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After pushback, Justice permits all gyms to reopen Monday

CHARLESTON — West Virginians who have been missing their gym routine can return Monday.

Bowing to pressure from gym owners who wondered why they had not been given a target date for when they could reopen while some competitors were allowed, Gov. Jim Justice announced Thursday that all gyms in the state may reopen next week.

Justice said he received an “awful amount of calls” from frustrated gym owners who were seeing other gyms “push the envelope” of his order permitting wellness centers operated by hospitals or licensed health care providers to reopen this week. One of the gyms “pushing the envelope” was Snap Fitness, which has locations in Cabell, Putnam and Kanawha counties.

“I understand the unfairness,” Justice said. “I do think under the strictness of our guidelines we can move forward and open gyms.”

West Virginia YMCAs were among those making calls to the Governor’s Office. In a letter sent to the governor Monday, the YMCA Alliance — representing all eight Ys in the state — wrote they did not understand why a distinction was made between “wellness centers” and the YMCA.

“We have been made aware that other fitness centers attached to physical therapy locations are planning to reopen under your ‘West Virginia Strong’ plan,” the letter reads. “Our Ys are staffed by professionals and governed by board of directors representing a broad cross-section of the communities we serve.”

According to the executive order that went into effect this past Monday, “wellness centers” that offer exercise therapy, physical therapy, post-operative therapy and rehabilitation services that are operated by a hospital or otherwise staffed by licensed health care providers could begin operating this week.

Eric Tarr, owner of Snap Fitness, a physical therapist and Republican Putnam County state senator, said Tuesday he interpreted the order to mean he could fully open his gym, which operates in conjunction with Generations Physical Therapy. Generations, which has been operating throughout the stay-at-home order as an essential business, is owned by Tarr’s family and operates out of five Snap Fitness locations.

Tarr was not able to be reached for comment Thursday. 

Bob White, owner of Nautilus Fitness Centers in Charleston, said he believed Tarr took advantage of his position as a senator to reopen his gym and created division in the community.

“If he wasn’t open, you wouldn’t see other clubs trying to open,” White said. “People are dying to exercise. If that’s the only place you can go, people are going to lose members. He created this issue in the community.”

White said he had planned to open Monday even before Justice made his announcement.

“You could drive a truck through those guidelines to meet the requirements,” he said.

New guidelines for gyms were released Thursday afternoon. They include restricting building capacity to 40%, closing showers, water fountains and basketball courts, and requiring all staff and members to wear proper protective equipment, including face coverings to the greatest extent possible.

Doug Korstanje, CEO of the YMCA of Huntington, said he was pleased to have a date for reopening, but was disappointed no fitness centers in the state were consulted on the guidelines.

“We believe you should be able to take a shower,” Korstanje said. “You can space out the showers. I don’t want to be too critical, but I wish they would have consulted us before they released these guidelines.”

It is up to the county health departments to enforce the executive orders and ensure all businesses are following the proper guidelines. Dr. Michael Kilkenny, medical director at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said he would rather guide businesses rather than slap hands, but the department does have the authority to work with the county prosecutor, state attorney general or State Police to ensure compliance.

Korstanje said the YMCA will reopen Monday and move forward under a phased approach developed with local health experts. He said he is excited to see members returning to the gym next week.

Gym-goers expressed both excitement and hesitation at the reopenings on social media Thursday.

“I have already been back this week with my trainer,” said Sami Abbas, of Barboursville, on Twitter. “I already knew people were dirty before COVID-19, and I continue to use common sense and wash my hands (and) use hand sanitizer through the day. I choose freedom with a dash of common sense over forced lockdown.”

Angelo Fioravante, of Huntington, said he won’t be returning to the gym for a few more months at least.

“I’ve got family I’m worried about, so I can do squats and things safely at home,” he said on Twitter. “I had one friend call another friend last night to get a mask so he could rush to a gym. I don’t think those who are excited are ready.”

Santos Alvarez, of Proctorville, Ohio, who attends CrossFit in Huntington, fell in the middle.

“Our CrossFit classes are pretty small, so I’m comfortable in the sense of risk pool and also trust the other members to look out for each other sanitation-wise as well as staying away if feeling sick … my Planet Fitness membership, not so much,” Alvarez said.

Former Schooner’s restaurant barge moved for renovations

HUNTINGTON — The former Schooner’s restaurant has left town for a week’s stay in South Point, Ohio.

The area around the restaurant barge at the Guyandotte marina was as busy Thursday as it has been in a long time. Two boats and a crane barge from McGinnis Inc. were there to remove the barge from its moorings so it could be taken away for inspection and repairs in preparation for reopening this summer.

Kenny Boggs, who with his partner, Jason Tolliver, owns the Schooner’s barge and the marina at Guyandotte, said the restaurant has been leased to Carl Bailey, owner of the Fly In Cafe at Lesage. The barge was to be towed to McGinnis Inc. at South Point, where its hull will be inspected and any needed repairs can be made. Then it will return to Guyandotte.

That process should take about a week, he said. “Two weeks, max.”

Renovation of the restaurant’s interior has begun, and it will continue when the barge returns, Boggs said.

When the restaurant opens, Boggs said, it will have a new name: Pier One.

“We’re shooting for mid- to late July to open the restaurant. We’re excited,” Boggs said as he and about two dozen onlookers watched McGinnis workers prepare the barge for removal.

Boggs said getting the restaurant back in business is a step in building business at the marina. He said the marina had new fuel tanks installed last year as part of that effort.

The work Thursday drew the attention of boat owner Chris Scott, of Huntington, who said he has had a boat at the marina for about three years. He said he was happy to hear the restaurant should be back in business soon, as it has been closed all the time he has had a boat there.

“It’s going to be a good thing for the Huntington area,” he said.

Hurricane, W.Va., family takes nothing for granted after COVID-19 ordeal

HURRICANE, W.Va. — “COVID-19” and “coronavirus” are words that have changed more than just the vocabulary of one family in Hurricane, West Virginia.

For the Vovk family, the grim reality of those terms has completely altered the way they look at life.

For Brandon and Lori Vovk and their two daughters, life is more precious now. As a family, they refuse to take anything for granted anymore.

That is because of the nightmare they lived through, which began March 31 — the day Brandon was taken by ambulance to the emergency room while his wife and daughters watched helplessly. That was the day he tested positive for COVID-19.

“A week prior to going to the hospital, I had a low-grade fever and body aches,” Brandon recalls. “I went to my primary care physician and tested negative for the flu. Because I didn’t have the ‘textbook’ symptoms of COVID-19, we assumed it was just one of the many viruses going around. I was only to be tested for COVID-19 if I developed any of the symptoms associated with it: cough, high fever or difficulty breathing.”

Five days later, the Cleveland native experienced difficulty breathing, though he still had neither cough nor high fever. Two days after that, he was staring into the worried faces of his doctors at Cabell Huntington Hospital. They had seen the X-ray of his lungs and monitored his oxygen levels. Even before the rapid COVID-19 test results were in, the doctors knew: Brandon Vovk was one of the first people in Putnam County reported to have the virus that had traveled around the world.

It was surreal. The Vovks were living “normal” lives — Lori, a teacher, and Brandon, employed in the automotive business. The couple were preparing to celebrate their 18th anniversary in a few months. They were busy raising their school-age children in Hurricane, far from the headlines and the spotlight.

But that changed instantaneously. When word of Brandon’s illness reached the community, the Vovk family became “known” across the county. Churches and individuals mobilized to help Lori and the girls. And to pray.

“Our family, friends and community went above and beyond for our family,” Lori marvels. “The No. 1 thing the community did was pray. People covered our family with prayer each and every day, all day.”

There were also fundraisers, donations, gifts, cards, messages of encouragement and grocery deliveries.

Those grocery deliveries were essential, because Lori and her daughters were immediately put under quarantine for 14 days following Brandon’s diagnosis.

“My girls and I had to be tested for COVID-19 as well,” Lori said. “My oldest daughter tested positive, but thankfully remained asymptomatic. For 14 days, we had to monitor our symptoms twice daily and report to the health department.”

Meanwhile, Brandon was fighting for his life 25 miles away.

“I was in the hospital for a total of three weeks, and for two of those, I was on a ventilator and unconscious. Therefore, I don’t remember very much,” Brandon admits. “I know the doctors, nurses and entire staff on the ICU floor worked tirelessly to ensure I received the best care. I am told that they printed out pictures of my family to hang in my room, they talked to me about my wife and children, and many even prayed over me. My treatment included being placed on a specialized prone table, and I would spend 16 hours a day in this position. After being on my back for a short break, I would then return to the prone position once again.”

At first, Lori’s only communication with her husband was through his doctors.

“I waited anxiously by the phone for any news the doctors might have,” she remembers. “For the longest time, the phone calls weren’t promising. I was told things like, ‘He’s very, very sick’ and, ‘We’re doing all we can to save him.’”

Initially, Lori was in shock, numb. When Brandon was taken away by ambulance, she assumed that he would just need some basic treatment and medication and then he would return home. She wasn’t ready to accept the seriousness of the situation at first.

But once she fully acknowledged the dire straits Brandon was in, it was hard for her to carry on as if things were normal.

“I tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for my girls but wanted more than anything to shut down,” Lori confesses. “I couldn’t be by my husband’s side, holding his hand. I was afraid of the unknown; I never knew what the doctors would tell me each day. Would it be good news? Would it be bad news? I had a lot of support, yet I still felt very alone. I missed my husband.”

She continues, “I know it was only by God’s grace that I was able to find the strength to get up each day and move forward despite all of the uncertainty.”

Brandon was moving forward as well. What some people have called a miracle occurred.

“On April 14, I was taken off the ventilator and, for the first time in two weeks, I took my first breaths on my own.”

Not a man for the spotlight, Brandon, nevertheless, was being watched anxiously by folks on his floor at the hospital. Medical professionals and even strangers erupted in cheers, many shedding tears, as he came off the ventilator.

Sadly for Brandon, his family wasn’t able to be there in that cheering crowd.

“The hardest part for me was not being able to see my family after coming off the ventilator,” he said.

And it wasn’t time to go home yet.

“Physically, I couldn’t do much,” he says. “It took two people to help me walk in the beginning, and I needed physical therapy.”

But on April 20, Brandon Vovk was released, to the relief and delight of his wife and young daughters.

And his recovery continues.

“To this day, I still notice that I have some fine motor skill issues and mild vision issues. I also wasn’t fully aware of the psychological impact this would have on me until I got home and truly began to try to process everything,” Brandon said.

His family is helping him with that.

“We are taking it one day at a time,” Lori explains. “Brandon’s recovery has truly been amazing, an absolute miracle. Yet he still has some issues that he is working through, and we are working through them as a family. When something new comes up, we deal with it together.”

The Vovks appreciate the togetherness of family and don’t take each other for granted anymore.

“My wife kept the family together even when things were at their worst,” Brandon says. “Lori is my hero. She had the hardest part. I had the easy part; I just had to stay alive. I consider myself to be the luckiest man in the world.”

Lori echoes that sentiment: “We have been blessed far more than we deserve, and we are forever grateful. This experience has brought us closer together and taught us not to take one single day for granted.”

W.Va. unveils ‘high alert’ system for monitoring COVID-19 in counties

CHARLESTON — West Virginia officials are using a new system to monitor COVID-19 spread in the counties.

Dr. Cathy Slemp, state health officer, on Thursday explained the new “high alert” system health officials have developed to better monitor spread of the virus as more businesses reopen, thus sending more residents into the community.

A rise in cases will trigger rapid assessment and guide action based on a seven-day rolling sum of new, non-outbreak-associated cases based on population size. The Bureau for Public Health will examine additional data and undertake a rapid joint assessment with county health officials.

Following the rapid assessment and examination of data that suggest an increase in community transmission, the county may be designated by Gov. Jim Justice as “high alert.” Depending on the individual county circumstances, action plans will include providing or assigning needed resource supports and/or strongly reinforcing or potentially increasing community mitigation measures.

Once on the heightened alert list, a county will stay on it until a consistent decrease in community spread of COVID-19 is seen. Removal from the alert list will be based on data and in collaboration with the local health department.

“This approach will provide a consistent way to allow West Virginia to return to work, while ensuring that we are monitoring for and taking aggressive steps to prevent the resurgence of the virus,” Slemp said.

Justice on Thursday announced more businesses and industries that can reopen. Along with all gyms being permitted to open Monday, May 18, Justice added whitewater rafting and zip-lining businesses to the list of those permitted to reopen Thursday, May 21. Guided rock climbing can resume May 22.

“All you’ve got to do is do what you’ve already done. Don’t drop your guard,” Justice said. “This situation is still with us. Don’t get upset with me if we have to shut it back down. We will to protect our people.”

Three new deaths were reported Thursday — a 70-year-old man from Wayne County, a 76-year-old woman from Kanawha County and an 81-year-old woman from Jackson County — bringing the total to 62. Justice said the deaths were a “catastrophe like nobody’s business.”

Thirty new positive cases were identified Thursday, bringing the state’s total to 1,434. As of 5 p.m., 68,978 laboratory results had been received for COVID-19, with 67,544 negative.

Confirmed cases by county are: Barbour (seven), Berkeley (200), Boone (nine), Braxton (two), Brooke (three), Cabell (53), Clay (two), Fayette (36), Gilmer (eight), Grant (six), Greenbrier (eight), Hampshire (11), Hancock (12), Hardy (25), Harrison (34), Jackson (137), Jefferson (96), Kanawha (201), Lewis (four), Lincoln (five), Logan (14), Marion (46), Marshall (23), Mason (14), McDowell (six), Mercer (12), Mineral (26), Mingo (three), Monongalia (114), Monroe (six), Morgan (17), Nicholas (nine), Ohio (37), Pendleton (five), Pleasants (two), Pocahontas (two), Preston (15), Putnam (29), Raleigh (10), Randolph (five), Ritchie (one), Roane (eight), Summers (one), Taylor (eight), Tucker (four), Tyler (three), Upshur (six), Wayne (95), Wetzel (six), Wirt (three), Wood (44) and Wyoming (one).

In Ohio, one new positive case was identified by the Lawrence County Health Department, bringing the total to 27. Twenty-four have recovered, according to the health department.

Gov. Mike DeWine announced several new dates for certain businesses and industries to reopen. On May 21, campgrounds can reopen, and on May 22, horse racing with no spectators can resume. On May 26, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, gyms and fitness centers, and low-contact or no-contact sports leagues may resume, and public pools may reopen. Child care will resume May 31, as well as day camps.

There were 636 new positive cases reported in Ohio on Thursday, bringing the total to 26,357, and 51 new deaths, for a total of 1,534.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear announced gatherings of 10 people or less can begin May 22, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

The Ashland Board of Commissioners announced Central Park will reopen Saturday, May 16, to walking traffic from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Playgrounds, the dog park, restrooms and all athletic courts will remain closed.

Poage Landing Days, scheduled for September, was canceled by the Poage Landing Board. The annual festival brings thousands to downtown Ashland each year. In a release, the board said the amount of advanced planning required does not allow them to wait and see what will happen with the pandemic.

There were 199 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Kentucky on Thursday, bringing the total to 7,225, and two new deaths, for a total of 328.

Across the U.S., more than 20,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported Thursday, bringing the country’s total number of cases to 1,384,930, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been 83,947 deaths related to the virus.

The Associated Press reports that for most people, the novel coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.