Updated: Governor closes non-essential businesses, leaves coal out despite federal guidance

Charleston – West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced, during a Monday afternoon press conference, that he was issuing a stay-at-home order, beginning Tuesday at 8 p.m.

The governor, a coal company owner, also announced the closure of "non-essential" businesses and, against Department of Homeland Security guidance, listed coal operations as an essential service.

The announcement followed the confirmation of the first COVID-19 case spread through community contact, not travel. The case was detected at a Morgantown nursing home, officials said.

“This is the first case we’ve had of community transmission and so it is really significant," Justice said.

Citing electricity and steel, the governor said “there’s no group in my opinion more essential than our miners.”

Brian Abraham, a lawyer for the governor, said state officials determined essential businesses by looking to neighboring states and following Department of Homeland Security suggestions.

The Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency does not consider coal operations to be part of critical infrastructure.

Most states are much less reliant on coal-generated electricity than West Virginia and have turned to natural gas and renewable sources of energy in recent years.

Officials said the measures were necessary to slow intake of patients at West Virginia's already unequipped and strained hospitals and other health care providers.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for health sciences at West Virginia University, noted such an influx would increase the death rate for the disease.

Marsh said health officials recommended the order to the governor after detecting community spread. People with COVID-19 may show no symptoms and transmit the disease to others.

"In South Korea the first 30 people that they identified with the novel coronavirus were quarantined and nothing spread,” Marsh said. “The 31st person spread it to over 1,000 other people.”

According to the order, West Virginians are ordered to stay at home unless "performing an essential activity," including: obtaining food, medicine or "similar goods" necessary for the person or a family member, obtaining non-elective medical care or treatment, going to and from an essential workplace, going to and from the home of a family member, going to and from the home of a person who, under the terms of a parenting plan or other similar agreement, is entitled to visitation with a child, going to and from a place of worship, and engaging in physical activity outside, so long as people maintain six feet from one another and avoid groups larger than 10.

The governor said he did not know how long he would keep the order in place.

Essential businesses include: health care, public health operations and health insurance companies, grocery stores and pharmacies, food, beverage and agriculture, essential government functions, human services organizations and child care facilities and providers, essential infrastructure, coal mining and coal-fired electric generation facilities, manufacture, distribution and supply chain for critical products and industries, transportation and travel-related businesses and gas stations, financial and insurance institutions, hardware and supply stores, critical trades, religious entities, educational institutions, laundry services, supplies to work from home, supplies for essential businesses and operations, home-based care and services, residential facilities and shelters, professional services, media and First Amendment protected speech, hotels and motels and funeral services.

While places of worship were listed as essential businesses, Dr. Cathy Slemp, commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health, added, though, that “Clearly the heart of the church is not based on physicial proximity” and said it was “probably not appropriate at this point” for congregants to gather. She commended churches that are continuing to connect and worship in “creative ways.”

All places of "public amusement," including carnivals, amusement rides, zoos, museums, arcades, fairs, pools, bingo halls, children's play centers and playgrounds, bowling alleys, theaters, music venues, adult entertainment venues, racetracks, social clubs and other similar businesses must close.

Any gathering of more than 10 people is prohibited.

State and local law enforcement may enforce the order, which was signed Monday. People who don’t comply could be charged with obstruction of justice, said Abraham, a lawyer for the governor.

More information is available on the governor's website.

The governor noted he had already ended nursing home visitation.

"Thanks goodness we did that days and days and days ago, but it is still a huge concern," Justice said.

As of Monday, DHHR's coronavirus website reports 16 positive cases. Testing has been limited – DHHR has noted testing has increased in recent days due to private labs gaining the capacity. WVU now offers in-house testing.

Justice said 49 hospitals are now submitting testing, 19 communities are prepared to do community-based testing, and more than 1,500 people have been tested.

Among other services, Maj. Gen. James Hoyer said the National Guard is working to assist senior centers and with feeding children. He said there are no plans to use the National Guard to enforce the order, saying he has confidence in West Virginians.

"The most important thing the National Guard can do in this is not put guardsmen on the border to stop people coming back and forth on the border," he said. "It's to use our skills and capabilities to support the agencies that need to do the work in this to be a force multiplier to better understand and address the threat of the virus."

State officials noted West Virginians may still visit grocery stores and pharmacies, and may still spend time outdoors.

They continued to promote avoiding crowds, staying six feet apart from others when people do venture out, washing hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, avoiding touching one's mouth or eyes, coughing into the crook of one's elbow, and cleaning surfaces.

They also noted West Virginians can still find creative ways to connect.

Officials had already encouraged employers to allow employees to work from home when possible.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness for which humans have no immunity. The disease, which originated in China late last year, has resulted in a global pandemic and is particularly deadly for older people and those with underlying conditions, although younger people have also been hospitalized and died.

Day cares provide an essential service, said Slemp, as they allow critical workers to go to work.

Last week, WorkForce West Virginia processed 17,000 unemployment claims, officials said. The governor had already closed schools, gyms and other recreational facilities, barber shops and salons, bars and restaurants, and state park lodges. He announced Monday that cabins at state parks would also be closing.

The governor also declared Wednesday a day of prayer.

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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