As the number of new coronavirus cases steadily rose across many parts of West Virginia in the late summer through fall, it became clear that the state would need to rely on county and municipal officials to make decisions to protect public health based on the situations in their communities. Reliance on local officials is likely to continue as we enter the first winter of COVID-19. No one knows how the coronavirus will react to the winter climate, much like no one knew how it would react to the summer heat. Nevertheless, local governments must take seriously the possibility that cold weather combined with flu season could lead to more COVID-19 cases.
Under West Virginia law, political subdivisions like cities, towns and counties have the power to take actions necessary to protect the health and safety of people and property and provide emergency assistance to victims when a disaster has been declared. Governor Jim Justice declared a state of emergency in all counties on March 16, 2020, which is still in effect. At the same time, several localities declared states of emergency in response to COVID-19.
Local government officials attempting to prepare for winter should look to these declarations for guidance. States of emergency declared at the city or county level allow officials to take steps to safeguard their communities. They may provide for:
- Activation of county/city emergency operations plans
- Implementation/activation of emergency operations centers for coordinating information and resources
- Information sharing with other government agencies
- Reimbursement of the locality for expenses associated with fighting coronavirus
- Authority of city managers and similar officials to limit the size of gatherings, restrict operation of bars and restaurants and enact other limitations deemed necessary to protect public health (Morgantown’s September emergency ordinance is one example).
Depending upon the size and intensity of the pandemic as the winter months progress, additional local government responses may need to be implemented.
At Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC, advising local governments is a substantial part of our practice. As we all do our best to grapple with what a COVID-19 winter may bring, we would be pleased to assist your community and its officials in formulating your response. Our offices are strategically located in Charleston, Morgantown, Beckley and Martinsburg, and we can conduct meetings using videoconferencing and related technology. Call 304-344-0100 or contact us online if you would like to talk about your community’s unique needs.