Gov. Jim Justice announced that casual public gatherings are considered all right for up to 100 people now, loosening earlier guidance to hold groups below 25.
Justice also announced fairs and festivals may resume again, starting July 1, under guidelines that will be released Friday.
The two announcements represent the most recent loosening of precautions put in place as West Virginia dealt with the coronavirus pandemic.
The changes also come early in a summer that could be very busy with the resumption of warm-weather celebrations as well as continued demonstrations related to racial justice after the killing of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis.
“As we gather together in bigger crowds this summer, really remember to stay that six feet apart,” said West Virginia’s coronavirus response coordinator, Clay Marsh.
Justice made the announcements Thursday during a regular briefing about West Virginia’s coronavirus response.
On fairs and festivals, Justice said, “there will be very strict guidelines that they must follow.” He added, “Now we may be able to reduce those as we go forward.”
The governor acknowledged that fairs and festivals need time to plan.
Justice said guidance will change at midnight today for public gatherings of up to 100 people.
“Our medical experts have advised me this is a safe decision, and we can go forward with this. And we’ll continue to watch our numbers just like we do every day to make sure that we keep you as safe as we possibly can while enabling you to go on about your life in a way as close to normal as we possibly can,” Justice said.
The Governor’s Office, a few weeks ago, tried to clarify what is meant by a public gathering.
“A public gathering, something like a…picnic, where a group of people just gather in a park or something – those are the things that we’re trying to discourage, that don’t have any particular purpose other than just the socializing itself,” General Counsel Brian Abraham said at the time.
There are upcoming events, though, that are likely to exceed 100 people.
For example, the Ripley Fourth of July Parade, known as “USA’s Largest Small Town Independence Day Celebration,” is coming up in a month.
Justice urged caution such as social distancing and wearing masks but said he is glad the parade seems like it may go on.
“I’m excited. I’m excited that we’re going to be able to have the parade and everything,” he said.
There are also continued protests in West Virginia, as there are across the nation, following the killing of George Floyd when an arresting officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
Scheduled on Sunday, for example, is an “I Can’t Breathe WV” rally from noon to 4 at the state Capitol in Charleston.
Justice said he supports such a rally, but urged people to be careful.
“We want people to be able to show their views. And free speech is one of our rights that we have that is the most precious of all,” he said.
“No matter how big the crowd is, if they will social distance themselves, if they will just do that I absolutely welcome their voice being heard.”