W.Va. governor declines to beef up virus rules in hot spots

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. (F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Friday declined to strengthen coronavirus restrictions in two eastern panhandle counties where cases spiked this week.

The Republican governor said his administration discussed the hot spots in Berkeley and Jefferson counties with local health officials and determined that new cases were largely driven by increased testing.

“Everyone concluded at this time that things are OK. Things aren't high alert and things are OK,” he said, a day after publicly weighing a mandatory face mask order for the counties.

Berkeley and Jefferson reported at least 35 cases in a single day this week, Justice said. State health data shows the counties had almost 40 new cases each since Monday.

The state National Guard was dispatched to Berkeley and Jefferson and the state will help local health departments increase testing and contact tracing, officials said. The counties have long been considered as potential hot spots given their proximity to Washington, D.C,. and its surrounding suburbs.

Justice's decision comes just after he moved forward with the most aggressive step of his strategy to lift virus restrictions. On Thursday, ahead of Memorial Day weekend, the governor allowed the reopening of indoor restaurants, tanning salons, malls, big box stores, all-terrain vehicle rentals, campgrounds, the Hatfield-McCoy trails, and whitewater rafting and zipline businesses.

He has also set the next steps of his plan, with swimming pools, bowling alleys, spas and video lottery retailers scheduled to reopen May 30. On June 5, movie theaters and casinos can open. Justice is stressing that people wear face masks as the reopenings occur.

Justice’s reopening plan depends on the cumulative positive test rate remaining below 3% for three days, reversing a previous goal of having the number of new cases drop for two weeks.

At least 72 people in West Virginia have died from the virus and about 1,700 have tested positive, state health data shows.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.