BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — Throughout the pandemic, state and federal officials have advised people to follow social distancing guidelines and avoid large gatherings. In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice has issued several executive orders restricting the numbers of people at social gatherings to 25 and 10 in counties that are “gold,” “orange” or “red” on the state’s color-coded map.
There are some exemptions for religious gatherings, including weddings and funerals. How the exemptions are interpreted or used is where things get murky. This has come to the forefront during a recent controversy involving Harrison and Taylor counties.
On Nov. 14, an event was held at the 4T Arena. The facility, which is described as an event venue, has a Bridgeport address, but is just across the line in Taylor County.
Prior to the event, a teacher who works at Bridgeport High School repeatedly called the Harrison- Clarksburg Health Department asking for permission to hold a homecoming dance at the 4T Arena, according to Grafton-Taylor Health Department Information Officer Shawn Thorn. The teacher was referred to health department counterparts in Taylor County, who denied the request multiple times due to COVID-19 restrictions, Thorn said.
After being told “no” several times, by health officials, the event’s planners then claimed that they were instead having a “vow renewal” ceremony at the venue and invited more than 200 people to the event, according to Thorn.
Taylor County’s health department could not do anything to prevent the event from happening due to the religious gathering exemption, which includes vow renewals, Thorn said.
The teacher’s employer, the Harrison County Board of Education, also tried to prevent the event from happening, but because the event was private and in another county, there was not much the board could do to stop it, Superintendent Dora Stutler said.
So, was it a vow renewal, a homecoming dance, or both? 12 News reached out to 4T Arena officials, who said they do not discuss their client’s information.
12 News has obtained social media posts, tagged at the 4T Arena with pictures of teenagers in traditional dance attire, some using the term “foco,” which is internet shorthand for “fake homecoming.”
***Editor’s note: we have chosen not to publish these posts and photos because they involve minors.
12 News also came across a Facebook comment, left by an adult, on a post about the event, which encourages people who attended the event to take down pictures.
4T owners told 12 News that the event had approximately 60 people in attendance and that the venue is 14,000 square feet.
Owners also said that the clients took “every possible precaution for COVID-19 safety” and everyone wore masks to the event and those who didn’t were provided them before they entered. Owners also said that they took temperatures before letting anyone inside.
There was at least one person at the event who was COVID-19 positive, according to health department officials from both Harrison and Taylor counties.
Did the event result in further positive cases? No one seems to be sure. 4T owners say there have not been any confirmed cases as a result. Taylor County health officials have said the same, but with the event organized around a Harrison County high school, any positives are unlikely to show up in Taylor County’s COVID-19 data. With mass community spread at its current rate, it has become difficult for the Harrison County health officials to trace positive cases back to singular events, according to Executive Director Chad Bundy, citing a recent day when 94 new cases came in to his office.
Contact tracing information is only as good as the information community members give health department workers, Bundy also said.
“Harrison County Schools absolutely did not sanction that event,” said Superintendent Stutler. Stutler noted that the board officials contacted the health department as soon as they learned about the event.
Bridgeport High School’s principal held a discussion with the teacher in relation to the event, Stutler said, but due to it being a personnel matter, Stutler could not confirm whether or not the employee would face any disciplinary action.
When 12 News described the situation to Gov. Justice, he had the following reaction:
“We can’t be the police force to everybody all across the state. For crying out loud, what you’re speaking of is exactly what we should not be doing. Exactly what we should not be doing! “
Justice compared the situation to a youth football tournament, planned in the southern part of the state, that he had shut down when he learned of it.
“We still have people that are gaming the system,” Justice said.
The governor also made reference to parents and coaches who are taking kids to out-of-state sports tournaments.
“We’ve got to be on our game better than this. The governor can’t be the police force for everybody, but for crying out loud, we see it, we see it everyday and so what you’re describing (the 4T event) is exactly, exactly what the problem is,” Gov. Justice continued.
State Health Officer Dr. Ayne Amjad also offered her own reaction:
“We get multiple calls like that throughout the day and if not, throughout the week. Those are events that we’re concerned about. They can spread COVID-19 and we don’t recommend them. It’s hard for us(the WV DHHR) to address them if they’re held on private property. We do try to call several of those places and encourage them not to be held, but it is difficult when they’re held on private property, but we do not encourage people to hold large events like that at all, but it’s very difficult to address them. We don’t recommend them at all.”
“I hope to goodness that everybody’ll understand that a public gathering is about the dumbest thing we could possibly do at this time,” Gov. Justice said summing up his December 4 COVID-19 briefing.