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Justice considers face mask mandate

CHARLESTON — As cases of the coronavirus spike across the country and in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice said Thursday he is seriously considering mandating face masks and covering in buildings.

“I am very seriously considering that at the beginning of next week we may very well have to go to mandatory masks in buildings other than your homes,” Justice said. “If you go out and into a building, you probably need to wear your mask.”

Speaking during his final coronavirus briefing before the start of the July 4 weekend, Justice said an executive order requiring face masks and face coverings in all buildings except for homes could come as soon as Monday.

“The thing that combats this disease and makes it powerless is when we restrict this disease from passing from one to another,” Justice said. “The way you stop this is masks — wearing your mask.”

Justice said he wanted to wait until Monday to consider issuing an executive order on masks to give state residents time to buy masks or make them, as well as collect more data on positive cases and testing.

“If that is such a horrible inconvenience in your life, please just think of what it will do to save us and keep us to be able to do the things we’re doing today in West Virginia,” Justice said. “For all practical purposes, we’re saving in a good way economically. Without any question our numbers are phenomenal.”

According to data from the Department of Health and Human Resources, West Virginia saw 74 positive cases on July 1, the biggest spike in cases since April when two days saw 73 cases each. The state tested 4,150 people on July 1, the third highest number of tests since the states started collecting data.

The state saw a total of 3,006 residents test positive, breaking the 3,000-mark the first two days of July. The number of active coronavirus cases, the number of people in self quarantine or hospitalized, was at 585 as of Thursday. Hospitalizations had gone up to 33 on June 26 but have come down to 23. Of that number, 10 cases are in intensive care unit beds, while five cases are on ventilators.

“If we don’t watch, we’re really going to have something to contend with here,” Justice said.

Masking has become a politically polarizing issue with many people on the right refusing to wear them. According to a Gallup poll at the end of June, 97 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of independents said they have worn a mask outside their home over a seven-day period, while 71 percent of Republicans said they had recently worn a mask.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Melody Potter, chairwoman of the West Virginia Republican Party, said she had no intention of wearing a mask. She cited a section of State Code making the wearing of masks, hoods and face coverings illegal when used to conceal one’s identity. The law has exceptions, including when masks are “prescribed for…emergencies.”

“Wearing masks in person is illegal,” Potter wrote. “Do not lecture me about being considerate. I am considerate. It’s my choice not to wear one like I respect your choice to wear one.”

A request for comment from Potter through the West Virginia Republican Party was not returned. When asked about the Facebook post Thursday, Justice said if Potter won’t wear a mask if he issues an executive order, then she shouldn’t go into buildings.

“I can tell you unequivocally that my heart is right in trying to protect our people,” Justice said. “I don’t want any of this to be political, but if you don’t watch and you don’t see what’s going on, then I don’t think you’re watching. If all we have to do is wear a mask for 30 minutes while we’re shopping in a building, is that too much for us to ask? It’s just not.”

According to the state Department of Health & Human Resources, Randolph County had 161 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 14 active, as of 5 p.m. Thursday. Upshur County had 20 confirmed cases, Barbour County had 15, Tucker County had six, Pocahontas County had 27, Hardy County had 44, Grant had 15, Pendleton had 12,

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