After phone calls, W.Va. governor again widens reopening

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The path to reopening in West Virginia runs through the phone.

Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday said he is lifting coronavirus restrictions on gyms after business owners called his office, a day after he bent to similar requests from tanning salons.

“We’ve got an awful lot of calls requesting that our health clubs and our gyms be allowed to open up,” Justice said, adding that he will issue safety guidelines for the fitness centers to follow when they reopen on Monday.

The Republican governor has aggressively ramped up his reopening strategy to allow several businesses to resume operations next week, just before Memorial Day weekend.

Tanning salons, restaurants at half capacity, big-box stores, and businesses that rent all-terrain vehicles, bicycles and other outdoor recreational items can reopen Thursday, May 21. Campgrounds can also reopen for in-state residents the same day, as can the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, whitewater rafting and zipline businesses.

It is unclear exactly what criteria the governor’s office is using to decide when he will reopen each kind of business. He told reporters it is “absolutely, 180 degrees wrong” to suggest he is making decisions based on who calls his office.

“I am not going to succumb to political pressure when I think and I have been told by my, you know, medical experts and all the different soliciting of information that we come up with here that it is the wrong thing to do and there’s just some political faction that’s screaming to the highest heavens and everything, and therefore what we should do is rush out and do something,” he said when asked about his decision-making process.

He said reopening measures will be made “smart, with a ton of prayer with absolutely the guidance of our medical community and medical experts.”

The governor on Wednesday said he would allow tanning salons to open after he was overwhelmed with requests from the businesses. “I never dreamed in all my life that we’ve gotten all these calls in regard to the tanning businesses or tanning beds,” he told reporters then.

The Justice administration’s reopening plan hinges on having the state’s positive test rate stay below 3% for three days, loosening a previous goal of having the total number of new cases decline for two weeks.

The White House and Clay Marsh, a West Virginia University official leading the state’s virus response, had previously endorsed the two-week benchmark. State officials have never explained why they eased the criteria from two weeks to three days but Marsh maintains the state has enough downward trending indicators to lift restrictions.

The reopenings also come as Justice issues stern warnings that the virus could be especially damaging in the state, with its high numbers of senior citizens and people with existing health conditions. A Kaiser Family Foundation study has found that more than 49% of adults in the state are at high risk of developing serious illness from the virus, the highest percentage in the country.

At least 62 people in West Virginia have died from the virus and around 1,400 have tested positive, health officials said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptom. But for others, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including life-threatening pneumonia.

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