RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY/WRIC) — Salons, retail and even more church services are poised to open their doors next week as Virginia enters phase 1 of reopening, while it appears restrictions will stay in place as they are at beaches, restaurants and gyms.

Friday afternoon, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Virginia) announced the state has seen a decline in the percent of positive cases for about two weeks – one of many good signs needed to start ‘phase 1’ of the governor’s three-phase reopening plan.

“I anticipate and hope that phase 1 will start on Friday, May the 15th,” Northam said. “This plan will slowly and deliberately, ease some of the restrictions.”

The governor’s announcement comes on the same day the U.S. Labor Department revealed that the unemployment rate rocketed to 14.7% in April, a level last seen during the Great Depression, as 20.5 million jobs vanished in the worst monthly loss.

Highlights from Northam’s press conference:

Reopening plans

Under phase 1, enhanced safety standards will remain in place. He said people should continue to wear face coverings, telework, and stay home as much as possible. Gatherings of 10 or more are still banned.

“The ‘stay-at-home’ order will become a ‘safer-at-home’ order. That means, while there will be a few more places to go, everyone should still only go there as needed and otherwise stay home as much as possible,” Northam said.

Once the Northam’s order closing non-essential businesses expires, the following restrictions will be in place:

  • Non-essential retail will be allowed to open at 50 percent capacity
  • Restaurants, bars and breweries with outdoor dining areas are allowed to serve at 50 percent capacity, Indoor dining rooms remain closed with takeout and delivery continuing
  • Theaters and amusement activities remain closed
  • Gyms remain closed unless hosting outdoor classes
  • Beaches are open only to fishing and exercise
  • Churches allowed to hold services with 50 percent capacity
  • Salons and barbershops can see clients with appointments only
  • Private campgrounds can reopen

“If they [businesses] aren’t able to meet these restrictions they must remain closed,” Northam said. “No business is required by the state to be open.”

Northam said phase 1 will last for a minimum of two weeks, and that is dependent on health data.

New cases in the commonwealth are still doubling every 16 days, a metric Northam’s administration says is partially being influenced by a recent increase in daily testing.

Virginia passed 800 COVID-19 deaths after 43 new deaths were reported Friday.

State health officials reported 22,342 cases of COVID-19 in Virginia — 21,274 confirmed and 1,068 probable — and 812 deaths tied to the virus. In general, the governor said the next steps depend on testing, tracking and isolating new cases.

When asked a followup question on the use of the percentage of positive cases as a main gauge of reopening progress, Northam said he’s not relying solely on that metric, but other figures, such as number of reported cases per day, etc.

The governor’s decision to not allow more activities to occur at the beach immediately came under fire by Virginia Beach’s state Republican delegation.

State Sens. Bill DeSteph and Jenn Kiggans along with Delegates Jason Miyares and Glenn Davis released the following statement:

“We are extremely disappointed that Governor Northam has decided to keep Virginia’s beaches closed through at least June 5. Last week, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer presented the Governor’s office with a plan for safely bringing people back to our 28 miles of shoreline. Virginia Beach is well equipped to implement the increased cleanings, public awareness campaigns, and physical distance enforcement required to allow the beaches to open safely, if the Governor will allow them to do so.”

“Surging unemployment and shuttered businesses are crippling our economy and causing serious hardships to our citizens. It is our hope that our Democratic colleagues will join us in asking the Governor to reverse course and allow Virginia Beach to reopen safely before Memorial Day.”

Sens. Bill DeSteph, Jen Kiggans, and Dels. Jason Miyares and Glenn Davis

Northam praised Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer’s proposal reopen area beaches safely in his press conference. However, as Acting City Manager Tom Leahy said the night before, all precautions the mayor laid out wouldn’t be ready May 15.

“When we are comfortable that the (COVID-19 case) numbers are continuing to trend down with the data we are following and we are comfortable that the comprehensive plan can be in place then we will allow to ease the restrictions on the beaches,” Northam said.

However, Dyer said he felt encouraged with Northam’s comments.

When asked about restaurant and gym owners hoping to reopen indoors during phase 1, Northam says he took a lot of feedback from restaurant and gym owners and made the decision with them.

“Rather than re-litigate that here… That is what we feel is in the best interest of Virginians,” Northam said. “We’re not opening the floodgates here. We’re not flipping the light switch from closed to open. When the time is right, we will turn a dimmer switch just a notch.”

Unlike Northam’s guidelines, the federal recommendations released as a model for states earlier this spring advised places like movie theaters and sports venues could open under strict physical distancing protocols during ‘phase 1.’

The governor’s decision to only let gyms and restaurants cater to customers outdoors also represents a more restrictive approach than neighboring states like Tennessee, which has begun its reopening process across Virginia’s southwestern border.

Asked why he made these decisions, Northam cited conversations with his COVID-19 Business Task Force: “What I’ve heard from a lot of them is ‘please, please, please take this slowly because if you allow us to reopen and then go back to where we were before and we have to reverse directions we’re at risk of going out of business and never recovering.'”

Northam said that rules he’s laid out for ‘phase 1’ represent the minimum standard for localities.

“I know some communities may choose to go more slowly, particularly in Northern Virginia where they may not feel communities are ready,” Northam said. “I have said that ‘phase 1’ restrictions will be a floor, not a ceiling.”

Northam said each of the three phases of reopening could last two weeks or more depending on the data. He said if the commonwealth sees a surge in cases, he will consider reinstating restrictions.

Push for transparency at long-term care facilities

There’s been a bipartisan push for Virginia to name all long-term care facilities where COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring. Currently, facilities can voluntarily release whether there are cases at their facilities to the public, but are not required to under Virginia code dealing with patient privacy.

Northam and health officials say that Virginia code is interpreted to long-term care facilities as a whole, and not just individuals.

Virginia legislators have since written legislation that would allow the state to release more information from long-term care facilities. When asked if he supports such a bill, Northam was hesitant, saying bills change so much and he doesn’t know what the bill would like it when it reaches his desk, but said he supports transparency.

“I’m open to it, but the proof is in the pudding as they say … someone put that in the code for a reason {to protect patient privacy],” Northam said.

Either way, the federal government will soon require nursing homes to share COVID-19 data for residents and staff going forward, NBC Washington reports, with those numbers having to be updated weekly.

The deadline for facilities to file their first report is May 17, and that data being made publicly available online at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

This article will be updated.

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