Northam watching uptick in Hampton Roads’ COVID-19 cases, changes may be made soon

Coronavirus

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says modifications to state coronavirus reopening guidelines may be made as Hampton Roads continues to see a rise in new COVID-19 cases and percent of positive tests.

The region has seen its average of daily cases more than triple in just over the last two weeks, up to more than 220 per day, with the percent of positive cases rising across the board — especially in Norfolk (16.3%). The rest of the state has seen new cases remain mostly flat until Friday, when it reported 934 cases, more than 300 cases over its 7-day average.

Friday’s message at the Dr. Clarence Cuffee Community Center — where 400 got tests and the governor came to speak — was that we are in phase 3 of reopening, but if the COVID-19 positive test spikes continue, we could go back to phase 2.

“We will continue watching the data over the coming days to make sure public health guidelines are being followed—and I won’t hesitate to impose restrictions if needed,” Northam wrote on Facebook.

Northam said all options are on the table, including moving back to phase 2, but there may just be modifications to phase 3.

More coverage: June 10 COVID-19 numbers statewide and in Hampton Roads

He says large gatherings (phase 3 allows up to 250 people compared to 50 in phase 2 and 10 in phase 1) and congregating at bars and restaurants is one of the main reasons why numbers are up. He says he’s considering changing that 250 person limit.

“That is concerning to me, and that is why we are going to continue to follow this closely, and if those numbers continue to go up, if people continue not to follow our guidelines, then we will take measures to keep you and me safe in the Commonwealth of Virginia… If we keep going up, we will have to make modifications in that area and other areas as well,” he said.

Three restaurants in Virginia Beach had to be shut down earlier in the pandemic (during phases 1 and 2) for not following state health guidelines, Northam said, but have since reopened. Northam misspoke at the event, saying the restaurants were in Norfolk, but the health department confirmed with 10 On Your Side they were in the resort city.

The restaurants were:

  • Cocomo Joe’s Beach Bar & Grill (suspended in May)
  • West Beach Tavern (suspended in May)
  • Buoy 44 Seafood Grill (suspended June 18, but reopened the next day) 

These are the only restaurants in Virginia and Norfolk area that have had their licenses suspended since the pandemic began, health officials say.

10 On Your Side asked the governor about Norfolk’s death rate, which more than doubled from 7 to 15 since June 25.

“Same numbers, we are looking at Hampton Roads, and we are watching those numbers closely, and I ask Virginians here in Hampton Roads to do the right thing… Wear masks, social distance, be responsible… So we can all move forward together,” he said.

Northam says we must attack the hotspots like Hampton Roads to remain ahead of the COVID-19 curve.

“We are seeing hotspots. So we need to do as much testing, and add additional amounts of tracers to keep those numbers under controls because all the options are on the table. We need to take it one day at a time, and we will continue to follow the numbers to see what the different regions are doing.”

Cases and contact tracing

Northam also focused on new cases in people under the age of 29, which are up 250% percent from May. Most of Norfolk and Virginia Beach’s new cases are in this category. Northam also reemphasized how the pandemic is affected minority populations across Virginia, which is why the state is focusing on providing free testing at community events going forward.

“One of the first things we need to do, which is one of the reasons we’re out here today, is when we see hot spots is to go in and do as much testing as we can and then have an additional amount of [contact tracers.]”

Northam said Virginia now has 1,200 contact tracers, and an app to help with the process is under development.

School reopening

Northam said he’d still like to try to get students back in schools in person this fall, but if Virginia can’t stay in phase 3 or better than Virginia can’t move forward.

“We need to do it safely and responsibly … it’s not only the children, it’s the teachers, it’s the staff that could contract (the virus) … if our teachers and staff can’t stay healthy then all is moot. It’s up to the community.”

Also on Friday, Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph sent a letter to Northam — his second letter since June 18 — encouraging him to revise his school reopening guidelines. This time, DeSteph cited the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control when saying students should be in school five days a week this fall.

Reopening schools was on the minds of Bob Eckstein and his wife Gerrie.

“We are more concerned about schools, and what they are going to do about the schools, and getting people back to work. That’s my concern, too, I want to know how they’re going to make it up to these kids. All the time they’ve lost. Are they always going to be on the back burner because of this?”

President Donald Trump has told governors across the country to reopen schools in the fall. We asked Northam what he thinks of that,

“I think we need to do it safely, and responsibly, and I think the disconnect there is the mixed messages that we are getting from Washington,” Northam told us.

Northam says the decision to open schools will be based on data.

“If we are going to get back, and get our kids back in school, we need to do it safely, and it’s not only our children, it’s the teachers. It’s the staff that could contract COVID-19.

Teacher associations across the country are raising concerns about their teachers and staff.

The main takeaway, Northam said, is that Virginians need to continue to follow state guidelines, including wearing face coverings, washing hands, staying at least 6 feet apart and avoid large crowds (despite phase 3 allowing 250 people events).

“We can do this, we know that these guidelines work, and all I ask is for Virginians to do the right thing — and most of us are,” Northam said.

Chesapeake Health Department Director Dr. Nancy Welch was also at the testing event.

“Here’s what this brings us to. It brings us to the point that is so difficult for people to understand we don’t have medicine, we don’t have a vaccine, all we have is each other. That’s all we have… It’s up to us.”

Look for an update this upcoming Tuesday during a press conference in Richmond at 2 p.m. WAVY will carry the briefing live.

For more on Virginia and Hampton Roads’ COVID-19 numbers, click here.

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