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Justice eases restrictions, lifts limits

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice announced a new round of easing Friday for COVID-19 restrictions on residents and businesses as coronavirus statistics continue to trend in better directions.

Speaking during his Friday morning COVID-19 briefing from the State Capitol Building, Justice said restaurants and bars can move to 100 percent of their seating capacity, with no standing room allowed. Justice also said the capacity limits for businesses and grocery stores would be lifted, as well as gyms, fitness centers, and museums

“We do not see in our businesses and retail stores a crowding issue there that causes us a problem right now,” Justice said.

Justice also moved the outdoor gathering limit to no more than 100 people. Justice raised the limit two weeks ago from 50 to 75. Travel sports restrictions are also lifted except for counties that are red on the Department of Health and Human Resources’ County Alert System map. Justice said health officials are still considering allowing fairs and festivals to continue this summer.

The amended rules come two weeks after Justice raised restaurant and bar capacity from 50 percent of capacity to 75 percent of capacity, allowed for limited live indoor music with no vocals or wind instruments, and raised indoor capacity for businesses and grocery stores. Justice also called for a return to five-day in-person instruction for K-8 students.

Despite removing these capacity restrictions, Justice said he would not join Texas and Mississippi in removing indoor mask requirements. The indoor mask mandate has been in place since last summer.

“We absolutely expect you to continue to wear your masks,” Justice said. “We are not backing off of our mask mandate at this time. I can’t stand these masks myself. I get that and everything. None of us can, but in the meantime let’s not get into a situation where one robin makes spring, because one robin doesn’t make spring.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Resources, active COVID-19 cases in West Virginia were 6,144 — the lowest number of active cases since Nov. 4, 2020. Active cases peaked at 29,257 on Jan. 10.

At the same time, nearly 12 percent of eligible West Virginians have received a COVID-19 vaccine. The state is vaccinating people with the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines. As of Friday, 208,994 West Virginians have been fully vaccinated, including 108,941 residents age 65 and older.

Hospitalizations for serious COVID-19 cases dropped to their lowest Wednesday at 193, ticking up slighting to 200 as of Friday – a 76 percent drop from a peak of 818 hospitalizations on Jan. 5. The state reported nine COVID-19 deaths since Monday’s briefing, with the state seeing no deaths Monday and Thursday for the first time since Nov. 27. Deaths have decreased by 85 percent over the last seven weeks.

“Nine is always way too many, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what it was in the past,” Justice said. “Thank God we’ve only lost nine … it sounds wonderful, but’s still tough stuff on these families.”

Thursday marked the one-year anniversary since Justice first issued a state of preparedness to mobilize the West Virginia National Guard and state health officials to prepare for the virus. Justice issued a full state of emergency on March 16, 2020, with the first reported case of the virus the very next day.

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