CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has ordered the loosening of pandemic restrictions on businesses after a decline in coronavirus deaths and cases, and he sought the return of all elementary and middle school students to in-person learning.
In a flurry of announcements, the governor on Friday said small businesses and grocery stores can double their allowed capacity and the limit on social gatherings will go up from 25 to 75 people. Bars and restaurants can allow 75% of seating capacity, up from 50%, if social distancing is possible.
Justice said all teachers and school workers over the age of 50 who accepted the offer for a vaccine will be given their second doses next week. He said he is asking the school State Board of Education to bring all students from kindergarten to eighth grade back to classrooms.
Justice said “without any question” parents would still have the right to keep their students at home with virtual learning.
“I truly believe you’ve got to move on,” said Justice, adding mask-wearing is still required in public. “Without any question, we would all be really foolish if we didn’t think things could slip back, and if they slip back, we have to adjust” restrictions.
The loosening of rules comes as deaths linked to the coronavirus have nosedived 70% in six weeks and cases plummet. Currently 14.5% of the state’s 1.78 million population have received at least one of the vaccine doses, and 8.7% of residents are fully vaccinated, the second highest rate in the country.
There were 187 confirmed coronavirus cases reported Friday. Hospitalizations are down 64% from a peak in early January to 293 patients.
The state has not reported the detection of any of the coronavirus variants yet. The state’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, said the current vaccines appear to offer protection from variants, citing studies from Israel.
Justice said his executive orders on businesses and social gatherings would take effect at midnight. The State Board of Education will decide on his recommendation for schools. Justice said the cap on bars and restaurants could be entirely lifted within weeks, barring a surge in cases.
The number of patrons grocery stores can allow in stores will rise from 3 to 6 people per 1,000 square feet. Retail and small business shops will be able to take in 4 people per 1,000 square feet, up from 2 people.
Live music performances will also be allowed again, barring vocals and wind instruments, the governor said.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.