Updated Monday, July 6, 2020 at 5:40 p.m.
Citing a spike in the number of coronavirus cases, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has ordered masks to be worn in buildings outside of a resident’s home.
In a virtual news conference Monday, Justice said he is issuing an order that will require anyone over 9 years old to wear a face covering in "all confined indoor spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained." Justice said there are exceptions for people with certain breathing conditions and those who cannot otherwise remove a mask on their own.
The directive goes into effect Tuesday, July 7 at 12 a.m.
Justice, who had been reluctant for more than a month to mandate face coverings, had warned last week of the possibility of such an order.
“It is — at this point in time — in my opinion, the only thing to do,” he said.
The governor had acknowledged that masks have become a particularly divisive issue, with many Americans flat out refusing to make use of them.
“I surely know that this is not a popular thing in a lot of ways,” he said. “But I'm gonna do what the right thing is — popular or not popular."
Justice said there will be no formal enforcement of the order and that there will be no criminal penalty for not wearing a mask or face covering in a building outside of one’s home. He said he is confident local business owners across the state will properly enforce the order.
“If we come out right out of the get go and we start saying we're going to levy fines or we're going to do this or that and everything else, it just pushes us and pushes us to be more divisive, more divided. I've got all the confidence in the world in West Virginia,” Justice said.
Over the three-day holiday weekend, West Virginia health officials reported more than 270 new cases of the coronavirus. On Sunday alone, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reported 130 new cases — by far the highest number of cases the state has reported in a day since the pandemic began months ago.
Asked by West Virginia Public Broadcasting why he did not issue the mandate before the holiday, Justice said he did see the potential for the order coming, but he wanted to make the decision based on testing data from the weekend.
“We had to give some level of time. In addition to that, our hospital numbers still look great — and we're still in great shape there.” Justice said. “And we really wanted to just continue through the holiday, and just see what the numbers [bore] through the holiday.”
Those advising Justice also spoke up Monday to support the order, including state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh.
“We had done quite well, even on a national basis, related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We had, at one time, one of the best scores on this reproductively — the R-naught or not R-t level — how fast the virus is spreading,” Marsh said.
Marsh said that the state’s R-naught level had at one time been 0.6, indicating that the virus was diminishing. However, he said the measurement of the virus’ spread had jumped to 1.27 in recent days.
Marsh also cited a meta analysis published in the medical journal The Lancet that indicates that masks are the most effective way to prevent the spread of the virus. The research analyzed 172 studies from 16 different countries.
West Virginia joins more than a dozen other states in mandating masks in some capacity. The sheriff of Los Angeles County said he would impose a $300 fine for not following California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mask order.
The face covering mandate comes as West Virginia has seen a sharp increase in cases reported over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. But the virus’ impact on any holiday revelry may not be known for some time, as the incubation period for the new coronavirus is 2 to 14 days.
As of Monday evening, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reports 3,442 cases of the coronavirus. Ninety-five deaths in the state have been attributed to COVID-19.
Justice referenced those who’ve died as he called on West Virginians to abide by the mask order.
“If you don’t decide to wear the mask for yourself — or the face covering — if you don’t decide to wear it for one of your loved ones or your friends, do it for the 95 that have died,” he said.