Though Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said at a briefing Monday afternoon that he was confident most of the state would be able to enter Phase I of lessened safety restrictions and reopened businesses on Friday, the COVID-19 situation in the Northern Virginia region was different.
“They are just as anxious as the rest of us … to ease these restrictions and return to normal,” Northam said. “But they’re not there yet.”
“As soon as they feel comfortable and we feel comfortable moving to Phase I,” he said, “we’ll do that.”
The governor also announced that all public-facing Department of Motor Vehicles locations would remain closed at least another week.
Northam said that 9,801 tests were recorded statewide in the last reporting period, close to the 10,000 daily goal that Virginia health officials have set. Cases have gone down slightly, although “largely, they’re going up, and that’s what we expect to see.”
The percentage of tests coming back positive has been dropping, he said.
“I have said I want a 14-day downward trend in percent of positivity,” Northam said, “and that is what we’re seeing.”
The governor added that hospital capacity, and the supplies of personal protective equipment and testing swabs, were in good shape.
But Northern Virginia continues to outpace the commonwealth in several key areas. In the last 24-hour reporting period, more than 700 cases were recorded in Northern Virginia, compared with fewer than 300 in the rest of the commonwealth.
It’s the same story with regards to percentage of positivity. Though Northern Virginia’s percentage is going down along with the rest of the state, it’s still at about 25%, while the rest of the commonwealth is closer to 10%.
Northam has said repeatedly that Phase I regulations represent “a floor, not a ceiling” — a minimum, not a maximum — and that localities could ask to keep more regulations in place than other areas have.
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Northam said he asked the leaders in the area “to send us a formal letter that they are unified in requesting a delay,” and they’ve done so.
“We will continue to work with those officials on a slower Phase I,” the governor added.
On Sunday, elected officials in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, as well as the City of Alexandria, wrote to Northam, saying they believed the region wasn’t ready.
The leaders represent 2.5 million people — nearly one-third of Virginia’s population, and half the commonwealth’s coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Northam said that leaders from the region would be part of his regular COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, and more details would be provided then. He also said that would be the day that, “if nothing changes,” he would likely announce that Phase I in the rest of the state would begin.
“I commend the leadership” in Northern Virginia, Northam said. “They have chosen to be part of the solution.”
The Phase I regulations will allow retail establishments, restaurants and places of worship to operate at 50% capacity — restaurants are limited to outdoor seating. Gyms can offer outdoor classes and personal grooming establishments can open, by appointment only.
Northam closed by pointing out that Phase I did not mean life in Virginia would spring back to normal.
“We’ve been dealing with this virus for two months,” Northam said, “we know how contagious this is.”
He added, “The message is, we are in a new day in this world, not just in the United States and not just in Virginia.”
Social distancing and hand-washing remain critical, the governor said. “All of these things — we know they work. We have to keep doing them.”
In a statement released after Northam’s briefing, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said he appreciated the governor’s “acknowledgment” about Northern Virginia’s particular situation.
“Governor Northam said today that he will make a final decision about our region moving into Phase I of his Forward Virginia plan on Wednesday,” McKay said. “Our county and region are actively working to meet the health criteria laid out by the governor which are needed in order to reopen the economy. Though we acknowledge the data is not there yet, we are hopeful this can be achieved soon. We all want to reopen as soon as possible based on public safety and data.”
Northam added that, in the next few days, he would be announcing agreements with several large retail chains to open up walk-up and drive-through testing sites throughout Virginia.
Asked why the per-capita testing rate in Virginia is one of the lowest in the nation according to the statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Karen Remley, a former Virginia health commissioner, said that the numbers were the result of cumulative testing, and that with such a slow start, she said bluntly, “we will never catch up.”
That said, Remley added, 10,000 tests per day gives Virginia public health officials the per-capita number they need to make decisions about dropping safety restrictions, and that “we’re there in the next couple of days.”
WTOP’s Ken Duffy, Neal Augenstein and Matt Small contributed to this report.
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