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Live, outdoor ‘Mountain Stage’ show put on in Huntington

HUNTINGTON — The sounds of blues and soul — plus a little bit of local flavor — rang out from Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Friday as “Mountain Stage” took place in front of a live audience for the first time in more than a year.

The Huntington performance featured St. Paul and The Broken Bones, A.J. Croce, blues singer Shemekia Copeland and West Virginia’s own Ona. Presented by Mountain Health Network, the special outdoor show was part of the city of Huntington’s 150th anniversary celebration.

The city has additional events planned throughout the year to mark the celebration of its 150th birthday, including an exhibit at the Huntington Museum of Art from Sept. 18 through Jan. 16, 2022, focusing on the sesquicentennial. There will also be a time capsule closed Oct. 22, Huntington founder Collis P. Huntington’s 200th birthday.

Parts of the celebration have been ongoing, such as the sale of Blenko’s special 150th birthday edition piece or Huntington’s story-sharing campaign encouraging residents to submit stories about why Huntington feels like home.

Those stories and more ways to get involved in the celebration can be found at cityofhuntington.com/huntington150.

City sends cease-and-desist order to downtown bar

HUNTINGTON — The city of Huntington recently issued a cease-and-desist order to a business on 4th Avenue.

The city said Pop’s Lounge, located at 1110 4th Ave., was advertised as an illegal bar. The Huntington Police Department became aware of the bar through social media posts.

A news release from the city said the lessee of the property had repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to get a business license to operate a bar on the property.

“During the past 18 months, the City of Huntington has experienced several episodes wherein illegal bars have opened unexpectedly, and violent criminal activity has ensued,” the release said.

In addition to issuing the cease-and-desist order, the release said the city will “follow with that action with the securing of the necessary warrant or warrants to conduct a raid on the premises should an illegal bar open.”

Tracy Phillips, the owner of Pop’s Lounge, said he applied for a city business license but it was ultimately denied. Phillips, a Black man, said he believes he was denied a license to open because of racism within the city. He said he tried to get a city license for about seven months, originally to put his second business, Spudz Potatoes, at 1110 4th Ave. and then later for Pop’s Lounge.

Phillips held private family events at Pop’s Lounge because he didn’t want the place to stay empty, he said.

“I do feel like there is a serious racism problem in this city as far as when Blacks try to open up businesses,” Phillips said.

Phillips told The Herald-Dispatch he plans to seek legal action, but does not have a lawyer yet. He now plans to open Pop’s Lounge as a gourmet hot dog business and attempt to obtain a liquor license in the future for that restaurant.

“If Mr. Phillips wants to make those allegations (of racism) in court, we will successfully defend ourselves,” City Communications Director Bryan Chambers said.

Phillips moved Spudz Potatoes to a different location, 941 4th Ave. It is currently open for business. Chambers said Spudz Potatoes was issued a business license and certificate of occupancy last week.

City attorney Scott Damron said Friday that he has not heard personally from Phillips or anyone else with Pop’s Lounge. He said Phillips was denied a license for a bar because he is disqualified from obtaining a liquor license in West Virginia. Because of privacy, Damron said the city cannot disclose a disqualifying reason.

“We informed him that if he was able to obtain (a West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration) license from the state of West Virginia, we would issue a business license to him for a bar,” Damron said.

He added that it was the city’s understanding that Phillips would not qualify in the future for an ABCA license, thus he would not be eligible for a city license to operate a bar.

Damron said the Huntington Police Department had not visited Pop’s Lounge while it was in operation. He said, upon information and belief, the lounge was in illegal operation once or a few times and HPD was made aware of operations after the fact.

Phillips said police visited Pop’s Lounge five or six times.

Damron said that if the city finds future attempts of illegal business operations in general, “We will find out about it and shut it down.”

The cease-and-desist order comes as two possible ordinances relating to illegal business operations have been discussed at Huntington City Council meetings.

At Monday’s meeting, council voted to amend one of the ordinances, which relates to inspections after a business license has been issued. As amended, the ordinance says the director of the Division of Finance will notify the mayor or the mayor’s designee within a week of issuing a business license. Within a month, the mayor or the designee may inspect the business to “determine whether the business is being conducted in a manner consistent with the licensing information and in a lawful manner.” Periodic inspections would be allowed to follow.

Because the ordinance was amended in a 6-5 vote, it will have a second reading at the next City Council meeting April 26.

The council also discussed another ordinance Monday relating to adult game rooms. The ordinance provides definitions for what businesses are adult game rooms and requirements that they must meet in order to operate within the city, such as getting licenses from the city and the ABCA to serve alcohol. This ordinance will have a second reading at the next City Council meeting.

The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia sent Damron a letter via email regarding the amendment Monday during the City Council meeting. According to a copy of the letter, the ACLU-WV had concerns with the proposed ordinance going against Fourth Amendment rights in the U.S. Constitution. The ordinance did not provide a mechanism for business owners to contest a government search.

“It is not a legitimate government interest to blanketly permit warrantless searches of businesses,” said the ACLU letter, which was signed by Legal Director Loree Stark. “Law enforcement have a venue by which they may do that in a way that is constitutionally compliant: establishing cause sufficient to procure a warrant.”

“We don’t agree with their reading of the ordinance,” Damron said Friday.

He said the city did send a response to the ACLU. Stark did not return a request for comment Friday.

The ordinances are needed, Damron said, because they apply “to an issue over the last 18 months.” The city has previously said that some businesses have attempted to obtain a business license but operate illegally.

Seven people were injured after a shooting at Kulture Hookah Bar on New Year’s Day in 2020. The city later said the business did not have proper permits, including a state liquor license. The city is currently in a lawsuit with the owners of Gary’s Place, which was the site of a double homicide in 2020. More recently, two were injured in a February shooting reported at Roberts Game Room/Marigold.

Governor frustrated over W.Va.’s plunging COVID-19 vaccination rate

CHARLESTON — With state COVID-19 vaccination rates dropping precipitously in recent weeks, Gov. Jim Justice called on the 650,000 eligible West Virginians who have not been vaccinated to step up and do their part.

“I don’t get it. Why are we not finishing this thing up?” Justice said during Friday’s state COVID-19 briefing. “Why are we not finishing the race when the race is ours to win?”

West Virginia dropped to 42nd Thursday on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination tracker. It initially was among the top states in vaccine administration.

The state’s COVID-19 dashboard showed that West Virginia had administered 13,667 vaccine doses since Sunday, less than half the 28,432 administered during the same period last week and about a third of the 39,974 administered during that period two weeks ago.

Asked about a New York Times story showing red states, such as West Virginia and Alaska, falling behind blue states in vaccine rollouts with distrust of government and vaccine hesitancy sapping demand, Justice said, “Red state, blue state — it doesn’t matter. We need to lead the way.”

Part of the decline is simple math, he said, as 680,000 of the approximately 1.35 million eligible West Virginians 16 and older already have had at least one dose.

“The low-hanging fruit, the people really, really wanting to get the vaccine, they’re already out of the way,” Justice said.

James Hoyer, head of the state Interagency Task Force on Vaccination, said a drop-off in vaccination rates was to be expected after the state started off “fast and furious” to vaccinate those most gung-ho to get their shots.

“Right now, supply is above demand,” Hoyer said. “So our efforts are to educate people and make it easy to get.”

State officials are encouraging businesses, churches, parent-teacher groups, garden clubs and other organizations to host vaccination events, he said.

Justice downplayed the possible role of politics in the vaccination rate plunge. He said misinformation is being spread about the shots. Some state employees are declining to be vaccinated because of a rumor that PEIA, the state insurer, will not pay life insurance claims for people who die after being vaccinated, since the federal Food and Drug Administration has given only emergency-use approvals to the vaccines.

“This is completely and totally false,” the governor said of the rumor.

Justice said he was dumbfounded to learn that none of the players on the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team he coaches accepted an offer to be vaccinated. One player tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. He said that could result in an abrupt ending to the team’s season for a second year in a row.

State health officials said vaccinations are critical, as new variants of the virus reach West Virginia. That includes the first known case of the highly infectious Brazilian variant, reported in Berkeley County.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s COVID-19 czar, cited federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures showing that of the 77 million Americans who have been vaccinated, 5,800 have contracted the virus.

He said COVID-19’s overall fatality rate of 1.8% drops to less than one-10,000th of 1% in people who have been vaccinated.

“We know these vaccines are incredibly effective and incredibly safe,” Marsh said.

Justice was exasperated at the lower vaccination numbers.

“We’re begging West Virginians to not die. We shouldn’t sit here and be begging and pleading with people to go get their vaccinations,” he said. “What are we waiting on, the ambulance showing up at the house? I’d hate to think that the only thing that is going to snap us into reality is the body bags. We’re not concerned nearly to the level we should be.”