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Justice announces increased COVID-19 restrictions, tighter mask order

Photo Courtesy/W.Va. Governor’s Office Gov. Jim Justice looks over COVID-19 numbers while wearing a face mask prior to his Friday briefing.

CHARLESTON – Succumbing to pressure and the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice announced several executive orders to help slow the spread of the virus, including a tighter mask requirement.

“You have to realize that we are the oldest state, the state with the most chronic illnesses,” Justice said. “We have absolutely knocked it out of the park as far as the numbers and what we’ve done in comparison to others…but West Virginia, you’ve got to tighten up.”

Justice said starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, it is mandatory for those 9 and older to wear masks or face coverings in all public buildings and offices at all times, regardless of the ability to socially distance. Exceptions remain while eating and drinking and for people with health issues that make wearing masks difficult. Businesses are to post signs at all entrances announcing compliance with the order.

Businesses are required to have employees and customers wear face coverings. Justice said if someone doesn’t comply with wearing a mask, Justice told businessowners to call law enforcement to have them removed.

Justice said businessowners if they choose not to enforce the order could be charged with obstruction.

“If you don’t step up…and make it mandatory when people enter your businesses, we are going to end up…having to take further steps because we will not be able to slow this thing down and stop it,” Justice said. “To our business owners, I’m telling you as straight up as I can be: what follows this will be the shutdown of businesses,” Justice said.

An obstruction charge is a misdemeanor. If convicted of obstruction, the penalty includes a fine between $50 and $500 and up to one year in jail. Justice said he doesn’t have the authority to make not wearing a mask a crime without legislative action, but he said businesses have the power to enforce mask wearing, including having people who refuse cited for trespassing by law enforcement. If the person still refuses to leave, they could be charged with obstruction, Justice said.

“Only the Legislature can change the law from the standpoint of making it a criminal offense, but I have been advised by our counsel that if I make a mandatory order and someone is approached by a police officer and the police officer asks them or tells them that we are under a state mandatory executive order from the governor and you’ve got to wear your mask in the building, and they refuse to do so, they can be charged with obstruction of justice,” Justice said.

Justice also announced winter sports will be postponed until Jan. 11 with training to immediately stop. The status of winter sports will be reassessed after Jan. 11.

Fall sports will continue for the time being.

All middle and high school band festivals and all concert band events are canceled for the spring at the recommendation of school band leaders.

Starting Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 26, to Thursday, Dec. 3, all public and private schools in all 55 counties will close except for distance learning.

Justice said he was prompted to further action after receiving a text from Wood County businessman Roger Conley, who was elected to the House of Delegates as a Republican representative from the 10th District.

Conley told Justice he has been admitted to the hospital twice this week due to a COVID-19 infection.

“He’s a good, good, good man,” Justice said. “He said ‘Governor, keep fighting the good fight as you are. I am in the hospital for the second time in the past week fighting this terrible virus. People have got to start listening. When I get through this, please let them know that if I can help in any way to help spread the word just how difficult and devastating this virus is, I am glad to do so.'”

Justice’s executive orders come on the heels of similar orders issued Wednesday by Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine and Tuesday by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to try to slow the virus, which has soared to more than 160,000 daily cases in the U.S. as of Thursday.

Dewine announced the creation Retail Compliance Unit to ensure compliance with Ohio’s mask order with a written warning for the first offense and a 24-hour closure for the second offense. Hogan orders restaurants and businesses to limit occupancy to 50 percent of capacity.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also called on Justice to tighten the state’s mask mandate. According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, the state has 8,531 active COVID-19 cases with 742 new cases reported in a 24-hour period between Thursday and Friday. There were 565 cases reported Thursday, but a record number of test results at 13,913.

“I encourage Gov. Justice to update his public indoor mask order with an enforcement mechanism,” Manchin said. “I don’t expect an enforcement mechanism will be popular but clearly what we are currently doing is not enough to slow the spread.”

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