Rest of state may open before Northern Virginia, Northam says


UPDATE (May 12): Northern Va. can delay reopening until at least May 28, rest of state still on track for ‘phase 1’ on May 15, Northam says

Previous coverage below

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — During a Monday press conference on coronavirus updates Gov. Ralph Northam said parts of Northern Virginia will likely have a slower Phase 1 re-opening than the rest of the state because of its high COVID-19 case rate.

Northam won’t say for sure if ‘Phase 1’ will start on May 15 until Wednesday, less than 48 hours before some businesses could start easing coronavirus restrictions. Looking at the data on Monday though, Northam said most of Virginia should be ready to move forward.

Meanwhile, leaders in Northern Virginia want to pump the brakes on the reopening process as the region continues to see higher case counts and hospitalizations than the rest of the state.

Northam said NOVA’s positive test rate is 25 percent, compared to most other areas, which are trending closer to 10 percent.

“That’s why the ‘Phase 1’ restrictions are a floor, not a ceiling. While no region may move faster to ease restrictions, we’re open to some regions moving more slowly,” Northam said. “Uniformity across the region is critical to a successful strategy, rather than having restrictions piecemeal across towns or counties.” 

Northam for several weeks was steadfast that he did not want the state to open up different regions at different times because of the risk of people traveling and spreading the disease. On Monday, he said when the rest of the state enters ‘Phase 1,’ he will not restrict people in NOVA from traveling outside the region but he’s encouraging people not to. 

He said he’s still collaborating with NOVA leaders to determine exactly how long the delay could be. 

While some argue the governor’s guidelines are going too fast, the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association says they’re too restrictive. 

The VRLTA said it doesn’t agree with the decision to only let restaurants serve customers outside at 50 percent capacity — in addition to take-out and delivery — when big box stores continue to welcome people indoors with additional safety measures. 

The organization said they’re also “perplexed” that beaches will remain closed for sunbathing and swimming as nearby states like Maryland and North Carolina begin opening these spaces. 

It’s worth noting that Maryland’s beaches are also currently open only fitness and fishing.

Northam’s office said they’re evaluating each guideline by looking at the number of likely contacts, the intensity of those contacts and the ability to mitigate risk. For example, they said the act of eating at a restaurant is more intimate and time-consuming than stopping by a retail shop.

The governor said each phase should last between two and four weeks, depending on the data. 

“Hopefully ‘Phase 2’ will be indoor dining at 50 percent capacity, no standing at bars, tables 6 feet apart. These are all recommendations we’ve heard from our business task force,” Northam said. 

Northam said his decision ultimately falls back to customers and employees feeling comfortable participating in the economy. 

As the reopening process nears, Virginia continues to rank lower than most states on testing, according to some analyses.

Northam emphasized that 9,801 tests were administered in Virginia on Monday, just short of his administration’s 10,000-per-day goal.

Former Health Commissioner Dr. Karen Remley, appointed to head a task force focused on testing, said the state will reach its goal of 10,000 tests daily within the week as early supply shortages subside. She said that represents about 3 percent of Virginia’s population.

“The Johns Hopkins [analysis] is a cumulative amount of tests so we’ll never catch up unless we inappropriately just test everybody in the state, which wouldn’t give us information that would help with public health,” Remley said.

“Will we ever be at the top of the list? I don’t think it’s an attainable goal and not one that we should work for,” she continued.

Remley said, moving forward, success doesn’t mean testing everyone but rather testing enough people in each district to have a proportionate picture of the virus’s spread across the state. 

Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey said over 600 people are working to track the contacts of COVID-19 cases so far. Carey said that’s up from about 200 that were already working in local health departments when the pandemic began.  

Northern Virginnia’s positive percentage is about 25%

Carey has said the ultimate goal is to hire about 1,000 new contact tracers. Northam’s office said that, since NOVA isn’t starting ‘Phase 1’ yet, there are enough contact tracers to begin the reopening process safely. 

During ‘Phase 1,’ social gatherings of more than 10 people will still be banned. Teleworking and face coverings will continue to be encouraged.

Here are the latest guidelines for businesses under Executive Order 61.

  • Retail stores can open at 50 percent occupancy
  • Restaurants, coffee shops and bars can have outdoor seating at 50 percent occupancy
  • Personal Grooming services, like barbershops and hair salons, can open with one patron per service provider by appointment only.
  • Gyms can hold outdoor classes.
  • Campgrounds can have short-term stays.
  • Places of worship can have 50 percent occupancy and continue drive-in services’

Click here for more information about the executive order and here to read about guidelines for specific businesses.

DMV closure extended

Northam has extended the closure of in-person services at Virginia’s DMV one more week, until Monday, May 18. “Please remain patient,” Northam says in a message to young people who are eligible for drivers licenses.

Full press conference below:

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