Justice admits travel order may be unconstitutional

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., Monday March 16, 2020. Justice declared a state of emergency in response to the new coronavirus, even as West Virginia remains the last state in the U.S. without a confirmed case.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice opened a Thursday afternoon press conference by saying that he'd potentially been exposed to COVID-19, tested and ultimately found free of the disease.

Justice, speaking while seated with an ample distance between himself and his Cabinet members who were present, said that shortly after learning of the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the state, he learned of a photo that had been taken of him and the man who'd been diagnosed and his wife at an event Feb. 15 in Martinsburg. The man had received some recognition at the event, Justice said, and as governors do, he took photographs with the smiling man and his wife, recalling how he gave them both "a big hug."

In light of that, when he came in to work Thursday morning, Justice said he was "abruptly" welcomed by someone equipped with a test for him. He then self-quarantined until receiving the results.

He received the negative results so quickly, he said, because "It just so happened that it all worked out to where ... they were just grabbing a batch, and the batch was taking off, and within a matter of hours we were going to have results." 

Following a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Justice said he was able to get in touch with President Donald Trump and address the state's needs. Chief among those, Justice said, is increasing the state's supply cache to ramp up testing capabilities.

The state's second positive COVID-19 test, a resident in Mercer County, was announced later Wednesday.

On Thursday, Justice said, the state would be "dramatically stepping up testing" in commercial laboratories, and that they've also purchased 100,000 surgical masks for $575,000. Of those masks, he said, 30,000 will be given to first responders across the state while the additional 70,000 will be given to the state Department of Health and Human Resources to "administer them as needed." The West Virginia National Guard also aided in the purchase of 275 sets of "highly protective suits" for $600,000, Justice said.

He also announced an additional round of business closures, effective at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.

"I really don't know exactly why this is this way. I guess everybody is looking to me or the government for guidance," Justice said. "We had many, many requests from the standpoint of our barbers saying 'You know, we don't feel comfortable being in that close contact with others and everything.' And the first thing that comes to my mind was then 'Well, why don't you just not do it, then?' ... They're looking again to me, to us for guidance. So today, I'm asking that all the barber shops, all the nail salons and all the hairdressing facilities that we have shut down."

Earlier in the day Thursday, Justice issued an executive order directing the West Virginia Department of Commerce and WorkForce West Virginia to "provide unemployment benefits to those affected by COVID-19 to the maximum extent permitted under federal law," per a news release issued by the Justice administration.

"Individuals who are separated from employment, have had their hours of employment reduced, or are prevented from working due to either a documented medical condition caused by COVID-19 or due to communicable disease control measures related to COVID-19 are eligible for these benefits, according to the Governor’s order," the release states.

Justice encouraged all West Virginians to maintain a responsible distance from one another to try to inhibit the spread, but also encouraged residents to check on their sick and elderly friends, family and neighbors and furnish them with whatever help they require "in the most gracious way."

When all is said and done, Justice said, he hopes that West Virginia emerges as a national example of good management of the pandemic, reversing what he called the state's "dark, dingy, backwards" image some may have.

“We will become the shining light, the place everyone wants to come to when this is done," Justice said. “... Your power is to be apart right now. It crushes this disease.”

“I don't know if I can say it any better or clearer than the governor," DHHR secretary Bill Crouch said during the conference. "… He is not exaggerating, it will save lives. We’re doing the right things. We’re ramping up testing. ...Chances are we will see more positive cases in West Virginia. We need to all do exactly what the governor talked about.”

Follow staff writer Lindsay Renner-Wood on Twitter @LindsayRenWood.

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