West Virginia governor expands reopenings as hotspots emerge

CHARLESTON, WV (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday expanded his aggressive plan to lift coronavirus restrictions after announcing new hotspots in the state’s eastern panhandle.

The Republican governor said he is considering a mandatory face mask order for Berkeley and Jefferson counties after at least 35 new cases were reported there in a single day. He has dispatched the National Guard to the region to assess the situation.

“We’ll do whatever we have to do and we’ll pull on the reins until we turn it and it starts flowing back our way,” Justice told reporters.

Clay Marsh, a West Virginia University official leading the state’s virus response, said emerging cases in Berkeley and Jefferson counties aren’t surprising, given their proximity to Washington D.C. and its surrounding suburbs. He said the cases are part of the “first steps that we need to learn of this new dance” of reopening during the pandemic.

Justice, right after detailing the spike in the eastern panhandle, set the timeline for the next steps of his reopening strategy. He will allow swimming pools, bowling alleys, spas and video lottery retailers to reopen May 30. On June 5, movie theaters and casinos can open.

Thursday marked the most aggressive phase of Justice’s reopenings, with indoor restaurants, tanning salons, malls, big box stores, all-terrain vehicle rentals, campgrounds, the Hatfield-McCoy trails and whitewater rafting and zipline businesses allowed to resume services just ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

The governor stressed that people should wear masks in public as businesses reopen, putting special emphasis on the safety precautions in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

“The masks may very well be the key to everything,” he said.

Justice’s reopening plan depends on the cumulative positive test rate remaining below 3% for three days, a benchmark that he acknowledged is difficult to break since it factors in tens of thousands of old tests.

Marsh, echoing guidance from the White House, had previously said he wanted to see the number of new cases decline for two weeks before lifting restrictions. He now says the state has enough downward trending metrics to warrant reopening.

At least 70 people in West Virginia have died from the virus and around 1,600 have tested positive, state health data shows.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.

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