The pandemic is not about West Virginia politics, but our politics are going to be impacted by the pandemic.
The pandemic has been the biggest story in West Virginia since mid-March. The virus has impacted families and individual lives, jobs and the economy, church services, public schools and colleges, vacations and recreation, hospitals and health care.
The state’s response to the pandemic has preoccupied Governor Jim Justice and his administration. He has had to make, and will continue to make, decisions impacting the lives of nearly everyone in this state.
West Virginians will have these impacts on their minds when they cast their vote for Governor, and that makes the election a referendum on how Justice has handled the crisis.
That makes the coming weeks huge.
West Virginia’s public schools are scheduled to reopen September 8. Counties have developed their own restart plans, but they will be guided by the Justice administration’s color-coded metric that determines whether they can remain open or must shut down based on the number of Covid-19 cases.
Let’s say the fall semester unfolds relatively smoothly, that virus spikes are kept to a minimum, that most football games are played, that teachers and staff don’t walk off the job in protest in some counties.
If the reopening is successful it will be because the counties planned well, teachers and staff reinforced the protocols, while students and parents were on their best behavior. But Governor Justice will also get credit.
Additionally, any criticism by Democratic challenger Ben Salango will be muted. If the fall semester goes well and there are minimal virus spikes, there is not much point in saying you would have handled the pandemic differently.
However, as we have learned, the virus is unpredictable, and it does not care a whit about politics.
Let’s say the reopening of public schools goes poorly, that the virus spikes, pushing multiple counties into the red and forcing them to shut down. Worried teachers and staff stay home, and fearful parents pull their children out of school even in counties not in the red. Football fields sit dark on Friday night.
Again, the local officials who are closest to the community will take heat, but a lot of antipathy will be directed toward the Governor. His decision to push for reopening will be second guessed.
If that happens, Salango’s criticism will have more credibility. The two teacher unions and the service worker union, which have all endorsed Salango, will join in that critique giving Salango a considerable platform to make his points.
West Virginia’s school system is tightly focused on trying to deliver quality education under historically difficult circumstances, while keeping children, teachers, and staff safe. However, just know that how it all works out will have an impact on the Governor’s race.