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Two days after bars were allowed to reopen in Monongalia County, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has again ordered them closed. That order comes as students from West Virginia University finished their first week of classes and filled downtown Morgantown in droves.
Justice said Wednesday that bars in Monongalia would close Wednesday at 4 p.m. for an indefinite amount of time. After being ordered closed in mid-July, Justice repeatedly extended those closures, which stretched until Monday, Aug. 31. Bars in the county were then allowed to reopen, although those openings were short-lived.
Photos published Tuesday evening on social media showed long lines of young people waiting to get into a bar in downtown Morgantown. In those photos, few could be seen wearing masks or social distancing.
The governor’s decision to again close bars in Monongalia County came after West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee wrote an open letter to the Morgantown and WVU communities saying the unsafe behavior puts everyone “in jeopardy.”
“I am aware of the photos and commentary that are circulating on social media showing West Virginia University students gathering outside local bars in downtown Morgantown,” Gee wrote in the opening of the letter. “To say that I am disappointed would be an understatement.”
Those photos — and concerned community reaction — come as the entire county reported an uptick in coronavirus cases in recent days.
“We’ve got people standing on top of people,” said Justice, describing photos and other reports that came to him from Monongalia County. “We’ve got no masks — we’ve got absolutely servers without masks on and everything else.”
Justice said his staff would look into whether imposing the same measures on communities in the state with large universities might be worthwhile.
“We’ve got to look at the type of bars, the gatherings and all this kind of stuff. You know, counties have different situations and everything and we’re trying to evaluate,” Justice said. “We don’t have, per se, bars in certain counties or certain cities that are like the bars that we’re talking about that are happening within the Mon County situation that were happening over the last couple of days.”
Justice also issued a stern warning to WVU students to follow public health recommendations and not gather in large crowds or go without a mask while in public.
“We have got to bear down here. You are absolutely running the risk of killing somebody,” Justice said. “This is not playtoy stuff. People are dying — that’s all there is to it.”
As of Wednesday morning, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reported 230 deaths from COVID-19 and 10,642 cases of the coronavirus. Of the total number of cases, 2,146 are active.
According to data from the DHHR, Monongalia County is coded as “orange” — a designation that would prevent public and private schools from reopening and secondary school extracurricular activities from being permitted.
State health officials reported Wednesday 18.26 daily cases of the coronavirus per 100,000 residents on a 14-day rolling average in the county.
Justice said he would consider a classification system in Monongalia County that would allow bars following the rules to stay open, but also said such an effort may be too difficult.
“It becomes cumbersome — it becomes very, very difficult to pull that off. But, we’ll continue to look at it and everything else,” Justice said. “One thing that’s really good is a lot of the bar-restaurants, per se, are serving food and everything and, of course, this doesn’t affect them. They continue to operate and everything but we’ll continue to look at it and…adjust as we need to.”