Presser

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey answers questions about the legal aspects of Gov. Jim Justice’s order to shut down restaurants, bars and casinos in West Virginia on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Tuesday evening that he is ordering restaurants, bars and casinos in the state to close, effective at midnight, in an attempt to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the state.

Just 10 minutes before the 6 p.m. televised address to the state, Justice was notified of the first confirmed positive case of COVID-19 in West Virginia — an unidentified Eastern Panhandle resident whom state Public Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp later said is being treated on an outpatient basis with a less serious case of the illness.

“We knew it was coming. We’ve prepared for that, and we shouldn’t panic,” Justice said of the first confirmed case in the state.

Justice, in the address, announced his ordering of the closure of restaurants, bars and casinos to reduce the potential for spread of the coronavirus in those venues. Restaurants and bars may continue to provide carry-out, curbside and drive-through food services, as well as home delivery.

State Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch, speaking at a news conference that followed Justice’s announcement, said Justice plans to keep those businesses closed or on takeout-only operations for two weeks, and then evaluate where things stand at that point.

“The idea is to stop the transmission of this disease by not getting too close to people,” Crouch said of eliminating gatherings of people at restaurants, bars and casinos.

In his address, Justice said, “We will try every way we can to make our businesses whole, and try to make the employees whole.”

He did not elaborate, but afterward, gubernatorial chief counsel Brian Abraham said the Governor’s Office will be working to coordinate federal relief programs that are in the process of being enacted in Congress, with existing federal programs for small businesses and employees. He said the governor’s office will also be working with legislative leaders regarding the possibility of calling a special session of the Legislature to provide additional relief for closed businesses and laid-off workers.

“The federal funding may be adequate,” he said. “There may be no reason to tap into state resources.”

The governor’s order does not affect other retailers, entertainment venues or fitness centers, but Abraham indicated the situation is fluid and additional closures could be ordered if warranted.

Crouch also said there are no plans to suspend essential services, including senior services, day care centers and shelters that provide free meals to the needy.

“We have to take this day by day and make sure essential services continue in the state,” he said.

Justice closed his address by stating, “We’ll get through this. We’ll win, and we’ll protect our people.”

Justice, who gave the address from the governor’s reception room in the Capitol, did not attend the follow-up news conference in the Building 3 conference center on the Capitol Complex.

Crouch said Justice’s absence was to give the health care professionals more time to “get down in the weeds” on issues involving the state coronavirus response.

Also Tuesday:

Del. Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, a secretary of state candidate, again called for a special session of the Legislature aimed at mitigating health and economic fallout from the spread of coronavirus statewide.

Among other proposals, Sponaugle is calling on legislators to set up a Small Business Emergency Fund, to be funded with at least $100 million of state Rainy Day reserve funds, to provide bridge grants to small businesses to meet short-term obligations.

He also proposes increasing state funding to the Department of Health and Human Resources to expand testing for COVID-19 and to purchase ventilators and other medical equipment needed to treat patients.

During the regular session, Sponaugle attempted to amend the 2020-21 budget bill to include $8 million for coronavirus prevention and treatment, an amendment that was rejected on the House floor by a 58-42 margin. The budget does include $2 million for coronavirus response.

During a White House press briefing Tuesday, President Donald Trump repeatedly referenced the lack of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in West Virginia, at one point stating, “Big Jim, the governor there, he must be doing a good job.”

Justice, however, has repeatedly said there are surely cases of coronavirus in West Virginia that have not been confirmed as such because of the limited amount of testing conducted in the state to date.

“This virus is, without question, in West Virginia somewhere right now,” Justice said Monday. “We’re trying to be ready in every way we possibly can be. Let’s not get caught, then say, ‘Oh no.’”

Kanawha County commissioners and Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin objected to Trump’s characterization during the news conference that there is “no need in West Virginia” for field hospitals or other federal resources, sending a letter to U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito calling on them to oppose Trump’s comments.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.