When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice allowed restaurants and bars across the state to reopen in late May, he urged them to follow his administration’s guidance for avoiding the spread of the coronavirus.
“I caution you again over and over and over to be careful in what you do and be cautious,” the governor, a Republican, said at that day’s media briefing.
One of the businesses that has been the subject of repeated complaints for not reopening safely: an upscale steakhouse at The Greenbrier, the luxury resort owned by the governor.
The same day the governor lifted his two-month-old closure order, a local health inspector reached out to state health officials for help in responding to what he worried was an “unnecessary risk” being taken at Prime 44 West, the steakhouse named to honor basketball legend Jerry West, a state native whose silhouette appears in the NBA’s logo.
“We got a call today from a waitress [who] works at a high-end steakhouse in a very prominent resort here in Greenbrier County,” David Ward, a county Health Department sanitarian, wrote to the state’s public health sanitation division, without naming the only such resort in the county.
The waitress reported concerns about “tableside service” at Prime 44 West, such as mixing up Caesar salads, deboning Dover sole and lighting up bananas Foster. According to the complaint, servers can spend as much as 30 minutes in close contact with diners during each visit.
Ward, who is not related to the author of this article, wanted to know if three top officials in the division thought this was acceptable or, if not, what he could do about it.
“I don’t see anything explicitly precluding it in the guidelines, but it also appears to possibly be an unnecessary risk,” Ward wrote in an email. “As always, we greatly appreciate the help, especially considering the circumstances!”
Jennifer Hutson, program manager at the state Department of Health and Human Resources, responded that Ward couldn’t order the tableside service stopped or mandate specific health protections.
“You are correct it is an unnecessary risk, but I don’t see that stopping this practice,” Hutson wrote to Ward in a May 22 email. Hutson noted the guidance isn’t mandatory but suggested Ward encourage Prime 44 West to limit the table service. “I know this one is not going to be easy.”
In the month since then, at least two more complaints about safety practices at Prime 44 West and The Greenbrier have been filed with the county’s Health Department, according to records obtained under West Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. In response, a county inspector reminded the resort it should have employees wear masks and encouraged it to follow social distancing guidelines.
The concern about how to respond to the complaints at The Greenbrier illustrates the inherent conflicts of interest posed by a governor who is also ranked by Forbes as a billionaire and the state’s richest man.
Justice owns a vast array of businesses, including coal mines, resort hotels and agricultural companies, many of them regulated by state agencies he controls. Like President Donald Trump, he has declined to place most of his holdings into a blind trust and has continued to guide his empire, despite promising he would be a full-time governor.
“State agencies are put in a very difficult position,” said state Sen. William Ihlenfeld II, a Democrat who sought unsuccessfully earlier this year to toughen state ethics rules and require governors to place their holdings into a blind trust. “I do think it is very difficult for the people who are appointed by the governor to enforce the rules the same way as they would for other businesses.”
The palatial Greenbrier is at the heart of these conflicts, as a resort that continued to be used by some state agencies after he took office, and is a favored spot for meetings of some of the state’s most powerful lobby groups.
A Greenbrier employee told ProPublica that there are still problems at the resort with noncompliance with the state’s guidance.
“It’s like nothing ever happened,” said the employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “Like they’re in their own little world.”
This employee said that resort staff members are being cautioned before their shifts not to talk to the media.
Jordan Damron, a spokesman for the governor’s office, referred questions to The Greenbrier. Resort officials did not respond to inquiries from ProPublica for this story, but they have said that they have “taken a number of proactive steps to help ensure the health and safety of our guests and team members.”
On Monday, Justice’s reelection campaign sent out an email blast attacking this article’s premise, its author and ProPublica. The email alleged that, after a story last month about the many lawsuits against Justice’s companies, the author, who hasn’t visited the resort this year, “has been spotted around The Greenbrier questioning staff and working to manufacture more smears against Governor Justice.”
“Go to Bob Evans and Eat”
Restaurants and bars in West Virginia were ordered closed at 11:59 p.m. on March 17, just after the state recorded its first positive test for the coronavirus. A day earlier, Justice had downplayed any risk to West Virginians who went about their everyday lives. He told residents: “For crying out loud, go to the grocery stores. If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat.”
Since then, West Virginia has been relatively unscathed compared with other states. Through Wednesday morning, West Virginia had recorded more than 2,600 infections and 92 deaths, among the lowest per capita in the country, according to the state Health Department.
Dr. Clay Marsh, executive dean of the West Virginia University medical school, cited the relatively low number of cases and percentage of positive tests as good signs, but he has expressed concerns about community spread through churches and among state residents who go ahead with their traditional summer trips to places like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“I believe we have done very well as a state to date, but we know that rural America is much more likely to be affected during this second phase of the COVID pandemic,” said Marsh, who has been advising Justice and was designated by the governor as his “coronavirus czar.”
On its homepage, The Greenbrier has a red banner that cautions, “Anyone entering resort property will be required to complete a temperature screening. Those with a temperature of 100.4 [degrees] or greater will be denied entrance.”
The resort posted a 10-page COVID-19 response plan on its website. The plan mentions a variety of precautions, including “constant sanitization of public areas, increased attention to high-touch areas in the rooms, limits on the number of guests in particular areas and screening and protective gear” for employees.
Like other restaurants across the state, Prime 44 West reopened under a phased program Justice is calling “West Virginia Strong: The Comeback.”
A guidance document — with a logo that resembles The Greenbrier’s — was issued by the governor’s office, not the state Health Department. Restaurants are told to limit themselves to 50% capacity. Other measures are encouraged, such as using disposable paper menus and limiting contact between workers and diners.
Aside from the complaint about tableside service, the Greenbrier County Health Department has received two others about Prime 44 West and The Greenbrier. One alleged in mid-June that employees were being made to reuse disposable masks or being given reusable masks that were not being washed between uses.
Ward, the same county inspector, checked in via email with Daniel Tatgenhorst, the resort’s chief executive steward. Tatgenhorst wrote back to say that the complaint was false.
Ward, citing Tatgenhorst’s email, wrote in his agency’s computer system that “all employees are issued a disposable mask once they enter the building for every shift. They are not reusing masks at this point but if they do use cloth masks they will disinfect properly.” Ward marked the complaint closed.
Another complaint to the county, made on June 10, again raised issues about tableside service, and it alleged that Prime 44 West was seating customers to more than 50% of its capacity.
This time, a different county inspector, John Wright, did visit The Greenbrier to check on the situation. At about 10 a.m. that morning, he emailed Tatgenhorst to let him know he’d be there at 3:30 p.m. to inspect, records show.
Wright declined to answer questions about his inspection. In the county computer system, he wrote that Prime 44 West “verified” 6 feet of space between tables, the use of laminated menus that could be cleaned between customers, and that the tableside service carts were “not an issue.”
John Ridgeway, a representative of the Greenbrier employee union, said it “seems like” the resort management is responding to any health concerns, but he declined to answer more specific questions.
Hutson at the state Health Department referred questions to Allison Adler, the agency’s media spokeswoman. Adler issued a statement in response to questions about the complaints concerning The Greenbrier. “The guidance for reopening restaurants does not prohibit these activities, but suggests that public health protections be put in place by the establishment to protect both the employees and patrons for all activities that occur at the establishment.”
Sarah Woody, a supervisor at the Greenbrier County Health Department, said it’s tough for her agency to keep up with the actual practices at Prime 44 West.
“They have very limited hours,” she said. “They’re open only in the evenings. So we can’t really check in person what they’re doing. We don’t get paid overtime.”
Woody said her staff is also somewhat limited by state guidance documents that do not “really have a whole lot of teeth in them.”
“I’m sure everybody would like them to be a little bit more clear on what has to be done and what is optional,” she said.
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, said the answer to whether things like tableside service at indoor restaurants can be done safely is the same as answers about the safety of other reopening activities: It depends.
“I could imagine a situation where you could do that tableside service with 6 or 8 or 10 feet distance, or you could just not do it,” said Wen, a former Baltimore city health commissioner. “Someone just walking to your table with a plate would be a lesser risk.”
These are the kinds of situations that restaurants need help navigating, Wen said, and where local health officials need not only specific rules but backup from the federal government.
“It will be more effective for local officials to say, ‘These are the federal rules, and I am just enforcing those guidelines,’” Wen said. “Local officials don’t want to see waffling guidance like ‘social distancing should be observed.’ They want to see a checklist of steps that must be followed.”
But Justice, fresh from a primary election win on June 9 and a close ally of Trump, has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to issue mandates for things like wearing protective face coverings or masks. He says such an order would be politically divisive.
“We could all batten ourselves down in our houses and we would probably still lose people,” the governor said Wednesday. Justice warned that would destroy the state’s economy. “We have a choice, and we go forward and we try to manage the risk.”