Gov. Northam tightens restrictions in Hampton Roads, despite White House expert’s push for statewide roll back

Virginia Politics

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam is rolling back reopening in Hampton Roads as cases there surge but stopped short of doing so statewide.

Gov. Northam’s announcement came after a private meeting Tuesday with Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House. Virginia was her last stop on a five-state tour, which also included Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. She said she came to all of these states with the same message: put additional mitigation measures in place before things get worse. 

Northam took some of her advice but not all of it. Starting this Friday in Hampton Roads, the governor is reducing indoor dining to 50 percent capacity, banning alcohol sales after 10PM and requiring restaurants close by 12AM. He’s also reducing the cap on public and private social gatherings to 50 people max.

Northam said these actions are largely to reign in the rising cases among young adults, who are increasingly socializing without masks.

“You just don’t care as much about social distancing after you’ve had a couple of drinks. That’s when the virus gets spread and that’s why we’re taking this action,” Northam said.

Birx advised Northam to close bars ‘where social distancing isn’t possible’ and limit indoor dining, adding that these measures should ideally be implemented statewide. Birx said states that have closed bars and mandated masks, like Arizona and Texas, have already seen positive results.

“It could really prevent Virginia from having the experience that our southern states have had by starting mitigation efforts sooner rather than later,” Birx said. “We do know across the south where the epidemic is now in every single county in most of these states that it’s important to do it statewide.”

Under Phase Three, which the rest of the state remains in, Northam lifted capacity limits at restaurants but maintained the ban on bar seating. Virginia has rules requiring all establishments that serve liquor to also serve food so it’s not clear which businesses would’ve fallen under the statewide bar closure that Birx recommended.

Northam said he will continue to monitor health data to determine if restrictions need to be reinstated elsewhere. For now, the governor said trends are relatively stable in 4 out of 5 health districts. The state’s overall test positivity rate is 7.3 percent but in the Eastern region it has topped 10 percent.

“What always worries me is if there are people who have gone to the Virginia Beach area or the Portsmouth area or the Hampton area and unknowingly bring the virus back,” Birx said.

For those who vacation outside of Virginia, Northam has yet to formalize self-quarantine mandates as some states have done for residents returning from hot spots. He encouraged 14 days of isolation and said he’s considering further action.

Birx said the White House Coronavirus Task Force has observed multiple outbreaks sprouting from birthday parties, graduations and family reunions. She said people should limit social gatherings to 10 people or less.

In Virginia, Phase Three guidelines currently cap gatherings at 250 people. Starting Friday in Hampton Roads, Northam is cutting that down to 50.

Birx also emphasized the importance of mask wearing, especially in environments where multiple generations are present.

“We’re really calling on every Virginian to understand the importance of a mask, not only a mask in public but potentially a mask at home if you have elderly people or people with comorbidities,” Birx said.

Birx said that all of the governors she spoke to on her tour raised concerns about testing turn-around time, specifically at commercial labs.

Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey said tests being processed by hospitals and the state lab are being returned within 48 hours. When it comes to commercial labs, Carey said people are waiting up to 10 days for results.

Northam called this ‘unacceptable,’ noting that it has become a health equity issue. He blamed the delays on the lack of a national testing strategy.

“I don’t want to point fingers here but this started back in February. There’s been no direction, no program nationally…Governors have had to compete with each other,” Northam said. “It has been a chaotic process–one that I believe could’ve been avoided with more leadership.”

Birx said potential solutions include ramping up pool testing at hospitals. That’s when multiple specimens are screened at once. It’s not clear what the prevalence of pool testing is in Virginia currently.

“We can’t wait for the fall we have to innovate now to expand testing,” Birx said.

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