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Justice gets pushback on masks, schools, sports

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice addressed criticisms Monday over his expanded COVID-19 mask order resulting in his personal cell phone number being released, calls from parents to let students in orange and red counties play sports, and a teachers’ union asking for schools to be shut down.

Speaking Monday during his coronavirus briefing, Justice said he was trying his best to protect lives while also wanting to see schools open for students and to see school sports continue if possible.

“I know at times it’s confusing and frustrating,” Justice said. “I know as you’re tired and you have weight upon your shoulders — some of you have unbelievable weight to tell you the truth because you’ve lost your jobs or whatever it might be — but I want you to know too that I have the weight of our state on my shoulders.”

Justice announced last Friday a tightening of his executive order requiring the wearing of face masks or coverings in public indoor places. Now masks must be worn even in instances where social distancing is possible. Children under the age of 9, people with breathing issues, or people who require assistance to put on or remove a mask are exempt. The order also doesn’t apply to actively eating and drinking. Businesses and offices must post signs at entrances.

While refusing to wear a mask itself has no criminal penalty, Justice said businesses can call law enforcement if a person refuses to wear a mask when asked by employees. If that person refuses to wear a mask with law enforcement officers present, the person can either be removed from the premises or charged with obstruction if they continue to refuse.

According to the MetroNews West Virginia Poll from October, 73 percent of West Virginians said they wear a mask in businesses and public buildings, while 14 percent said they do most of the time, 4 percent said some of the time, and 2 percent said never. But it’s the small but vocal minority that have pushed back on Justice’s order, claiming the order exceeds Justice’s constitutional authority.

“Some outliers are really upset over the fact that they believe in their mind … that we are stripping away constitutional rights,” Justice said. “I cannot in any way mandate a criminal crime. That is for the Legislature to do and I’ve said that over and over.”

One of Justice’s opponents in the June 9 Republican primary for governor, former Berkeley County delegate Mike Folk, released Justice’s personal cell phone number on Facebook and Twitter Friday encouraging people to contact the governor directly. This resulted in Justice’s cell phone ringing frequently over the weekend and even during Monday’s briefing.

“(Folk) is constantly rabblerousing people to go out and do things and do dirty work basically for him so he can absolutely stay relevant,” Justice said. “Since that time, he has twice now posted my personal cell phone number, which is absolutely childish.”

Speaking by phone Monday, Folk said he posted Justice’s cell phone number on social media back in the summer when Justice said he had heard no public calls for the legislature to be called into special session to appropriate federal coronavirus aid dollars. Folk said Facebook took down that post and the West Virginia State Police contacted him.

This time, Folk posted the number to Facebook again but screen-grabbed the post so he could share it on Twitter. The posting of personal information otherwise not publicly available is sometimes called “doxing” and is used to harass individuals.

“The reason I did it this time is pretty simple: the guy thinks he is above everybody,” Folk said. “He thinks he can tell you what to do … he needs to hear from the people.”

Justice said he has heard complaints from parents over the weekly School Alert System color-coded map. The system uses colors to determine what schools can open for in-person learning. Counties in the red or orange categories must go to distance learning, and extracurricular activities and sports must cease.

The increase in COVID-19 cases is wreaking havoc with the brackets for high school football. Elkins High School and Tygarts Valley High School in Randolph County are supposed to play this coming Sunday in the quarterfinals, but the county was designated orange last Saturday. They will need to be not orange by this Saturday at 5 p.m. in order to still play Sunday.

Parents of football, volleyball, and other fall sports athletes have criticized the map and metrics for ending their student’s chances at earning championships and possible college scholarship opportunities. Justice, a high school girls basketball coach, said he understood the frustration of parents and coaches, but it was more important to follow the map metrics and control community spread of the virus.

“I want badly to do right by our students, our teachers, our service personnel. I take every single decision to heart,” Justice said. “I love those kids. I love all of those kids. I want them to be able to play ball and go to school. But more than anything, I want us to get more control over this terrible virus that’s just eating us alive.”

The West Virginia Education Association praised Justice for his decision last Friday to close all public and private schools for in-person learning from Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 26, to Thursday, Dec. 3. However, they called on him to take a step further and close schools for in-person instruction until the end of 2021. Justice said that was an option and there’s been discussion about that, but for now there would be no decision to do that.

“There are repercussions to the downside,” Justice said. “You have our daycares to think about. You’ve got our kids to think about. You’ve got how well the virtual learning is doing, period. There’s a lot of educators and teachers and everything that believe we’re really struggling there to be able to halfway educate our kids. There are so many ramifications there. There is a lot to consider.”

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