ICYMI: Gov. Jim Justice Urged Businesses to Reopen Safely, but Complaints Say His Luxury Hotel Didn’t
“I do think it is very difficult for the people who are appointed by the governor to enforce the rules the same way as they would for other businesses.”
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice allowed restaurants to open last month and urged them “over and over and over” again to be cautious. But in typical Big Jim fashion, the rules don’t seem to apply to his own businesses.
In the latest for their “Big Jim” series, ProPublica reports there have been several complaints that the Greenbrier Hotel violated Justice’s own health guidelines. State health officials were notified about “unnecessary risk” at the hotel’s luxury steakhouse the very same day Justice lifted his two-month lockdown order.
And while Justice has repeatedly asked West Virginians to wear masks, employees at the Greenbrier are being made to reuse disposable masks or being given reusable masks that were not washed between uses, a move that could result in greater COVID-19 spread.
Read more about Big Jim’s double standards below:
When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice allowed restaurants and bars across the state to reopen in late May, he urged them to follow his administration’s guidance for avoiding the spread of the coronavirus.
“I caution you again over and over and over to be careful in what you do and be cautious,” the governor, a Republican, said at that day’s media briefing.
One of the businesses that has been the subject of repeated complaints for not reopening safely: an upscale steakhouse at The Greenbrier, the luxury resort owned by the governor.
The same day the governor lifted his two-month-old closure order, a local health inspector reached out to state health officials for help in responding to what he worried was an “unnecessary risk” being taken at Prime 44 West, the steakhouse named to honor basketball legend Jerry West, a state native whose silhouette appears in the NBA’s logo.
“We got a call today from a waitress [who] works at a high-end steakhouse in a very prominent resort here in Greenbrier County,” David Ward, a county Health Department sanitarian, wrote to the state’s public health sanitation division, without naming the only such resort in the county.
The waitress reported concerns about “tableside service” at Prime 44 West, such as mixing up Caesar salads, deboning Dover sole and lighting up bananas Foster. According to the complaint, servers can spend as much as 30 minutes in close contact with diners during each visit.
Ward, who is not related to the author of this article, wanted to know if three top officials in the division thought this was acceptable or, if not, what he could do about it.
Jennifer Hutson, program manager at the state Department of Health and Human Resources, responded that Ward couldn’t order the tableside service stopped or mandate specific health protections.
In the month since then, at least two more complaints about safety practices at Prime 44 West and The Greenbrier have been filed with the county’s Health Department, according to records obtained under West Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. In response, a county inspector reminded the resort it should have employees wear masks and encouraged it to follow social distancing guidelines.
The concern about how to respond to the complaints at The Greenbrier illustrates the inherent conflicts of interest posed by a governor who is also ranked by Forbes as a billionaire and the state’s richest man.
“State agencies are put in a very difficult position,” said state Sen. William Ihlenfeld II, a Democrat who sought unsuccessfully earlier this year to toughen state ethics rules and require governors to place their holdings into a blind trust. “I do think it is very difficult for the people who are appointed by the governor to enforce the rules the same way as they would for other businesses.”
The palatial Greenbrier is at the heart of these conflicts, as a resort that continued to be used by some state agencies after he took office, and is a favored spot for meetings of some of the state’s most powerful lobby groups.
A Greenbrier employee told ProPublica that there are still problems at the resort with noncompliance with the state’s guidance.
“It’s like nothing ever happened,” said the employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “Like they’re in their own little world.”
Jordan Damron, a spokesman for the governor’s office, referred questions to The Greenbrier. Resort officials did not respond to inquiries from ProPublica for this story, but they have said that they have “taken a number of proactive steps to help ensure the health and safety of our guests and team members.”
On Monday, Justice’s reelection campaign sent out an email blast attacking this article’s premise, its author and ProPublica. The email alleged that, after a story last month about the many lawsuits against Justice’s companies, the author, who hasn’t visited the resort this year, “has been spotted around The Greenbrier questioning staff and working to manufacture more smears against Governor Justice.”
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, said the answer to whether things like tableside service at indoor restaurants can be done safely is the same as answers about the safety of other reopening activities: It depends.
These are the kinds of situations that restaurants need help navigating, Wen said, and where local health officials need not only specific rules but backup from the federal government.
“It will be more effective for local officials to say, ‘These are the federal rules, and I am just enforcing those guidelines,’” Wen said. “Local officials don’t want to see waffling guidance like ‘social distancing should be observed.’ They want to see a checklist of steps that must be followed.”
But Justice, fresh from a primary election win on June 9 and a close ally of Trump, has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to issue mandates for things like wearing protective face coverings or masks. He says such an order would be politically divisive.
“We could all batten ourselves down in our houses and we would probably still lose people,” the governor said Wednesday. Justice warned that would destroy the state’s economy. “We have a choice, and we go forward and we try to manage the risk.”