CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday said he is lifting the statewide stay-home order next week as part of his plan to ease coronavirus restrictions.
The Republican said a new rule will go into effect Monday encouraging people to stay home but not requiring them to do so. The move coincides with the reopening of small businesses, outdoor dining at restaurants and barbers on Monday.
The governor is pressing forward with an aggressive reopening plan unveiled earlier this week, though he has loosened his testing benchmark without explanation.
Justice has based his plan on having the state remain under a 3% positive test rate for three days, reversing a previous goal of having new cases decline for two consecutive weeks.
Clay Marsh, a West Virginia University official leading the state’s virus response, has previously said he wanted the two-week benchmark. A White House guideline for states also pushed a two-week criteria.
Marsh has not said why the benchmark was eased but said the state has enough downward trend lines to warrant the removal of restrictions. He has acknowledged that it would take a severe outbreak for the state’s positive case rate to rise high enough to pause the reopening since the metric factors in tens-of-thousands of old tests.
Justice, noting criticism of using the cumulative 3% standard Thursday, said the daily case rate has remained low in the last few days. State health data shows there have been no significant declines in the total of new positive cases when measured day-by-day.
About 1,100 people have the virus after around 44,700 tests, according to the state health department. Testing is limited for the general public but the state has roughly doubled the number of people screened under an order to test residents and staff of all nursing homes in the state. Forty-four people in the state have died.
Justice’s reopening plan went into effect this week, with hospitals allowed to resume elective procedures. On Thursday, outpatient services such as dentists, physical therapists and psychologists were allowed to reopen. The West Virginia Board of Dentistry has declined to allow offices to open, instead setting a return date of May 11 with the requirement that practices complete safety training and have protective safety equipment before reopening.
Monday will mark the second week of the governor’s plan with the reopening of barbers, small businesses with fewer than 10 employees, dog groomers and restaurants with outdoor seating. Weeks three through six will lift restrictions on offices, gyms, hotels and other businesses.
Democrats in the state House of Delegates on Thursday released a letter to the governor’s office saying they did not know of the governor’s reopening strategy until Justice announced it publicly. The letter asks if there is a plan for reopening the state’s tourism industry, if there will be enhanced safety rules for businesses as they reopen and if the state will have enough testing and protective equipment as it reopens. It also questions why reopening is based on the cumulative testing benchmark.
“Considering all of the cumulative data to determine infection rate may artificially suppress the rate of infection and potentially hide what might be a significant spike in infections,” the letter reads.
The Justice administration has not given clear benchmarks on what kinds of testing capacity and safety equipment inventory it wants to have as part of the reopening strategy.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can bring about more severe illness and even death.