Coronavirus Update: County officials across West Virginia dealing with numerous challenges

By Lexi Browning

West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Across West Virginia, government officials in all 55 counties are responding to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Though each region faces individual challenges, these officials say they are working to find the best solutions for local residents.

Serving the public:

From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in West Virginia, Wood County officials were determined to remain accessible and available to their constituents, even if it meant meeting in nontraditional ways in nontraditional spaces. 

When Governor Jim Justice issued a Stay-at-Home order on March 24, businesses and facilities throughout the state closed until instructed otherwise to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nonessential employees were ordered to work from home.  

The Wood County Commission in March opened a drive-through service in the former Consumer Credit Counseling building, allowing residents to conduct business with county agencies while staying socially distanced and adhering to protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Wood County Commissioner David Blair Couch said service continued until a Safe-at-Home order was issued. When businesses and facilities began to reopen, and the need for drive-through services diminished, the county stopped operations at the building.

“We tried to find unique ways to service the public,” Couch said of the drive-through. “We wanted to ensure that there was continuity, and I think we did alright.”

Resuming the drive-through operation is still an option for the county. Couch said using a dark lease for the drive-through, which enabled them to halt operations while continuing to pay rent, has given them the much-needed, budget-friendly flexibility to reopen the building if another outbreak occurred. 

“That gave us time as the second wave [of coronavirus outbreaks] approached,” he said. “Now we’re feeling closer than we thought.”

Couch, who has served 14 years, said the commission has also continued to meet biweekly throughout the outbreak, hosting broadcasted sessions to maintain the same level of transparency. Residents can call in to the meetings in real-time.

Monitoring the money:

In late May, Congress passed the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a package of more than $2 trillion in economic relief. Included in the CARES Act is the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund, which provides for payments to state, local and tribal governments navigating the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

West Virginia received $1.25 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund in April.

All counties are monitoring the CARES funding; however, Jonathan Adler, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties, said a lack of clarity surrounding the shifting guidelines for CARES funding eligibility caused “fear and confusion” for county officials.

“… I think the nationwide consensus among many groups, including the National Governors Association, National Association of Counties, League of Cities and even the Governor (Jim Justice) mentioned it in one of his briefings, that he thought maybe the 55-45 percent split between state and local governments might be happening,” Adler said.  

In April, Adler sent a letter to the Governor, requesting the 45 percent figure that had been discussed, or about $562 million, for local governments.

“Unfortunately, what (Justice) decided to allocate is $200 million, which is about 16 percent,” Adler said. “I don’t think West Virginia is unique in that; many states did not distribute the 45 percent figure….

“There’s certainly a lot of fog. It’s still not clear,” Adler said, speaking about the economic fallout from both the impact of the Coronavirus and the Governor’s funding decisions.

Overall, Adler said the counties have not been harmed “too much,” noting that some have been affected more than others based on the loss of hotel-motel tax revenues. Most, though, have been somewhat protected by property tax revenues, Adler said.  

“We are concerned going forward about impacts; changes that the downfall in the economy could bring if you see a lot of businesses close,” Adler said. “That’s going to impact property tax in a large way, and certainly we’re scared. … This [pandemic] isn’t going away any time soon.” 

Couch said Wood County has applied for approximately $45,000 in CARES funding to help cover sanitation expenses and the rent of the off-site drive-through. He anticipates that the commission will be applying for more funding in the future.

Counting the cases:

Budgets may be stretched even further if COVID-19 cases continue to rise. In recent weeks, with summer vacations and holiday gatherings, the number of positive cases has spiked in many West Virginia counties. Mercer County, for example, experienced an increase from 13 positive cases on June 1, to 30 cases on June 25. By July 8, the county had 58 cases. 

One-third of Mercer County’s cases could be attributed to travel, said County Commissioner Greg Puckett, adding that the other two-thirds were assumed to be contracted via community spread. 

When cases were first detected in West Virginia, Puckett said his county had to act fast after receiving news that the second case in West Virginia was in Mercer County. 

While the courthouse was closed during the statewide Stay-at-Home order, Puckett said the county took the opportunity to increase safety measures for employees and visitors alike. 

“We knew we needed to upgrade when facilities were closed, so we installed shields at every desk in the courthouse,” he said. “From the front door to payment offices and assessors and clerks, we put in permanent glass that’s four-feet high.”

Feeling the Impact:

While working to manage county services during the pandemic, Mercer County officials are also dealing with a loss inpatient services at a local hospital, lost of revenues from tourism, and news the seasons of the county’s two Minor League Baseball teams’ seasons have been cancelled.

In late May, Bluefield Regional Medical Center, one of the county’s two primary medical centers, announced the facility would be closing its inpatient services by July 30. Puckett said many of the 340 employees from Bluefield Regional have been rehired by nearby Princeton Community Hospital.

Operating two large hospitals in a county of 57,000 people was “almost impossible,” Puckett said. 

Twenty to 30 years ago, it made sense, he said, when outside medical services weren’t as easily attainable, but with major metropolitan medical centers just a 90-minute drive today, many constituents have elected to pursue healthcare in Charleston, West Virginia; Bristol, Tennessee; or Roanoke, Virginia. 

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Puckett said. “Many people are choosing to go other places if they have the means to do so, and when you have those people leave to go other places, [the regional medical centers] can’t exist in the same capacity.” 

Mercer County hosts two Minor League Baseball teams: the Bluefield Blue Jays and the Princeton Rays. The county lost annual revenues from the now-canceled 2020 season. For now, the future of minor league in the county remains uncertain. 

“It’s a diversion that takes away from the every day (issues of life),” Puckett said. “It would be a loss of hope and something to do, which is detrimental to the community in different ways. Losing one would be drastic, but losing two? It’s a minor league shift and a major league tragedy.”

As for tourism revenues, the county’s funding, which is primarily generated through hotel-motel taxes and used to help fund fairs, festivals and marketing with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been reduced by 40 to 50 percent during April and May, when travelers were staying home, Puckett said.

Still, the Commissioner sees potential for the coming months. 

“I really do see that Mercer County has been blessed for a long time, even in our down time. Our population has been solid,” Puckett said, noting the county is only now starting to see a decrease.

The Commissioner hopes geography helps. “We’re in a great spot, with 60 percent of the country’s population within a 12-hour drive. The center of the United States economy is here. It just needs to come to fruition.”

Protecting the public:

However, some economists believe the wide adoption of face masks will be key to restarting the nation’s economy. According to a report released by Goldman Sachs on June 29, a national face mask mandate could potentially substitute for renewed lockdowns that would otherwise subtract more than $1 trillion from the United States’ GDP.

On July 6, Governor Justice issued an executive order requiring masks to be worn inside public buildings. He affirmed the seriousness of his order during a following briefing, pleading with residents to wear face coverings to prevent the spread of coronavirus:  

“I (trust) West Virginians can handle that and handle that from the standpoint of being on the honor system,” Justice said. “If you can’t; we’ll have to move to make that more strenuous from the standpoint that we’ll have to use some level of penalties for your noncompliance in not wearing those masks… Please, West Virginia. Let’s do this.”

However, Justice conceded there would be no immediate penalty for those who choose not to wear a mask in public.

In a briefing with the White House to discuss the pandemic’s effects at the county level, Puckett said he recently expressed concerns over the lack of uniformity in safety protocols at local, state and national levels. 

“Inconsistent messaging is the killer,” Puckett said. Blaming the media wasn’t helping the situation, he added.  “The media is not the enemy; if anything, they’re our biggest allies. But you’ve got to have good, truthful media.”

Sheriff Pete Dougherty, of Jefferson County, expressed concern over the lack of enforcement mentioned in the executive order.

“It’s more than a little vague,” Dougherty said. “It’s really, quite frankly, no more than what he said in March. He’s made it very clear it’s not a criminal offense to not wear a mask, although they’re putting in stuff about how far of a distance [we should keep between us].”

Jefferson County, which lies in the eastern panhandle of the state and is in close proximity to Washington, D.C., is home to many commuter residents. Some, Dougherty said, have chosen to do their grocery shopping across state lines where there are strict mask requirements. 

Dougherty compared wearing a mask to carrying a handkerchief. 

“The reason I carry a handkerchief and have for years, particularly in the wintertime, is that if I’m going to sneeze, I don’t want to sneeze all over the place,” he said. “I want to catch it and not infect somebody else with a cold. The reason I wear a mask is if I cough or sneeze and I am infected, the mask will take 95 percent of what I’m spewing out and stop it from spreading to other places.”

After working in various capacities in local and federal government, Dougherty said it’s crucial to be clear when delivering a message to constituents. Otherwise, it can be misconstrued. 

“The problem we get confronted with all the time is that people don’t like it and that people are not wearing masks, and there’s really nothing we can do to enforce that order … Dougherty said, unless the building business mandates masks to enter.

“If I refuse, you can ask me to leave, and if I refuse to leave, I can then be charged as a trespasser,” said the Sheriff.

The region’s state and national parks – which are currently closed – and outdoor recreation opportunities often draw out-of-state tourists to the Eastern Panhandle, and, according to Dougherty, this year has been no exception. He estimated thousands traveled to Jefferson County for July 4th, with approximately 10 percent of visitors wearing masks.

With less traffic on the roads in recent months, Dougherty said the county has decreased its traffic enforcement and has instead focused on directed patrols and being more “visible” in neighborhoods. For officers, the uncertainty in knowing who may or may not be carrying the virus prevents unnecessary contact. 

“We also … do more citations than arrests,” he added. “A lot of times, you have someone who violated the law; in normal circumstances, we might have made an arrest in that case. In this case, we take more time and get a safe person to get that person away from the scene and give them a citation to come to court instead.”  

While working and filing reports from a distance, Dougherty said he has noticed a recurring issue with unsteady internet connection, but he sees a solution. 

“One of the things I’ve personally been adamant about is that we need to be investing some of that money we get from the federal government into what will help us with COVID-19-related problems… We need better internet access, better internet connectivity. It would help healthcare, it would help education, it would help businesses and law enforcement.”

Dougherty suggested using the $100 million Governor Justice announced would be allocated toward “COVID-19-related highway projects.” Having access to reliable internet can assist the local government, as well as residents, as they work from home, he said. 

The Sheriff said highway spending is not the answer. “That’s not going to solve the COVID-19 problem. I haven’t found anyone who can’t get to the hospital if they needed to get to the hospital because of the roads. But I do know lots of folks who say they can’t work effectively from home: ‘I can’t do business, and my kids can’t do their studies,’ or ‘I can’t get my healthcare information’ because of connectivity.’”

Forecasting the future:

Many local government officials, including the Cabell County Assessor’s office, have taken strides over the last few years to push their services to a digital format to ensure more access for their residents. With the ongoing pandemic, those services have proven to be more valuable than ever. 

“We’re seeing a lot more taxpayers reaching out via email and via phone,” said Cabell County Assessor Irv Johnson. “We now offer online filing. This year we’re doing online filing for the farmers, which is new…. A lot of people, once they do that, say, ‘Wow, I’m going to do it this way every year!’”

Many responsibilities, such as the reappraisal process that have always relied on door-knocking and face-to-face communication, are being reconfigured to prevent unnecessary exposure to coronavirus. 

“Almost everything certainly needs to be looked at for any way we can help reduce face-to-face contact,” Johnson said. “One of our biggest struggles is that this has to go on. If we don’t get our work done, then we can’t file all our data with the auditor and it snowballs into  ‘how will everybody get their budgets done?’”

When the outbreak began, Johnson made the decision to allow his staff to work remotely, directing 100 percent of daily operations be done by phone and email. Now that the office has transitioned back to 50 percent capacity, he estimated that 70 percent of interactions were still being done via phone, mail or email.

As for future operations, he anticipates a higher percentage of remote work. 

“We’ve been moving in that direction anyway, this just catapulted us to a new level,” he said. “I think my office will be 75-80 percent remote in the next five years anyway. This has just moved the bar forward and people are now looking for ways to do things remotely.”

Though Johnson and his staff miss daily courthouse socialization, safety must come first, he said. 

“We get into a routine where people are used to coming to the courthouse, and we love for them to come,” Johnson said. “That’s good for everybody and it’s good for camaraderie; (politically) I meet a lot of people that way. Coming to the courthouse is great, but right now, during these times, it’s a time to take advantage of what’s available.”

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