Localities can tighten restrictions after businesses reopen, Northam says
Governor is conferring with D.C., Maryland leaders on reopening timeline
Reopening the state is “not written in stone,” Gov. Ralph Northam cautioned Wednesday during his regular COVID-19 news conference. It appears as if he will go forward with easing restrictions on nonessential businesses next Friday as previously announced, but the timeline could change, depending on various factors, including the governor’s coordinated efforts with Maryland’s governor and Washington, D.C.’s mayor.
“If they want to raise that floor another week, or whatever they think is necessary, we’ll work with them on that,” Northam said of Gov. Larry Hogan and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, with whom he spoke by phone Tuesday. “We’re still a week-and-a-half away. Things aren’t written in stone. There has to be some flexibility.”
Northam also said Wednesday that localities will be permitted to add — but not subtract — social-distancing restrictions when the state lifts Executive Order 53 and enters Phase One of reopening nonessential businesses. Noting that some regions, including Northern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, are still seeing high numbers of cases compared to other parts of the state, Northam said he considers the state’s restrictions “the floor” of what’s expected when Phase One of the state’s blueprint launches, allowing the reopening of businesses such as hair salons, spas, restaurant dining rooms, theaters, amusement parks and other recreational businesses.
Phase One requires limiting gatherings to 10 people or less, and maintaining six feet of distance between employees and patrons, as well as other policies tailored to specific industries like hair salons and spas.
The governor reiterated the specific criteria he’s considering when letting the shutdown order expire:
- The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests remaining on a “steady or downward” trend
- The number of hospitalized patients steady or decreasing
- Steady availability of hospital beds and ventilators
- Increased ability to test and trace cases
In information shared Monday by the Virginia Department of Health, the percentage of positive cases compared to the total number of tests conducted has steadily gone down since April 20, but the number of confirmed and probable cases still rises by hundreds daily. Wednesday’s VDH update was delayed because of a technical error VDH said occurred overnight, but Tuesday’s statistics show 19,357 confirmed cases and 899 probable cases across the state, an increase of 717 confirmed cases in 24 hours.
Northam also discussed efforts to address outbreaks at two poultry packaging plants in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore, where approximately 260 people have tested positive so far.
The poultry plant owners — Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods Inc. — are conducting testing of all 3,000 employees at both facilities, with results expected later this week. A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been working with the plants on providing testing and setting up Plexiglas barriers between employees in their workspaces. Other precautions include providing hotel space for employees who are quarantined and staggering break times to prevent crowding in the workplace.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver compared the impact of the outbreak at the plants to a “cruise ship with 3,000 COVID patients” embarking daily, causing further concern about community spread. As of Tuesday, Accomack County had 429 positive cases, according to the Virginia Department of Health, and Oliver noted that a nursing home and a convenience store there have experienced multiple cases. “The outbreak goes beyond the meat-processing plants,” he said.
On Friday and Saturday, the Virginia National Guard and VDH employees will run drive-thru testing sites on the Eastern Shore, with about 1,000 people expected to be tested each day, said Maj. Gen. Timothy Williams, the state’s adjutant general and leader of the Virginia National Guard. Members of the Guard have assisted with 12 COVID-19 testing events, including in Richmond, Northern Virginia and the Sussex II State Prison, in recent weeks, as well as delivering PPE supplies and working with food banks.
Northam also said he has asked President Trump to extend Title 32 authorization — allowing the state to be reimbursed by the federal government for activating the Virginia National Guard — beyond the end of May, when the earlier order expires.
Earlier Wednesday during a news briefing, state health officials said they are conducting about 6,500 tests per day, and there are approximately 160 sites statewide where testing is available, in addition to testing at long-term care facilities, prisons and other group settings, and walk-up testing held at various times in underserved communities. Two retail pharmacies also have set up testing sites recently, with more to come, said Michael Keatts, VDH’s northwest regional health emergency coordinator.