Governor limits restaurants, fitness centers and theaters to 10 patrons
Northam waives one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits; Virginia DMV locations to close
As the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Virginia has risen to 67 cases with two deaths, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statewide mandate for restaurants, fitness centers and theaters to “significantly reduce their capacity to 10 patrons, or close.”
Later Tuesday afternoon, Northam and State Health Commissioner Dr. M. Norman Oliver issued a public health emergency declaration, giving law enforcement authority to enforce the 10-patron limit.
“This does not include normal operations at essential services such as manufacturers, distribution centers, airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, grocery stores, or pharmacies,” according to a news release from the governor.
Northam did not order mandatory closures of restaurant dining rooms and other businesses that serve large public crowds, unlike the governors of other states, including Maryland, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. However, he encouraged restaurants, malls, bars and other commercial establishments to look at significantly changing their capacities and continuing takeout and delivery options in order to maintain business.
“Over 45% of Virginians get their meals in restaurants so I think we need to be very careful, very prudent” about ordering closures, Northam said at the news conference. “We know people need to eat and … need adequate nutrition. We’re encouraging 10 or less people to be in a confined space. In the meantime if restaurants [routinely] exceed that, they will use carryout.”
When asked if he might order Virginia restaurants and bars closed later if needed, he added, “I’m much more about carrots than I am about sticks.”
Additionally Tuesday, Northam waived the one-week waiting period for seeking unemployment benefits so that those who have been put out of work by the growing crisis can start receiving aid immediately through the Virginia Employment Commission. “We know that rent and other bills won’t wait,” the governor said during a press conference held Tuesday morning in Richmond.
More information about unemployment benefits is now on the governor’s website.
Northam also ordered the closure of all 75 Department of Motor Vehicles physical locations statewide, though the DMV will continue to offer online services and will grant a 60-day extension to people whose driver’s licenses and registrations expire on May 15. Non-emergency court proceedings in the state’s general district and circuit courts are canceled through April 6, and there is a prohibition on all new eviction cases if tenants are unable to pay rent as a result of the virus.
Also, the State Corporation Commission has ordered all utilities it regulates, including electric, natural gas and water, to suspend service disconnections for 60 days.
Dr. Norman Oliver, the state health commissioner, announced that the state’s first positive case of COVID-19 in a long-term care facility has been recorded, which he said was “very concerning,” adding that “We have now begun to observe cases with no known exposure to a case, which is what we would classify as community transmission or community spread, so the likelihood of community spread is there.”
Westminster Canterbury Richmond, a retirement community in the city of Richmond’s North Side, sent a news release Tuesday confirming that a resident who had recently returned from Florida is in the hospital. “Westminster Canterbury is working closely with public health officials, who are on campus partnering with Westminster Canterbury health care staff,” the statement says. “Virginia Department of Health officials are now determining who may have come into contact with the resident, and a number of health care staff are at home in self-quarantine.”
In Washington state, many serious COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths centered on nursing homes in the Seattle area, according to news reports. Northam is strongly encouraging people over the age of 65 to self-quarantine and for younger healthy people to check on neighbors and parents to see if they need groceries or other goods.
According to Oliver, there are 48 tests pending in the state lab and others are at private labs, including North Carolina-based LabCorp and New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics, which are reporting their results to the VDH regularly, he said.
Discussing the state’s testing capabilities for the virus, Oliver said the state government expects soon to be able to double its stock of testing kits in the next day. Denise M. Toney, director of Virginia’s Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, estimated Tuesday the state will have the possession for 600 to 800 kits. Her lab, which is running COVID-19 tests for the state’s health department, has “over eight people” who can run at least some components of the tests, a number that has doubled since last week, she said. Getting results from the tests is a multistep process, and some lab technicians are trained in only part of the procedure, she explained. Toney said she is in close communication with VCU Health and the U.Va. Health System, which are working on developing their own COVID-19 test kits, as well as private labs such as Quest and LabCorp, to monitor options for sourcing test kits and components for the state lab.
As of Tuesday morning, there were 38 positive patients in Northern Virginia, 18 in Eastern Virginia and nine in Central Virginia. The commonwealth expects to have federal assistance with instituting drive-through testing soon, after higher priority states such as New York and Washington, Northam said.
Overall, Northam encouraged Virginians to follow common sense and be cautious. “Do not go to St. Patrick’s Day parties,” he said. “Everyone has a role to help mitigate the spread of this disease. We all have a responsibility to one another.”