RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY/WRIC) — While some states began reopening their economies on Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam released his blueprint for easing business restrictions in the Commonwealth.

The announcement comes as Virginia’s unemployment count increases to nearly half a million, raising the stakes for the governor as he tries to figure out how fast and how far to go.

Gov. Northam said he’d like to see the state move forward to phase one of the federal guidelines by May 8th, when his executive order closing some non-essential businesses is set to expire. Northam emphasized that the data has to support that decision.

“I’m as eager as anyone to move into the time where we can ease some of these restrictions but we must do so in a safe manner,” Northam said. “One step forward and two steps back is no way to move ahead.”

When it goes into effect, phase one of the reopening plan will include:

  • Some businesses will re-open with strict safety restrictions
  • Continued social distancing
  • Continued teleworking
  • Face coverings recommended in public

Northam and other governors, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, the chair of the National Governors Association, have warned against reopening “prematurely” and stress that much more testing infrastructure needs to be in place before reopening can be considered. The governors released a 10-point reopening road map this week, and said the federal government needs to step up to better distribute testing supplies to states.

Virginia is also still under a stay-at-home order until June 10.

Northam stressed this week that Virginia is still not ready to lift restrictions, and a pointed to federal guidelines that say states need to see a decrease in COVID-19 cases for 14 days before the first phase of reopening.

Virginia’s daily reported COVID-19 cases showed a downward trend from April 17 to April 20, but rose back up, jumping to the highest per day increase in testing confirmed cases (675) on April 23.

596 new COVID-19 cases, 542 confirmed by testing, were reported in Virginia on Friday (April 24) with 38 new deaths linked to the disease.

Here are highlights from Gov. Ralph Northam’s Friday press conference (which was originally delayed due to technical difficulties).

Moving May elections

Northam scolded the General Assembly for not approving his request to move local elections from May to November due to the coronavirus pandemic. He said he signed an executive order to move them from May 5 to May 19,

He’s strongly encouraging voting by mail for safety reasons.

“Virginians should not have to choose between their ballot and their health,” Northam said, criticizing Wisconsin’s decision to hold in-person voting earlier this month.

Related: Northam extends DMV closures, ban on elective surgeries, select State Police enforcements

Full press conference below:

Unemployment in Va.

More than 82,000 Virginians applied for unemployment this past week, and about half a million have so far. Northam acknowledged issues to people applying for unemployment, but touted the steps the state’s recently taken to improve systems.

Reopening blueprint/possible peak Friday for Virginia

Northam said he’s hopeful that Virginia’s peak day in cases could have been on Friday (April 24) with 542 testing confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to one model. He says Virginia still needs to see 14 days of declining cases and hospitalizations, and that hospitalizations have remained flat (1,399 currently hospitalized Friday).

Reopening also requires more testing and personal protective equipment supplies statewide, Northam says. He’s hoping for much more efficient testing, with a benchmark of at least 10,000 tests happening each day.

Dr. Karen Remley, a former health commissioner who is heading the state’s work group on testing, explained that currently the state is doing up to 4,000 tests a day.

She explained that among obstacles preventing more tests from happening has been a learning curve.

“The gold standard for test is what we call nasopharyngeal swab, and you’ve probably heard people talk about it its a skinny little swab that goes all the way to the back of your nose,” she said. “And if you are a pediatric ER doctor like me or pediatrician, you do them every winter when kids are sick for RSV… if you are a cardiologist you may have never done this before.”

State Health Commissioner Norm Oliver says Virginia is also increasing its medical workforce to help better conduct contract tracing to help prevent COVID-19 resurgence when social distancing measures are eventually reduced.

Northam says Virginia could start phase 1 of reopening by May 8, the deadline of his executive order closing non-essential businesses, but not before. Phase 1 would require businesses to reopen with strict safety restrictions, and current measures such as social distancing, teleworking, and face coverings in public would still be key to preventing COVID-19 spread.

“We will not turn off restrictions like we do a light switch … one step forward and two steps back is no way to go,” Northam said.

Northam did not reveal any details for phase 2 or phase 3.

“We want to make sure our businesses are doing everything they can, that is why we established this work group,” Northam said. “To let our consumers whether it be a barbershop, hardware store or hospital, we want to make sure the consumers are safe and comfortable.”

He emphasized that more than 1,600 patients in Virginia have been treated successfully for COVID-19 and discharged.