As President Donald Trump and governors around the United States make plans to reopen the nation as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic wanes but still lingers, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his advisors say they continue to try to find a path to reopening the state in a “safe and responsible way.”
Justice held a virtual daily briefing Thursday after taking part in a conference call with Trump and other governors. The Associated Press reported Trump told governors to “call your own shots.” During Justice’s briefing with reporters and members of the public, he gave few details about Trump’s guidelines to reopen states.
But a report from NPR shows those guidelines for states to reopen are carved into three phases, with progressively relaxed levels of social distancing and other mitigation efforts. Each phase would require a 14-day period of a "downward trajectory" of cases to advance to the next one.
Some news outlets report West Virginia could be among nine states the White House is targeting to be among the first to reopen their economies, possibly ahead of the May 1 target date. The nine states — that also include Arkansas, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming — have small populations, fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and are recording fewer than 30 new cases a day.
During the press briefing, Justice said he is working with medical advisors to make decisions in regard to when it is appropriate to lift stay-at-home restrictions put in place last month.
“It would be my goal to get us back to work, but — and here’s the but and this is the but, but, but — my number one job is to protect all of you as best I can,” Justice said.
As of Thursday, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources confirmed 13 deaths as a result of COVID-19. The agency is reporting 739 confirmed cases across the state.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced Thursday he was planning to begin to reopen businesses in The Buckeye State beginning May 1. That state — which has a population of nearly seven times that of West Virginia — has reported 393 deaths (including those likely attributed to COVID-19) and 8,414 total cases (also including probable cases as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Trump has said some states may be able to reopen before May 1. West Virginia officials don't appear to be so eager, although state officials have slightly relaxed some guidelines for businesses that have been deemed essential.
Earlier Thursday, the DHHR issued an emergency rule for retailers who are allowed to be open during the pandemic. The new guidelines set uniform, statewide maximum occupancies for stores, as well as other social distancing guidelines.
According to the rule, grocery stores can have a maximum occupancy of 3 customers per 1,000 square feet. Other retailers allowed to remain open can have up to 2 people per 1,000 square feet.
A dozen of the state's 55 counties have been designated as “hot spots” and given additional resources and leeway when it comes to establishing public health guidelines, including occupancy limits. The DHHR’s statewide guidelines are more relaxed than what some of those counties instituted under an expanded executive order.
Justice said he remains focused on whether federal relief may be used to backfill shortfalls in the state budget from lost tax revenue due to the pandemic. The governor said Thursday that the state faces a projected deficit of about $376 million for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
He said half of $1.25 billion — the minimum that’s been promised to each state — has already been transferred to West Virginia. But whether any of those funds can be used to shore up the state budget is dependent on federal rules that are expected next week.
As far as offering up any details on where West Virginia stands in reopening, Justice remained quiet Thursday. He reiterated multiple times that his plan is to heed the advice of medical professionals and other experts advising him on the matter.
“We will absolutely use our experts to the hilt, we will use the guidelines of the president, we will use absolutely every means possible to make the very best decisions we can possibly make,” he said.
Justice said testing capacity — an area where West Virginia has ranked as one of the lowest in the nation — and contact tracing would need to be considerably ramped up before restrictions could be safely lifted.
“All would be forgotten very quickly if we moved into a stage quicker than we should, and then we got into a situation where we had people dying like flies,” Justice said.
Still yet, Justice noted that some in the business community have been pushing him to get the state back open as soon as possible. He expressed concern over the possibility of another Great Depression pitting families against each other and increased deaths because of suicide or drug overdoses.
“There's plenty of pressure to go around,” Justice said. “And as far as feeling pressure, you know, there's been pressure since day one. And, I really believe this, you know — and I don't say this egotistically — but I can handle that. I'm not gonna make a decision, because somebody is pushing me in a direction that I don't think we ought to go, no matter whom it may be.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.