West Virginia Senators’ Emails Show How Some Lawmakers Responded To Various Concerns Over COVID-19
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story was published on March 18. On March 19, WVPB made the decision to unpublish the story from our website in order to allow the reporter to spend more time reporting and seeking comment from lawmakers whose emails were cited in the story. We apologize for the inconvenience this may have caused our readers and regret the error.
As the coronavirus pandemic made its way to West Virginia beginning in mid-March and the number of confirmed cases began to grow, some Republican state senators downplayed the threat of the virus and said the response was blown “way out of proportion.”
West Virginia Public Broadcasting submitted a public records request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act for emails to and from state senators and staff related to the coronavirus pandemic and the response from Dec. 1 through April 8. That request returned more than 400 pages of emails between senators and constituents.
Most exchanges in the emails show state senators attempting to help businesses and individuals navigate applications for unemployment claims, loans and other aid. Dozens of other emails focused on the impacts of school closings, the closure of some businesses and the statewide stay-at-home order.
The emails show how some state senators responded in the earliest days of the pandemic. This week, some of those lawmakers stood by their comments while at least one shied away from their earlier position.
Additional public records requests to the governor’s office and members and staff of the House of Delegates are still pending.
Some GOP Senators Thought Early Response Was ‘Totally Uncalled For’
As of March 16, West Virginia had not yet announced a confirmed positive case of COVID-19, although more than 170,000 cases of the disease had been reported globally and 4,200 cases had been confirmed in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the same time, some West Virginia state senators were receiving comments from citizens that the threat of COVID-19 was being exaggerated.
“I am passionately writing to say, the response and the reaction to this sickness is totally uncalled for. We are completely overblowing the danger of this virus,” one constituent wrote to senators on March 16. “There is absolutely no reason for being afraid of contracting it. It doesn't matter if we get sick, we will get better. That is no reason to shut down the world. Stop the stupidity or we will destroy our economy.”
That email elicited a response from four West Virginia senators — three Republicans and one Democrat — according to emails obtained in West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s public records request.
Senate Education Chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, replied to the message with one line: “I agree with you.”
Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, also responded succinctly to the email agreeing with him.
“I think you are right. I give it a couple weeks to level out. Thanks for Your thoughts,” Boley replied.
Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, responded to Borner a day later on March 17, hours before West Virginia confirmed a first case of COVID-19 and Gov. Jim Justice announced the closure of some businesses.
“It is way out of proportion, indeed...I couldn’t agree more,” Azinger wrote.
Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, was the only member of the minority party that replied to that March 16 email.
In his reply, Baldwin said he was paying attention to national and global public health organizations, such as the CDC and the World Health Organization, the latter of which deemed COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.
“Thanks for your message. But I stand with the CDC, the WHO, and the White House who all agree this is a very serious public health matter,” Baldwin wrote. “The death rate of those who contract it is between 1-4%. That’s ten to forty times higher than the flu. So we will not all get better. If we don’t stop it now, there will not be an economy left to save. Take good care.”
The constituent refuted Baldwin’s position.
“Your numbers are off. The risk of getting it is small. And if you do there is over 95% chance of recovery. That is no reason to shut things down,” the constituent wrote back to Baldwin.
“I respectfully disagree. I listen to the experts. What is your source?” Baldwin replied.
Weeks later, and after West Virginia had documented over 200 confirmed cases of the virus, Azinger said again the state’s response was heavy-handed.
Azinger fielded an email from a Morgantown resident asking lawmakers to urge Justice not to close schools for the remainder of the academic year.
“Our seniors deserve the opportunity for prom and graduation as this is the very first class that has lived their lives 100% post 9/11 because some were just born or still in utero,” the Morgantown resident wrote to Azinger on April 2. “They came into the world in a crisis, let's let them start adulthood with the cherished memories of the coveted events of the senior experience.”
The person also sent a link to a petition calling for schools to be reopened.
“I happen to agree with you on this — and, frankly, believe [the] whole thing is blown way out of proportion — but, unfortunately, leadership in both bodies, and in both parties, are strongly recommending cancellation,” Azinger replied on April 2. “You may consider a phone blitz to the office of the Gov.”
Sen. Roberts Comments On Vaccination Laws, Fast Food Concerns
Other lawmakers in the West Virginia Senate fielded a wide array of concerns from residents — touching on worries over vaccinations being mandated, the safety of getting fast food and other topics.
“We need your help in West Virginia to ensure that such governmental interference in our health does not occur and to roll back the present compulsory vaccination laws,” another constituent wrote to Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, on March 21.
That person also passed along a note she identified as being from a friend in Denmark who said they were unable to undergo a surgery until a vaccine for COVID-19 had been developed.
“I’m not surprised. So sad…” Roberts wrote back.
Roberts also addressed concerns that fast food restaurants were allowed to remain open. A constituent emailed Roberts noting that hundreds of people would pass through a drive-thru on any given day and that the exchanging of money increased chances of transmitting the virus.
“PLEASE, take these facts seriously and be ahead of the ball/curve as we are all counting on all of you to make the most vital decisions that truly affect all of us in this time of crisis!” that person wrote.
Roberts responded to Young’s concerns by urging residents to take precautions when they go through a drive-thru at a fast food restaurant.
“You’re [sic] concerns are appropriate. I have hand sanitizer in my cupholder and clean my hands and credit card after every drive-thru purchase. When I touch the outside of the bag to throw it away, I sanitize again since the drive-thru person handed it to me,” Roberts wrote back. “Personal responsibility is the key to everyone practicing safeguards. BTW, I eat at drive-thrus every day.”
Rucker Says In Early April Reopening Economy Was ‘Imperative’
As early as the first week of April, Sen. Patricia Rucker communicated with constituents that she was working to get some businesses reopened.
Echoing President Trump, a Martinsburg resident wrote to Rucker on April 3, urging lawmakers to have conversations with the governor’s office about opening up parts of the state economy “sooner rather than later.”
“I do hope some efforts are being discussed. Loss of life due to the current virus situation is tragic and needs to be properly prioritized, but widespread economic loss can be equally damaging and possibly worse,” the Martinsburg resident wrote. “A person's employment is essential to their ability for supporting a family and our community. Businesses cannot survive without customers and customers cannot exist without employment.”
Rucker replied on April 6 that she had been in contact with staff at the governor’s office about plans to reopen the state. She also suggested the resident contact local officials on the county and municipal level about what authority they may have to exempt businesses that were deemed “non-essential” under Justice’s executive order.
“It is imperative we get our economy revived again, while maintaining safety, of course,” Rucker said. “If you have any suggestions or ideas, please feel free to contact me.”
Tarr Responds To Concerns Over Malpractice Suits, Email Calling State Shutdown ‘Unconstitutional’
Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, received an email from an orthopedist on March 29 asking lawmakers to consider a bill that would prevent malpractice suits against physicians working on the frontlines of the pandemic.
“As a confirmed pessimist, I expect the trail [sic] lawyers will have a field day; failure to treat suits for those not needing emergent care, abandonment suits for those not seen, pain and suffering, or any other imagined contrived reason. Please set a course with the legislature to work on this before it is too late,” that orthopedist wrote.
Two days later, on March 31, Tarr replied expressing similar concerns. “I agree, I sent an email to Governor Justice last week, copied Senate President Mitch Carmichael, and Speaker Roger Hanshaw asking for an executive order to exempt health care providers working to prevent the spread of COVID 19 from any tort claims related efforts during the claimed emergency,” Tarr replied.
No record of Tarr’s communication with the governor’s office was included in West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s public records request to the Senate.
Also on March 31, another constituent emailed Tarr to express concerns over Justice’s executive orders that shuttered businesses and asked residents to stay at home.
“I am deeply concerned with the unconstitutional measures being taken across this country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” that person wrote. “I understand our Governor has significant powers during state emergencies; however the governor does not have the authority to usurp our inalienable rights enumerated in the US Constitution.”
The West Virginia Constitution allows the governor to call the Legislature into session. Additionally, lawmakers can call themselves back to work with a three-fifths majority of both chambers.
“I certainly agree with you and Patrick Henry that we are suffering loss of liberty for the sake of good intentions. It has apparently been suffered before in the United States, and unsuccessfully challenged, given the ruling of the Supreme Court referenced in the article,” Tarr replied the same day Lucas contacted him. “I’m doing all I can to express specific concerns to the Governor and his cabinet regarding the deleterious effects of his executive orders.”
Reached by phone Tuesday, Tarr declined to comment further on emails.
Some Senators Respond To Earlier Comments
The coronavirus pandemic has unfolded quickly and evolved significantly since concerns of the deadly virus first began to surface in the United States in early spring. Since the first case of the COVID-19 was identified in West Virginia on March 17, more than 900 cases of the disease have been confirmed and 26 deaths have been attributed to the outbreak. Federal and state officials have begun to debate how and when to re-open the economy.
Republican Sen. Donna Boley who represents Pleasants County said she doesn’t recall replying to the March 16 email saying the reaction to the pandemic was “overblown.” But she acknowledges that the pandemic and the response to it are not yet over.
“I think I was probably wrong that it was just going to pass over,” Boley said when reached by phone Tuesday. “I can't remember saying that — or who I said it to — but I can't remember back that far. But, you know, things have changed. It hasn’t blown over.”
Boley said she doesn’t recall the coronavirus being much of a conversation during the legislative session. But late in the session, one amendment — from Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone — was added to the budget bill that routed $2 million to the governor’s contingency fund in preparation for the state’s as-of-then potential response.
“I don't think anyone in February or March would know that it was going to turn into this,” she said.
Democratic Sen. Stephen Baldwin said he felt compelled to respond to that same email given his early discussions with public health officers and others in his district. Baldwin noted that he is leading a task force in Greenbrier County that is taking advice from local, national and international public health organizations.
“I get an email from this fella who I think is floating rumors and gossip with inaccurate information — when it is, in fact, a very serious situation,” Baldwin replied. “And I just thought I needed to respond to that.”
Sen. Mike Azinger said he stands by the comments he made in emails to Borner and Redelman in which he stated the response was “blown way out of proportion.” He said while the concern over the virus is warranted, subsequent response has been excessive.
“It's something that is definitely to be taken seriously. You know, my problem that I've had with the reaction from it is that if you just look at the sheer numbers, you know, we don't even know the numerator or the denominator,” Azinger said in a phone interview. “Nobody knows how many people have been infected by this.”
Asked whether he feels like the continued response is blown out of proportion as he had stated in earlier emails to constituents, Azinger said he does. He argued that some constitutional rights are being infringed upon and said the economy may not be able to recover from such a drastic throttle resulting from non-essential business closures and stay-at-home orders.
“The reaction — that by shutting down the whole economy is — is blown out of proportion, if you want to use that term,” he said. “The economy's tanking here.”
Sen. Patricia Rucker did not return a request for comment on her email exchanges.