West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Monday instituted a mandatory face mask order for indoor spaces after the state reported record numbers of new coronavirus cases over the weekend.
The Republican’s executive order, which goes into effect at midnight, requires everyone over the age of 9 to wear the face coverings inside buildings when social distancing isn’t possible.
“I’m telling you, West Virginia, if we don’t do that and do this now we’re going to be in a world of hurt,” he said, adding that “it’s not much of an inconvenience.”
New confirmed virus cases in the state have risen sharply in the last two weeks, with state health officials recording 118 infections Saturday and 76 on Sunday, both figures topping previous daily highs since the outbreak began.
Justice and his health officials have been urging West Virginians to wear masks as cases ticked up, with outbreaks linked to out-of-state tourism travel and church services. Still, the governor has stopped short of issuing a mask order, saying it would be politically divisive and difficult to enforce. On Monday, he said he could wait no longer.
“West Virginia, look around. Everywhere around us is breaking loose and our numbers are showing our numbers to be moving in a significantly wrong way,” Justice said. “We have got to move and we have got to move now.”
The order comes after Justice forced the resignation of the leader of the state’s public health bureau, Cathy Slemp, over what Justice described as an overreporting of virus cases. The state health department later said local health officials had failed to move cases from an active category to a recovered category in the state’s virus database, and that state officials didn’t conduct sufficient checks on what local health departments were reporting.
Slemp, in a resignation letter, asked officials to “stay true to the science.” High-ranking officials at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where Slemp graduated, released a statement saying they were “stunned and troubled” by the governor’s action.
At least 95 people in West Virginia have died from the virus and around 3,440 have tested positive, according to state health data.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.