasing in recent days. This is a sign the state could be moving toward a safe reopening of businesses, he said.

“We have to start preparing,” Weld said. “But we also have to do it cautiously, and be smart about it.

“The time is now to begin planning. We have to be cautious, and we have to take into consideration the advice of medical experts as we begin planning over the next couple of weeks.”

Dated April 21, the letter reads as follows:

Governor Justice:

The COVID-19 world in which we have recently entered has been scary, bizarre, and at times, surreal. I commend you and your team for the strong work and tough decisions implemented during these unprecedented times.

As a physician, state senator, and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, I have been in frequent contact with Dr. Slemp and Secretary Crouch. As a result of my involvement with this issue, I have several concerns and suggestions that I feel are important to share with you.

The purpose of this letter is to address the re-opening of the West Virginia economy for commerce. This will be a complex undertaking with no precedent to guide us. There are so many unknowns in the equation to further increase the difficulty of these decisions. However, the decisions we make are vitally important and will impact every state business and all West Virginia citizens.

Opening West Virginia will certainly be a process with incremental steps. I think we all agree that we should ease back into things with certain precautions in place. We do not want to create a second pandemic peak.

Although antibody testing is now available and will likely have a role, it has pitfalls and limitations that will make it difficult and not feasible to be the complete answer. Additionally, the earliest that a vaccine will be available is toward the end of this year. In fact, some project the summer of 2021 for widespread availability of a vaccine. Therefore, this will not be a part of our initial strategy.

I have spoken with business leaders, colleagues in the Legislature, and most importantly, many constituents. Although opinions vary, the vast majority are very concerned that new rules and regulations will be an overreaction and the pendulum will swing too far in the direction of undue restrictions. In other words, there is a very real fear that further drastic changes will adversely affect West Virginia businesses and all West Virginians.

Are we really going to permanently change everything because of COVID-19, when we are not sure if this is a fluke occurrence or the new normal?

If we do make drastic changes, West Virginia will be at risk for significant long-term unemployment and a substantial decrease in state revenue, which would lead to a loss of vital state programs that benefit so many throughout our state. If this were to happen, the unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness brought on by COVID-19 may have the potential to create more havoc in West Virginia than the disease itself. Tragically, we are all too familiar with these issues leading to addiction, despair, and even mortality among our citizens, and wasn’t to do everything possible to avoid this.

There is no doubt that we need to cautiously ease into bringing West Virginia’s economy back. We must take the appropriate precautions and do all we can to end this pandemic and prevent a second peak.

But let’s fast-forward six months. Are we going to continue to implement burdensome regulations on restaurants, colleges, auditoriums, stadiums, fitness centers, casinos, bars, hair salons, and more? If we do, we run the risk of permanent damage to West Virginia.

Let me say that as a physician, I have the utmost respect for every single life. But, as of today, I am not convinced permanent changes are needed that will adversely affect our state’s employers, and thus, adversely affect all West Virginians. There needs to be a component of personal choice and personal responsibility. We need one set of rules from the state that counties and cities adopt. We cannot have a situation with different rules in every county and/or city.

What can we do as a state? We can prepare for the next pandemic by having a pandemic plan that can be immediately implemented. We can stockpile vital supplies. We can intermittently do public awareness campaigns to educate our citizens on how to prevent pandemics and how to deal with pandemics.

Governor, I strongly urge you to form a council to make such recommendations. This would be different from your COVID-19 team. This council would address the issues mentioned in this letter, and should be composed of legislators, medical experts, and business leaders.

To underscore the importance of this message, many of my Senate colleagues have signed onto this letter. They too feel that we are currently at a very pivotal moment in this pandemic – and fully realize that the current situation requires both pragmatism and vigilance – because the decisions which are made now will have long-lasting impacts on our state.

This is a very important – and indeed unprecedented – time in West Virginia. We need to get this right.

The letter was signed by Maroney, Weld, R-Brooke; Charles Clements, R-Wetzel; Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson; Dave Sypolt, R-Preston; Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; Chandler Swope, R-Mercer; Eric Tarr, R-Putnam; Takubo; and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.

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