By Brad McElhinny in News | April 16, 2020 at 4:09PM
West Virginia has established a new health order establishing statewide standards for social distancing in stores that remain open as the state continues to try to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The broader order has hit even as discussions have heightened in recent days over how and when West Virginia should begin to ease social distancing guidelines.
Earlier orders focused on specific “hotspots” in West Virginia and authorized the health departments in those counties to establish policies governing foot traffic in businesses considered essential.
The new, statewide order has drawn a mixed reaction from county leaders around the state.
Kanawha County leaders sent out a statement critical of the statewide rule, saying it loosens up what was established two weeks ago by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
Commissioners in Monongalia and Wood counties, speaking to MetroNews by telephone, said a statewide rule offers consistency — and likely should have been the approach in the first place.
The state Bureau for Public Health said the rule is meant to provide consistency to retailers and shoppers by implementing uniform social distancing guidelines.
“This aligns with Governor Justice’s direction to us that we continue to do everything in DHHR’s power to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, while also keeping critical retail operations open and functioning in a safe manner for both the employees and the public,” stated Dr. Cathy Slemp, State Health Officer and Commissioner of DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health.
The new rule says businesses that remain open during the pandemic must implement a written plan to limit staff, contractors and vendors to essential personnel.
Businesses that remain open are also to implement social distancing practices, including a minimum 6-foot distance from other people, where possible.
Hygienic and disinfecting supplies are to be made available to staff and others. And protective barriers are to be made available to employees exposed to the general public.
The new rule establishes limits of two members of the public per 1,000 feet of customer floor space at any time.
Businesses that are smaller than a thousand feet of space aren’t supposed to have more than five people, including employees, at any given time.
For businesses with at least 80 percent of sales in grocery food products, it’s a little looser — 3 members of the public per 1,000 square feet.
Businesses are supposed to enforce social distancing — for example, creating one-way aisles or marking off 6-foot boundaries in areas where people are likely to stand or wait in line.
The rule allows for a fine of no more than $200 for those who don’t comply.
Kanawha County leaders sent out a response that criticized the rule for being looser than what that county already had in place.
After Kanawha County was declared a “hotspot” on April 4, Health Director Sherri Young established a standard of two people per 1,000 square feet.
The state guideline allowing three people per 1,000 square feet in grocery stores is more lax, Kanawha County commissioners stated.
“Adding 50 percent more foot traffic increases the risks to customers and frontline employees,” stated Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, who is running for governor in the Democratic primary.
“It goes against everything we are trying to do during this time of asking people to stay home and socially distance.”
Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin also protested change in the statewide rule.
“The Emergency Legislative Rule issued today has great potential to cause a more rampant spread of this virus,” Goodwin stated.
“The health order put in place by Dr. Sherri Young limits the amount of exposure that the general public and our front line workers receive.”
Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom, on the other hand, said the statewide order provides consistency. He suggested some details of the statewide order — such as the enforcement requirements for individual businesses — are stronger than what Monongalia County already had in place.
“We have some counties doing one item and other counties doing others,” Bloom said on the telephone.
Bloom also said the order sends a message. Bloom said the state would be wise to limit business activity for a few more weeks to continue suppressing the spread of the coronavirus.
“Let’s do this for several more weeks and see the numbers come down and everyone will be able to benefit by opening up slowly. So I agree with it,” Bloom said. “This, I believe, is in the best interest of the welfare of the citizens of West Virginia, and I support it.”
Wood County Commission President Blair Couch said leaders based guidelines there on what earlier counties had established.
“They left it to us. So, Berkeley, Monongalia, Kanawha, all these folks had done some heavy lifting. I felt like we had done what the governor asked,” Couch said.
He said there are some differences between what the state is establishing and what Wood put in place just this week — like more leeway in customers per square feet for groceries, but also a more specific requirement for stores to post the guidelines in writing.
All in all, though, Couch didn’t disagree with the decision to put guidelines in place statewide.
“It should have been statewide from Day 1,” Couch said.