PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — While many states across the U.S. are delaying lifting coronavirus restrictions, or reverting back to earlier phases due to surges in cases, Virginia is taking the plunge into phase 3 on Wednesday, July 1, nearly a month after entering phase 2.

The commonwealth has seen its COVID-19 cases remain on average at less than half of its peak for more than two weeks, and hospitalizations are down more than half of their peak. Deaths due to COVID-19 have also continued to trend down, and the percent of positive cases remains around 6%. Though Hampton Roads has seen its cases go up in comparison to the rest of Virginia.

“We’ve done a marvelous job in Virginia,” Chesapeake Health Department Director Dr. Nancy Welch told WAVY. “I know there’s been some controversy, but if you look at our data, we have had the lowest increase in positive cases, and I think that is because we have had more controlled introduction (of reopening Virginia).”

Meanwhile the U.S. as a whole has seen record daily cases in recent days, especially from the South and West. Neighboring North Carolina is still seeing cases trend up, with cases over 1,000 the last six days. Gov. Roy Cooper delayed phase 3 there.

Here are the biggest differences between phase 2 and phase 3 for Virginia.

The biggest change: Indoor restaurants and bars will have their current capacity limit of 50% lifted, meaning technically restaurants can go to full capacity as long as parties are separated by at least six feet. The capacity limit is also lifted at retail stores with physical distancing still required.

However on Tuesday, Northam announced that bar seating will remain prohibited in restaurants as Virginia moves into phase 3 at midnight Tuesday.

Restaurants may use non-bar seating in the bar area, as long as a minimum of six feet between tables is provided.

“All parties must be separated by at least 6 feet, including in the bar area, (i.e., the 6 feet cannot include the space taken up by the seated guest),” per state guidelines. “If tables are not movable, seat parties at least 6 feet apart, including in the bar area. Spacing must also allow for physical distancing from areas outside of the facility’s control (i.e., provide physical distancing from persons on public sidewalks). All parties, whether seated together or across multiple tables, must be limited to 250 patrons or less.”

Phase 3 Guidelines vs Phase 2 Guidelines

That event limit of 250 people applies to large facilities. Otherwise the limit is 50% of the event space’s capacity, whichever is less.

Phase 3 also means:

  • Zoos, museums can open at 50%
  • Outdoor entertainment such as water parks and amusement parks limited to 1,000 people
  • Gym and fitness centers can go up to 75% of capacity
  • Pools at 75% capacity
  • Hair salons — physical distancing will still be required
  • Overnight summer camps will still be closed

Related: Phase 3 to permit recreational swimming, usher in more people at gatherings
Related: Virginia goes into phase 3 while other states shut down — again
Related: Despite requests, Gov. Northam isn’t changing guest limits for Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion, likely keeping them closed

Bar and restaurant risk

In phase 3, Virginians are still required to wear a face covering in indoor public spaces, but that doesn’t include during eating and drinking, meaning in closed indoor spaces in particular, the virus has the potential to spread easily. Not to mention there are still many Virginians who are opting to forgo face coverings altogether, despite state guidance.

Some restaurants and bars, such as Waterside in Norfolk, are open again but things look different. Places like Waterside have new markers on moving around the bar to get a drink and each table is separated by 6 feet or more

Experts say COVID-19 transmission has mainly come from droplets from one person going directly to another person. That makes bars in particular risky, especially when alcohol comes into play. Health experts say bars can be breeding grounds for the virus, even if business owners follow protocols closely.

At least one study has linked air conditioning systems to virus spread, but experts told NBC News this week there’s still little evidence at this time.

Texas, which had a 50% capacity set in bars and a 75% capacity limit for restaurants starting June 12 under its phase 3 plan, recently had to reverse course after a major surge in cases and hospitalizations. Though Texas had no statewide face coverings mandate in place, and Virginia has had a 50% limit on bars in phase 2 and hasn’t seen a spike in cases.

Florida even went as far as suspending all alcohol consumption at bars statewide last week after cases skyrocketed there. Most counties in Florida enter their version of phase 2 on June 5, which only opened bars at 50% capacity.

The financial impacts of having to switch back and forth are compounding an already dire situation, business owners have reported.


Gyms and fitness centers can go up to 75 percent of capacity, up from 30 percent in phase 2.

Some area pools are requiring 10 feet between guests in the pool — as opposed to the typical 6-foot social distancing guidelines.

Outlook for Virginia

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a medical doctor, said last week he is worried about a possible surge as well in Virginia, and says he’s also willing to go back to phase 2 or even phase 1 if necessary. He still encourages Virginians to stay home when possible and still telework if possible — and don’t forget about the face coverings.

“Everyone should continue to take this pandemic very seriously. Cases are on the rise in many other states,” he said. “I do not want to see that happen in our commonwealth.”

Welch says we can’t let up on wearing face coverings, washing hands and staying physically distant.

“As we gradually reopen, we can’t forget about the exact protective measures that have done just what they are supposed to do: protect us,” she said … “A traffic light is something we have that we have all accepted in our country whereby we all don’t drive by our own free will.  We drive for the protection of everyone, and that’s why we have to wear masks, and social distance for the protection of everyone.”

More on phase 3 can be found here.

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