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As pandemic looms over WVa Legislature, masks not required

January 7, 2022 GMT
FILE - In this March 12, 2020, file photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Citing a nursing shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Justice announced Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, that West Virginia will use $48 million in federal stimulus funding to aggressively recruit and train nurses over the next four years.. (F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP, File)
FILE - In this March 12, 2020, file photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Citing a nursing shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Justice announced Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, that West Virginia will use $48 million in federal stimulus funding to aggressively recruit and train nurses over the next four years.. (F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP, File)
FILE - In this March 12, 2020, file photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Citing a nursing shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Justice announced Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, that West Virginia will use $48 million in federal stimulus funding to aggressively recruit and train nurses over the next four years.. (F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP, File)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The leaders of the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates said Friday they won’t require masks in their respective chambers at the start of the legislative session next week despite record numbers of COVID-19 cases in the hub of state government.

Senate President Craig Blair and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, both among the majority Republicans, said they were willing to act if the circumstances warranted.

The Senate’s minority leader, Greenbrier County Democrat Stephen Baldwin, said he’s worried that the virus “will have an impact on this session.

“I think that’s undeniable,” Baldwin said. “Now, does that mean the session should not continue? No, the session should continue. Life has to continue. But if we want life to continue as normally as possible, then we have to follow public health guidance in order to get back there.”

Baldwin and House minority leader Doug Skaff said most Democrats will wear masks, although the choice is an option.

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“I think it just comes back to being respectful of everybody,” Skaff said.

Blair, Hanshaw, Baldwin and Skaff participated in an online forum with the media as part of the West Virginia Legislative Lookahead. The annual event typically is held in person but was moved online for the second straight year because of the pandemic.

Gov. Jim Justice will give his State of the State speech in the House chamber next Wednesday, the first day of the legislative session. Justice is an invited guest for the speech, so the rules of the House will be in place.

House communications director Ann Ali said face masks won’t be required during the governor’s speech but “that could change between now and then, based on circumstances and the guidance and recommendations of local health leaders.”

Justice has declined to reissue an indoor mask mandate after lifting one last summer when the number of cases statewide dropped significantly.

Lately, they’ve been exploding.

Kanawha County, which includes the city of Charleston, has reported record cases for two straight days this week. Active cases in the county have reached 2,200, a figure not seen since September’s peak.

“This eye-popping number continues to grow and there quite frankly does not seem to be an end in sight,” Dr. Sherri Young of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said in a statement.

Young said her department encourages mask wearing in crowded indoor settings.

Masks were required during last year’s 60-day regular session, along with restrictions on public access to the Capitol and limits on attendance in smaller committee rooms.

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“The only thing that’s going to be different on that is I’m not going to require anybody to wear a mask,” said Blair, who revealed he contracted COVID over the Christmas holidays. “Now, things could change at any point in time. That’s one of the things I tried to do last year was not put a bunch of rules in place.”

Hanshaw concurred.

“We’re starting the process next week under the assumption that we’ll be business as usual up until circumstances warrant some kind of a change,” he said. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we would not make a change.”

Lawmakers discussed a wide variety of priorities for funding and legislation during the session.

Boone County Democrat Ron Stollings, a physician and a member of the Senate Education Committee, said he was concerned with children’s mental health and welfare issues. He said the state’s social services programs for children under age 3 need to be placed on financial “steroids.”

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee welcomed the governor’s earlier proposal to increase salaries of state workers, including teachers, by 5% along with a one-time bonus of 2.5% to offset inflation. But Lee said the state also must address the hundreds of position shortages, including among teachers.

“We’ve been advocating to get our salaries competitive for a number of years,” Lee said. “And until we do that, we’re not going to fill these shortages.”