CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — As the coronavirus raged across the nation, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice wondered why people were looking to him for answers.
Justice, a billionaire Republican with no previous political experience leading a particularly high-risk state, has rambled through mixed messages on the virus, diminishing his credibility with some West Virginians who have said it's been a struggle to discern exactly what he wants them to do.
The low point may have come in a heavily criticized address broadcast statewide Saturday evening, when Justice warned: “If we don’t act and we don’t act as strongly as possible right now, we’re going to lose lives — and lots of lives” just minutes after he declined to order a broad lockdown. As the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the state's largest newspaper, noted in a headline, he urged action but took none.
Justice also offered jumbled sets of numbers that puzzled viewers in their randomness.
“The big $64 dollar question is just this," he said at one point. “We don't want to end up 10 days from today where New York is today.”
The speech represented a low point in a shaky period of gubernatorial leadership, with the role itself seeming to baffle Justice at times. Speaking frankly in another speech last week, Justice cut himself off mid-sentence to interject a thought: “I really don't know exactly why this is this way, but I guess everybody is looking to me or the government for guidance, you know."
That introspective comment came not long after Justice told people that “if you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat,” as health officials and politicians around the world warned people to avoid crowded places.
While governors in neighboring states, such as Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, as well as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have won praise for clear-eyed and specific guidance about the virus, criticism of Justice is coming from all angles.
Outside a grocery store Monday, West Virginia retiree Jim Hale just shook his head when asked about Justice's Saturday night speech.
“I was wanting to listen to what he had to say,” Hale said as he loaded bags into his car. "I don’t know why we all wasted our time.”
Jared Hunt, a spokesman for the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, shared his own take on Twitter, clearly and concisely echoing guidance offered previously by the governor to avoid crowds, practice good hygiene and stay home as much as possible.
“I do believe there's an actual, important message West Virginians should understand tonight — because this is literally a deathly serious situation," Hunt wrote, "But it did get lost in translation.”
Republican Del. Joshua Higginbotham promptly endorsed one of the governor's primary challengers, Woody Thrasher, on Twitter. Thrasher, he wrote, “ can actually speak in coherent sentences. ”
West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a Republican who has sometimes been critical of Justice, said he didn't want to hammer on the governor's statements but acknowledged the confusion around the governor's remarks.
“It's been widely viewed as creating a lot of uncertainty,” he said in an interview.
Justice defended the speech, saying he was told he did a good job at relaying the threat.
“Well first of all, I would be really remissed if I didn't tell you that, you know, my address on Saturday evening, you know, after hours and hours of discussion with these great people behind me, everyone here felt like that I was to go and do exactly what I delivered,” Justice said at a Monday press conference in which he called for more decisive containment steps than he had included in the televised address.
West Virginia, with its high rates of older residents and people with existing health problems, has the nation's highest percentage of adults at risk of developing serious illnesses from the virus, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.
Testing in the state has lagged, as it has nationally. West Virginia was the last state in the U.S. to report a confirmed case, which drew praise from President Donald Trump but was attributed by Justice himself to the low number of tests administered in the state. Less than two weeks ago, West Virginia had tested only 12 people, though that number is now in the hundreds, state health officials said. At least 20 people have tested positive.
The governor last week declared a state of emergency and ordered the closure of bars, restaurants, casinos, gyms, health clubs, recreation centers, barbershops, nail salons and hair salons. Schools statewide are closed until at least March 27.
On Monday, after calls from leaders in the state's capital region for a stay-in-place directive, Justice announced he was going forward with the order to urge people to stay home as well as mandate the closure of nonessential businesses.
Still, problems abound. Dave Ramsey, president and CEO of the Charleston Area Medical Center, which serves the capital region, said health care workers feel “abandoned” by the federal and state governments.
“We can't get the the equipment we need, we can't get the testing we need,” said Ramsey in recorded video. “It's as though they're ignoring the people in the front line that are really taking care of patients in America.”
AP reporter John Raby contributed to this report from Nitro, West Virginia.