‘Our numbers are not there’: Northern Va. leaders praise delay of Phase I

Six elected leaders from Northern Virginia on Wednesday said that Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order excepting them from the opening of the first phase of relaxed restrictions was the right move for the region.

The rest of the commonwealth will start Phase I of the relaxation of pandemic-related restrictions on Friday.

An executive order issued by Northam on Tuesday said that Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties; the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park; and the towns of Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg and Vienna (Northern Virginia Region) will remain in what’s called Phase Zero until one minute before midnight on the night of May 28.

Chiming in remotely to Northam’s regular Wednesday COVID-19 briefing, Northern Virginia regional leaders applauded the move, saying that while metrics such as cases, hospitalizations and deaths had improved in other areas of the state, the region around D.C. wasn’t ready.

“The elected leaders of our region have spoken together” to ask for a delay, said Falls Church Mayor P. David Tarter, chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, a consortium of local governments. “We thank Gov. Northam … for recognizing that one size does not fit all.”

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Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay pointed out that Northern Virginia constituted “one cohesive region” along with D.C. and parts of Maryland, and that residents “cross jurisdictional boundaries every day by the thousands.”

On the other hand, McKay said, “This virus does not know jurisdictional boundaries,” adding that, “It’s important that there not be huge variations in the rollout” of Phase I between Northern Virginia, the District and its Maryland suburbs.

“We thank you for recognizing that our numbers are not there,” McKay said.

Arlington County board Chairwoman Libby Garvey pointed out that Northern Virginia constituted a third of the population of the commonwealth but half the cases and deaths.

She advocated for “letting the data, not the date, determine our status.”

Loudoun County board Chairwoman Phyllis Randall said, “We’re not looking for different rules; we’re looking for a timeline that makes sense with what our health officers are telling us.”

Randall said that of the five metrics needed to begin Phase I — a downward trend of positive test results and of hospitalizations over 14 days; sufficient hospital beds and intensive care capacity; an increase in supply of personal protective equipment, such as masks, respirators, gloves and gowns; and increased testing and contact tracing — the region had either not achieved them or data were not available.

Prince William County board Chairwoman Ann Wheeler added that the process of getting life back to normal in Northern Virginia will be sped by “people listening” to the regulations, as well as the recommendations, about hand-washing, social distancing and staying at home, especially if you’re sick. “It’s about personal responsibility,” she added.

And though the closure of nonessential businesses and other rules were causing economic pain in the region, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said, “Public health and the economy go hand in hand.”

Northam echoed those comments, answering a question about balancing health concerns with economic ones by saying they weren’t, in the end, that different: “We realize that we are in the middle of a health crisis, and we are also in the middle of an economic crisis. Until we can get the health crisis behind us, the economy will never recover.”

Northam called Phase I “a small step forward,” but cautioned that it “will not be like turning on a light switch.”

He later reminded residents that there’s a reason it’s called the novel coronavirus: “We’re learning every day how this virus affects people. … For me to sit here and say exactly what we’ll need six months from now” is impossible.

Leaders from Northern Virginia wrote to Northam on Sunday requesting the delay. Northam said Wednesday that no other leaders had asked for such a pause.

CLICK TO EXPAND: The public health restrictions in Virginia, and how they will change during Phase I. (Courtesy Gov. Ralph Northam’s office)

“We will remain vigilant,” Northam added. “This virus has not gone away, and everyone needs to act accordingly. We cannot act as if things are back to normal because they clearly are not.”

Still, Northam said that the numbers were headed in the right direction across Virginia, even though they were higher in the Northern Virginia region: “As a commonwealth, these metrics are trending in the right direction.”

Asked whether Phase I would lead to an increase in cases as people mingle closer together, Northam said, “There is the potential” for that, but that part of the rationale for lifting some restrictions was that Virginia has the testing capabilities, hospital capacity and protective equipment to handle it.

“We’re ready for that,” Northam said.

He contrasted the situation with the beginning of the pandemic this winter: “We were caught flat-footed” in Virginia and across the U.S., Northam said. Since then, “We’ve learned a lot,” he said.

Asked whether law enforcement would be able to enforce the new guidelines, Northam said that the cooperation of Virginians was the key factor.

He added, “I’m a carrot person rather than a stick, but we will have a stick if we need to use it.”

Northam’s office has guidance on what Phase I means for specific businesses sectors on its website.

Virginia Legislative Black Caucus opposes plans to begin Phase I on May 15

Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus expressed in a letter to Northam Wednesday their “grave concerns with and strong opposition to begin” Phase I this coming Friday.

The caucus said that the economic toll must be weighed with the “substantial negative impacts” on people of color in the commonwealth.

A significant portion of essential workers in Virginia are African American and people of color, the letter said, something the caucus wrote to Northam about in a previous letter.

“Reopening now will not only increase the incidence of COVID-19 exposure to these workers, who remain unprotected and ill-supported, but will also increase the negative economic pressures that they are already experiencing,” the letter said.

Data has shown that the pandemic has hit African Americans specially hard, and they are dying at disproportionately higher rates from the coronavirus compared to all other ethnicities, CNN reported.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan discussed the racial disparities in COVID-19 cases last month.

The caucus called the reopening premature, and said that it will create a “situation where Black and Brown Virginians outside of Northern Virginia will become guinea pigs for our economy.”

Another concern the caucus addressed is the lack of child care services for many workers.

The group is asking Northam to respond with an “equity-focused plan” addressing the issues they brought up before moving forward with Phase I.

A Northam spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday night:

Governor Northam is deeply appreciative of the Legislative Black Caucus and values their close partnership with him and his administration as we respond to this crisis. He continues to be guided by public health, data, and the CDC guidelines. He is absolutely committed to moving forward in a safe, gradual manner that protects all Virginians, particularly low-income individuals, essential workers, and communities of color.

Some DMVs to open

Northam also said that 11 Department of Motor Vehicles customer service centers in seven of eight regions — all but Northern Virginia — will reopen starting May 18.

They will only focus on transactions that require in-person service, such as first-time driver’s licenses and registrations, handicapped certificates and vital records. Services will be by appointment only, and transactions that can be done by other methods — such as online or by mail — should be conducted that way. People will be asked to stay in their vehicles 10 minutes before their appointment. Inside the DMV, service windows will have partitions between staff and customers, and seating will be limited and spaced.

“This DMV will look different than what we may be used to, but we’ve worked hard to make these changes with the best interest of our customers and employees at the very front of our minds,” DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb said in a statement.

The following DMVs will be open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.:

  • Charlottesville at 2055 Abbey Road, Charlottesville
  • Chesterfield at 610 Johnston Willis Drive, Richmond
  • Fredericksburg at 5700 Southpoint Centre Blvd., Fredericksburg
  • Hampton at 8109 Roanoke Ave., Hampton
  • Harrisonburg at 3281 Peoples Drive, Harrisonburg
  • Richmond Central at 2300 West Broad St., Richmond
  • Roanoke at 5220 Valleypark Drive, Roanoke
  • Virginia Beach/Buckner at 3551 Buckner Blvd., Virginia Beach

The following DMVs will be open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.:

  • Abingdon at 25552 Lee Highway, Abingdon
  • Onancock at 20 North St., Onancock
  • South Boston at 2039 Hamilton Blvd., South Boston

An executive order in place extends the validity of some driver’s licenses, ID cards and vehicle registrations.

Driver’s licenses and ID cards expiring on or before June 10, are extended for 90 days, not to exceed July 31. Vehicle registrations set to expire in April are extended for 90 days and those expiring in May are extended for 60 days.

2 testing sites at Walmart parking lots in Prince William Co.

Starting Friday, two COVID-19 drive-through testing sites are open in the Walmart parking lots located here:

  • 17041 Jefferson Davis Highway, Dumfries, Virginia, 22026
  • 8386 Sudley Road, Manassas, Virginia, 20109

The sites are open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, weekly, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., weather permitting, officials said. The sites are drive-through only; walk-ups will not be accepted.

Patients will need to wear a mask and stay in their cars. The sites use a self-administered nasal swab test, and a trained medical volunteer will watch to make sure the sample is taken correctly.

If you’re interested in getting tested, you should first visit www.DoINeedaCOVID19test.com to see if you’re eligible for testing and to make an appointment.

“We are happy to partner with the health department and Walmart to provide testing for citizens,” said Prince William County Executive Chris Martino in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to provide sufficient COVID-19 testing in Prince William County. We are appreciative of the collaboration of resources to increase testing in our county.”

The sites are supported by Walmart, eTrueNorth, Virginia and local officials.

For questions about testing, call 800-635-8611.

Memorial Day ceremony in Stafford Co. canceled

This year’s Memorial Day ceremony at the Stafford Armed Services Memorial has been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ceremony is usually held the Friday ahead of Memorial Day.

“Even though we will not be gathering this year, may we all take a moment to honor and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country,” said Stafford Board of Supervisors Chairman Meg Bohmke in a statement Wednesday. “This is a hard decision, but we have to put the protection of everyone’s health first at this time.”

WTOP’s Teta Alim contributed to this report. 

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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