CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has ordered the loosening of pandemic restrictions on businesses after a decline in coronavirus deaths and cases, and he sought the return of all elementary and middle school students to in-person learning.
In a flurry of announcements, the governor on Friday said small businesses and grocery stores can double their allowed capacity and the limit on social gatherings will go up from 25 to 75 people. Bars and restaurants can allow 75% of seating capacity, up from 50%, if social distancing is possible.
Hours later on Friday night, the state health department announced that the first three cases of the coronavirus variant from the UK have been detected in West Virginia. It is among one of three variants already found in other states that researchers believe may spread more easily.
“While the presence of this COVID-19 variant in West Virginia is not surprising, it’s a good motivator for us to double down on the prevention efforts we’ve had in place for many months now,” Dr. Ayne Amjad, the state health officer, said in a statement.
At the governor’s news conference earlier in the day, the state’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, said the current vaccines appear to offer protection from variants, citing studies from Israel.
Justice said all teachers and school workers over the age of 50 who accepted the offer for a vaccine will be given their second doses next week. He said he is asking the school State Board of Education to bring all students from kindergarten to eighth grade back to classrooms.
Justice said “without any question” parents would still have the right to keep their students at home with virtual learning.
“I truly believe you’ve got to move on,” said Justice, adding mask-wearing is still required in public. “Without any question, we would all be really foolish if we didn’t think things could slip back, and if they slip back, we have to adjust” restrictions.
The loosening of rules comes as deaths linked to the coronavirus have nosedived 70% in six weeks and cases plummet. Currently 14.5% of the state’s 1.78 million population have received at least one of the vaccine doses, and 8.7% of residents are fully vaccinated, the second highest rate in the country.
There were 187 confirmed coronavirus cases reported Friday. Hospitalizations are down 64% from a peak in early January to 293 patients.
Justice said his executive orders on businesses and social gatherings would take effect at midnight. Justice said the cap on bars and restaurants could be entirely lifted within weeks, barring a surge in cases.
The number of patrons grocery stores can allow in stores will rise from 3 to 6 people per 1,000 square feet. Retail and small business shops will be able to take in 4 people per 1,000 square feet, up from 2 people.
Live music performances will also be allowed again, barring vocals and wind instruments, the governor said.
The State Board of Education will decide on the governor’s recommendation for elementary and middle schools to return to in-person full time. The board’s next scheduled meeting is Tuesday.
Union leader Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said his first concern is when teachers under the age of 50 will be offered vaccines and receive both doses. He said he is also worried about whether guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for schools reopening can be followed.
The shipment of vaccine doses to West Virginia slowed this week due to winter weather. State data show 24,200 new first doses were received, down about 4,600 from the previous week.
“It has been clearly a challenging week for us with the weather, both nationally and in the state,” said James Hoyer, a retired major general leading the state’s coronavirus task force, at the governor’s press conference.
He said some doses from vaccine developer Moderna were delayed. Additional doses to Walgreens, which is participating in a new federal program to ship doses directly to pharmacies, are also delayed for next week.
Hoyer added some vaccination clinics have been pushed back to Sunday and Monday.
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