PARKERSBURG — With COVID-19 cases rising in spots around the country while businesses reopen and people resume activities, public officials might have to consider reimposing recently lifted sanctions even if that comes with a political cost.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, elected in 2016 as a Democrat and seeking a second term this year as a Republican, said June 19 he’ll base his decisions on science and keeping the residents of the state safe.
“The second that I see this thing turn and whiplash back on us, I will shut down whatever I have to shut down,” he recently said during a pandemic press briefing.
With a cumulative positive test rate that has dropped to 1.67 percent and no COVID-19 deaths in a week, West Virginia is doing well compared to many states. But outbreaks at churches, including in Justice’s home county, and cases linked to traveling have officials reminding people that the disease is still a threat.
“I’m absolutely concerned,” Justice said. “I will stay concerned every single day until we get to a drug or a vaccine that stops it.”
The stay-at-home orders that shut down or reduced business activity in states around the country have been a source of frustration, even to people who support them. And men and women whose job status is determined by voters are aware of the potential effect their actions can have at the ballot box, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis and handicapping newsletter from the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“You’d have to be fooling yourself if you think an elected official wouldn’t take politics into” account, he said.
That doesn’t mean elected officials won’t make unpopular decisions if they determine it’s in the interest of public safety, Kondik said.
Eleven states are electing governors this year, including West Virginia, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Utah. Their response to the evolving COVID-19 crisis could be how many politicians are judged, Kondik said.
Some may have positive effects.
“The public health crisis put a lot of governors up front and center,” Kondik said.
Justice faced a contentious Republican primary with his main challenger being Woody Thrasher, his former Secretary of Commerce. Kondik said he expected the incumbent to come out on top, but was surprised by the margin in the June 9 primary.
“I think it’s possible that coronavirus may have helped deflate or de-fang the challenge,” he said.
Justice said he would consider whatever steps are necessary, even making wearing masks mandatory, to keep people safe.
Patrick Miller, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said reinstating restrictions could be polarizing to some people despite many might not understand the need.
“I don’t think there is a strong case to say they would oppose it or that they would embrace it with open arms,” he said. “The average American is not the person who is out burning masks, and they’re not the person who is saying on Facebook ‘If you leave your house, you’re going to die.’ … Most people are doing things like limiting social contact (and) wearing masks.”
Miller said the nation didn’t have modern polling with the pandemic of 1918, so it’s hard to gauge the potential political impact when it comes to what might happen this November.
“You look at polling and you have a public that is concerned, seems to understand the situation and may support some measures coming back into place,” he said, “If a governor can connect with that concern.”
Evan Bevins is available at [email protected]
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