W.Va. governor says experts behind expanded virus reopenings

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice pounds the table at the conclusion of his press conference saying the state can beat the coronavirus challenge, Friday, March 13, 2020 at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Justice announced that all schools are to be closed by the end of the school day Friday. (Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

CHARLESTON, WV (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Friday stressed that medical experts are leading his plan to lift coronavirus restrictions, days after he widened his strategy at the request of business owners.

The Republican governor has expanded the most aggressive stage of his reopening plan to allow the reopening of gyms and tanning salons next week after he said the businesses bombarded his office with calls. Still, he said it’s “way out in left field” to suggest he is making decisions based on political pressure.

“That noise or that pressure is not going to influence a decision in any way, no possibility,” he said.

The governor has timed several reopenings around Memorial Day weekend. Gyms can open Monday. On Thursday, tanning salons, restaurants at half-capacity, big box stores and all-terrain vehicle rental businesses can reopen. Campgrounds can open for in-state residents Thursday, as can the Hatfield-McCoy trails, whitewater rafting and zipline businesses. The Greenbrier, a private resort Justice owns, is also set to reopen May 22.

It is unclear exactly what criteria Justice is using to decide when certain businesses resume operations.

A visibly frustrated Justice also railed against Democrats, including state lawmakers and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, for requesting that he spend the $1.25 billion the federal government sent West Virginia to cover medical expenses for the pandemic.

“I am absolutely not going to put this pandemic up with politics,” he said in an aside that referenced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has become a frequent target during Justice’s daily news briefings.

Justice has said he wants to use the federal aid package to backfill the state’s ailing budget, though rules prevent such spending.

The governor has already let hospitals do elective procedures and allowed the reopening of drive-in theaters, physical therapy centers, small businesses and barbershops.

His plan to lift restrictions depends on the state’s positive test rate staying under 3% for three days, loosening a previous goal of having the number of new cases drop for two weeks. He has never explained why the benchmark was eased but Clay Marsh, a West Virginia University official leading the state’s virus response, has said the state has enough downward trending indicators to lift restrictions.

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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