CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Two days after bars around West Virginia University were allowed to reopen, Gov. Jim Justice shut them down indefinitely Wednesday, citing crowds of unmasked students and an increase in positive coronavirus cases.
“Please, kids, we have got to bear down here,” Justice said at a news conference. “You are absolutely running the risk of killing somebody.”
Photos circulating on social media showed lines of people without masks outside of Morgantown bars as some businesses advertised “Taco Tuesday” specials. WVU started classes last week.
In a letter Wednesday, WVU President Gordon Gee said of the student gatherings, “To say that I am disappointed would be an understatement."
He said students must make “the right choices” in order for the Morgantown campus to remain open during the pandemic.
“This is a critical moment for West Virginia University,” Gee said.
Justice initially ordered Monongalia County bars closed on July 13 and kept extending the order until allowing them to reopen on Monday.
“Right off the get-go, boom. We’ve got people standing on top of people,” Justice said. "We’ve got no masks, servers without masks.”
Monongalia County reported a total of 83 new positive cases Tuesday and Wednesday, its highest two-day counts since mid-July.
On Tuesday, West Virginia University reported 35 positive cases involving students, by far the highest total since a mandatory campus testing program began late last month. Justice said there are 29 positive cases involving campus fraternities and sororities.
According to state health statistics, 22% of all statewide positive cases are from the 20-to-29 age group, far more than any others.
As the state moves closer to the Sept. 8 opening of public schools, Justice announced that five staff members at Mingo Central High School and two at Point Pleasant Elementary had tested positive. Point Pleasant is pushing back its opening to Sept. 17.
American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia President Fred Albert said many teachers still need protective gear and some public school buildings lack adequate ventilation to prevent the virus from spreading.
Albert held a separate news conference with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Salango, who said local officials want more clarity from Justice on reopening public schools.
“He hasn’t done enough to make our schools safe. This is not about politics,” Salango said.
Justice said the state has 2 million masks in its inventory, while state schools Superintendent Clayton Burch said individual county superintendents can contact the state with requests, including if they need cleaning supplies or personal protective equipment.
“It's there,” Burch said. “We can get it to them.”
Despite an indoor mask mandate for public places issued July 6, daily positive cases statewide have skyrocketed since then, hitting a record 220 on Sunday.
The state announced eight more virus-related deaths Wednesday, pushing the total to at least 230. That's up 98% since Aug. 1. Most of the deaths were of senior citizens.
The virus usually results in only mild to moderate symptoms, but is particularly dangerous for the elderly and people with other health problems. West Virginia has the nation’s third-oldest population, and more than 100 virus-related deaths have been at nursing homes.
Associated Press reporter Cuneyt Dil contributed to this report.