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Many Ohio Valley Residents Happy To See COVID-19 Restrictions Relaxed

Photo by Scott McCloskey Malik Smith of Columbus and LaTele Thompson of Wheeling, foreground, wear masks while looking over specialty food items while shopping in Wheeling’s historic Centre Market House Friday afternoon. Gov. Jim Justice announced Friday afternoon that West Virginians who are fully vaccinated from COVID-19 no longer are required to wear masks. Those who are not fully vaccinated must still wear them.

WHEELING — Following Gov. Jim Justice’s Friday announcement that West Virginians fully vaccinated from COVID-19 no longer are required to wear masks, local residents liked the fact they could start showing their faces.

Meanwhile, Ohio County’s health administrator hopes that announcement will motivate people to get the jab.

People hitting up Wheeling’s Centre Market for the Friday lunch rush were generally in favor of lifting the mandates.

“I think if you’re vaccinated, you really shouldn’t have to wear (a mask),” said Jason Long. “I think people should get vaccinated, in my opinion, just to help with the complaint of ‘getting back to normal.’ If you can’t do your part, you’re just holding everybody back.”

Greg Funari saw the matter as a case of individual liberty. A medic, Funari said he’s been exposed to COVID several times without catching it, but has been fully vaccinated.

“I’m as free as free can get. … I believe it’s a right, but if you’re going into an establishment, those establishments have a liability, and they need to protect other people,” he said. “It’s tough, it’s a hard one.”

Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department Health Administrator Howard Gamble said the lifting of the state mask mandate for the fully vaccinated should demonstrate that the efforts to get vaccinated and control the spread of the disease are paying off, and should be seen as a reward after more than a year living under “the new normal.”

“The hope is, for public health and the healthcare community in general, … that this is an incentive nationally to go out and get vaccinated,” he said. “It also has a small benefit for citizens, that if we’re going to see improvements with disease, and improvements with the disease, here’s what we get back for that; one step is no more masks for those who are fully vaccinated.”

Justice’s announcement came almost 24 hours after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced a change to recommendations, saying that fully vaccinated Americans could go without masks, if they chose, outdoors in crowds and in most indoor situations, even removing the need for social distancing among the inoculated.

The governor plans to lift the mandate entirely, even for those who are unvaccinated, on June 20 — provided that about 65% of residents receive at least one shot. As of Friday, an estimated 56.6% of West Virginians ages 16 and older are at least partially vaccinated, and 46.9% are fully vaccinated, according to figures provided by the W.Va. Department of Health and Human Resources.

Gamble said that despite Justice’s relaxing of the mandate, people must still be vigilant with how they behave in public, as the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much active.

Gamble said two local businesses, Kroger and Oglebay Park, had called and sought guidance on how their personal mandates would be affected by the change in policy. Gamble said that businesses are still within their rights to ask customers to be masked, mirroring Justice’s comments on the matter — “Remember, you do not have a constitutional right not to wear a mask,” Justice had said.

“We advised them both the same thing — both the CDC and the governor have supported this, and so at this point, (masks are) not required, if they’re vaccinated,” Gamble said. “We have to rely on a lot of honesty and truth-telling by employees and the general public that’s visiting, but you do need to tell them that it’s no longer required if you’re fully vaccinated, both your workforce and the public. Do not ask ‘Let me see your card.’ It will not go over well.

“As private businesses, we reminded them, you may still have the ability to say (masks) may still be required,” Gamble continued. “Kroger just did that.”

Oglebay would also require a mask at their spa services, Gamble said, due to the close proximity between customers and employees.

In a statement released Friday, Kroger said that it will continue to require employees and customers to wear masks while in stores. Walmart released a statement Friday that fully vaccinated customers will immediately be able to shop without masks and fully vaccinated employees will be able to work without a mask starting Tuesday.

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