West Virginia counties under heightened social distancing guidelines have started working through how to communicate and enforce them.
“If people didn’t get the message before, this is not a vacation. This is a national health crisis,” Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin said in a Sunday afternoon press conference to roll out the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s new rules.
Gov. Jim Justice issued executive orders this weekend for stricter social distancing in “hotspots,” including Kanawha, Monongalia, Harrison, Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties.
The rest of the state remains under a stay-home order, but coronavirus is spreading more rapidly in those areas, requiring greater precautions, officials said.
Justice’s executive order is meant to limit groups to a maximum of five people and directs all businesses to require employees to work from home “to the maximum extent possible.”
It authorizes the county health departments to limit occupancy of any businesses that remain open to the public and designates support from the State Police and the West Virginia National Guard.
“One of the problems that we’ve had over the weekend is that we’ve seen people pouring into stores and large areas,” said Kanawha-Charleston Health Director Sherri Young.
Kanawha County had 63 positive coronavirus cases as of this afternoon, according to the local health department.
Of those, Young said, 85 percent of those were outpatient and the remaining 15 percent required hospitalization.
The heightened rules are meant for people with the virus who still feel like they can function, Young said.
“If people are outpatient and they are feeling well, it is hard to convey the message that just because they feel well they should not go out in public,” she said Sunday afternoon.
“This is our best step at moving forward. The numbers could be much worse if we had not put earlier recommendations into place. So we are tightening those recommendations.”
The Kanawha order limits access to businesses to two individuals for every 1,000 square feet of public space. Businesses are also to control access with a strict one-in, one-out policy when the maximum number of patrons is reached.
Eastern Panhandle counties quickly passed their own rules this weekend to reflect limitations on gatherings and the number of people who can be at businesses considered essential.
Members of the Jefferson County Health Department gathered in a Zoom teleconferencing meeting on Sunday afternoon to discuss and pass tighter measures.
“All those in favor, raise your hand and wave,” said John Bresland, chairman of the health department board.
The rules reflect what the Berkeley-Morgan health department had passed the prior day.
They include a 14-day minimum stays at hotels, motels, Airbnbs, although there is an exception for health care workers. And the business occupancy guidelines are 2.5 people per 1,000 square feet in grocery stores or 2 people per 1,000 square feet in other stores.
“I think our orders across the Panhandle need to be uniform,” said Nathan Cochran, a lawyer for the Jefferson health board. “It just makes it easier for the citizens everywhere.”
He agreed the moves are necessary.
“A lot of folks were not sheltering in place,” Cochran said.
“The health officials are very concerned there is going to be a significant increase in the number of cases in the Panhandle because it appears as though folks are still interacting without a lot of regard to the original order from the governor.”
The teleconference meeting drew more than 50 viewers, several of whom wanted to know how the new rules would work in practice.
Harpers Ferry Mayor Wayne Bishop wanted more guidance on people coming in from elsewhere to seek refuge at short-term rentals in West Virginia. He said the town council was already planning to make people who arrive from elsewhere quarantine for 14 days.
“We still do have an influx of visitors coming here,” Bishop said. “We have noticed there are still postings inviting people to come to the Panhandle to wait this thing out or hunker down here.”
Terrence Reidy, the county’s health director, agreed: “With I-81, we have tens of thousands of people coming through. We’re really just trying to stop the spread of this virus everywhere.”
The owner of Andy’s Pizza in Ranson came on to ask about the math of 2.5 people per 1,000 square feet. He wants to comply with health guidelines, he said, but also hopes his business can function.
“My building is 2,000 feet, so that would be five people,” he said. “So if you are a thousand square feet does that limit you to two people or three people? The five people I would have, does that limit you to employees?”
He concluded, “Five employees in my business is pretty difficult. I will decrease it and try to figure it out.”
Reidy said the five people allowed in the 2,000 square-foot Andy’s Pizza building would include employees, but he seemed to suggest common sense should apply rather than a strict reading.
“The purpose is to eliminate what sometimes is a tremendous congregating of people,” Reidy said. He later added, “The details, of course, is where the difficulties arise.”
Bridget Lambert of the West Virginia Retailers Association urged consistent oversight of standards.
“It would ve very hard for our retail stores to have different sanitarians telling them different things,” Lambert said.
Jefferson Sheriff Pete Dougherty puzzled over the problem of people going golfing at courses that are still open and considered essential in orders up to now.
“Since my office is going to be the one tasked with enforcing this, what do we do about golf courses?” Dougherty asked.
“Not only are there golfers here, but yesterday the cart girl was driving around with food and beverages to get to people.”
In the end, the guideline was that people at golf courses should maintain six feet distance and not share a cart.
Dougherty said deputies would largely be in charge of enforcing all the new rules, with backup from other local law enforcement agencies.
He said state troopers could help but their numbers are limited in the area, and the National Guard is just supposed to help disseminate information.
“We’re obviously looking for people to voluntarily comply,” he said. “If there are issues we will be helping them.”