FILE - W. Va. Gov. Jim Justice

In this Jan. 8, 2020, photo, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice delivers his annual State of the State address in the House Chambers at the state Capitol in Charleston, W. Va.

(The Center Square) – West Virginians will be required to wear a face covering as of midnight when inside a public building and social distancing cannot be observed, Gov. Jim Justice announced Monday.

“I know it’s not the popular thing to do, but as far as wearing some level of face covering … it is at this point in time, the only thing we can do, the only smart thing to do,” Justice said.

Justice said he will sign an executive order Monday with the new mandate. Every person 9 years old or older will be subject to the mandate unless the person has trouble breathing or cannot remove a face mask by himself or herself.

When walking into a building for work, Justice said every person should be wearing a mask unless the area is completely social distanced. If a person has a desk in a socially distanced area, he said that person can remove the mask while at his or her desk. If a person gets up to go to the water cooler or to grab coffee, he said that person should put back on his or her mask.

The governor said people should wear a face mask inside a retail store or when going into a restaurant. While eating or drinking, he said people can remove their face mask.

Justice said he doesn’t think this mandate will be popular, but he said he was not elected to do popular things. He said the face mask will be a minor inconvenience, but that it will save lives.

“It is my job to protect you in every single way that I can,” Justice said.

The announcement came after West Virginia recorded its 94th and 95th COVID-19 deaths. Both were women in their 80s who got coronavirus from the outbreak at Greenbrier County Church. After seeing this news, Justice said the right precautions were not taken at the church to prevent the outbreak, which helped him make the decision to take more aggressive action.

Justice said West Virginia has a particularly elderly, more chronically ill and more vulnerable population than the national average. He said if people wear masks now, they can prevent a surge that could force the state to shut down the economy again.

Brian Abraham, the general counsel for Justice, said he received some phone calls from residents who were concerned they could not legally conceal carry a firearm while wearing a face mask. However, under state law, a person is allowed to conceal carry while wearing a face covering when a civil emergency is declared, and the governor will declare this in the executive order.

If a West Virginian plans to carry in another state, Abraham said they should check local laws.

In all, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has reported 3,356 coronavirus cases since March, with a 1.79 cumulative percent positive. The percent of positive cases daily has been trending up since it was at 0.53 percent June 16. On Sunday, it was 3.76 percent.

Hospitalization numbers also are increasing. On Wednesday, 23 people were hospitalized, and 41 were hospitalized as of Monday.  

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and West Virginia for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.