Justice Responds To Criticism Over Openings, Spending Federal Relief, Interactions With News Media
Gov. Jim Justice is pushing back on criticism that he has buckled to pressure in reopening the state. In a Friday virtual briefing, the governor also addressed criticisms related to the spending of federal relief funds, as well as his approach for interacting with the news media.
As of Friday morning, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has confirmed 62 deaths related to COVID-19. The agency reports 1,441 positive tests.
While the effect of the coronavirus continues to be felt across the nation and the count of active cases in West Virginia remains just under 500, Justice is in the process of rolling out a phased approach in restarting the state’s economy. State health officials have announced free testing in some locations with high numbers of cases — in hopes to protect vulnerable populations such as African Americans.
Meanwhile, in recent days, the governor has expanded the kinds of businesses allowed to return to operations in the coming week.
Justice announced Wednesday that tanning salons would be able to resume business as part of another phase of reopenings slated for May 21. On Thursday, Justice said some recreation businesses — including gyms, health clubs, whitewater rafting and ziplining — would also be allowed to reopen next week.
He noted upon both occasions that people owning those types of businesses had contacted his office, requesting they be allowed to reopen. But Friday, Justice responded to accusations that business owners had swayed his decision making regarding what businesses would be allowed to reopen.
“If you believe for a second these decisions that have been made — that have gotten us to where we've gotten to right now — have been made by a bunch of noise about people complaining, you're just, you're just way out in left field,” Justice said. “That noise or that pressure is not going to influence a decision in any way, no possibility.”
Justice also addressed calls for how $1.25 billion in federal relief should be spent.
He said Friday that Democrat U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has called for $600 million of those funds to be sent to county and local governments. Justice, a Republican, also noted that some Democrats have called for $600 million to be used for small business relief.
“There's a billion of these questions. There's a billion of them — and we should keep our eye on this ball — and that is, we're at 2.03 [percent cumulative positive growth rate]. We've got 62 deaths so far in the state of West Virginia,” Justice said. “We're absolutely trying to navigate this stormy sea and the history of all time. We absolutely don't need to get distracted, West Virginia, and start pulling ourselves in different factions.”
So far, Justice has not yet said how he plans to use federal funds, although he has indicated hopes to use part of that money to backfill what is expected to be a $500 million deficit in the state budget. Rules related to the CARES Act — the federal legislation that allocated a minimum of $1.25 billion to all 50 states — do not allow for the funds to be used to cover state budget shortfalls.
Asked whether he would allow news media to return to the Governor’s Reception Room to attend daily briefings in person, Justice balked at the idea. Since mid-March, daily briefings have been held virtually with the governor’s staff choosing which reporters are able to ask questions. Those who are allowed to ask questions are not allowed to offer follow ups.
Some governors of states struck particularly hard by COVID-19 — including Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York — have allowed members of the news media to attend daily briefings in person throughout the pandemic. President Donald Trump and White House officials have also allowed reporters to attend news conferences in person.
“I hope [to] the Lord above you don't think there's been an artificial impediment imposed upon you and everything because I don't know how in the world we could be more transparent in what we're doing,” Justice said. “I’m an open book and I have no problem with people being around.”
However, Justice said a gathering of reporters at the Capitol may surpass capacities deemed safe.
“In this room right now — with the technicians and everybody that's here right now— there's probably close to 10 people here right now. You know, and the room’s not all that big,” Justice said. “And so if we got another 15 or 20 media people in here and everything, surely it could turn into a situation we wouldn't want it to be.”