Virginia should be able to enter the first phase of reopening the state as soon as May 15, Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday.
The governor said at a briefing that he believes the state has flattened the curve of the coronavirus outbreak and is emphasizing to residents “safer at home, rather than stay at home,” though his executive order closing certain businesses and banning gatherings of more than 10 people is extended through May 14.
Northam expressed confidence Phase I can begin, though “it may mean wearing face masks at work.”
“Workplace safety is critical,” Northam said. “Measures like these are important for all businesses.”
Phase I would mean:
- Policies to keep customers and workers separate
- Conferences and trade shows limited, as short as possible
- Short breaks for workers to wash hands
- Separate guidelines for specific businesses will be published
- Lower capacities in gyms, restaurants and shops.
Northam said they will provide “additional guidelines for specific industries, including restaurants, retail, fitness, personal care and grooming, as well as entertainment.”
He said each of the three phases would last about three weeks, “as long as our health data continues to support it.”
Phase II would begin to ease restrictions further if the state sees a continued downward trend of positive tests and hospitalizations, a stable supply of PPE, and continued robust testing and contact tracing.
Northam said Phase III would begin when there is “no evidence of rebound for a sustained period of time.”
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The governor said the testing capacity has improved significantly. Last week, roughly 6,000 people per day were tested for COVID-19, and the state is deploying around 1,000 contact tracers.
Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said the number of total tests is up to 122,788. There are now 19,492 cases in Virginia, including 821 new cases in the last 24-hour period. There are 24 new deaths, bringing the total to 684 deaths.
Oliver said there are 239 outbreaks, mostly in long-term care facilities.
He added that the virus is disproportionately affecting communities of color. Hispanics represent 35% of cases where ethnicity is specified, and African Americans represent 26%. Of the deaths, 27% are African American, while 7% are Hispanic.
Improving conditions at hospitals
In the briefing Monday, Parhan Jaberi, chief deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health, said that the prohibition on nonemergency medical procedures did what it was supposed to do: It “created some capacity” in Virginia’s hospitals.
Now, about a third of the commonwealth’s hospital capacity is open. “We never quite reached full capacity” in acute care, so the plan to build temporary hospitals hasn’t materialized, Jaberi said.
“Numbers have remained fairly stable” for bed space, intensive-care use and ventilator use, he said.
He added, “Our hospitals have been reporting less and less difficulty in [supplies of] PPE for patient care,” saying that, “We have continued to trend downward since the beginning of April.”
Virginia’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Lilian Peake, explained that access to testing is increasing, and that means cases are on the rise, but at the same time, the percentage of tests coming back positive is going down.
That’s because, as access increases, doctors are able to test people who have milder symptoms, or maybe none at all, as opposed to the early days of the pandemic, when the lack of testing and protective equipment meant that only the most severe cases got tested.
Still, Peake said, while the curve appears to be flattening, epidemiologists look at the long-term trends — the averages.
“The full shape of an epidemic curve is only clear after the outbreak is over,” she said.
Peake said that more information on the statistics health officials are looking at — testing, positive tests, hospital capacity and more — will be publicly available on the Virginia Department of Health’s coronavirus website starting Tuesday.
More poultry plant concerns
Northam expressed concern over the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the two poultry plants in Accomack County, which he said is now up to 260 cases.
The governor said the number of cases are high near the plants, as well as in the Shenandoah Valley, but the increase is smaller, signaling the potential it’s leveling off.
He added that the proper authorities are working with the plants to ensure they are instituting safety measures to protect plant workers and members of the community.
“Our focus right now remains on the [Eastern] Shore,” he said.
Some Virginia residents in more rural areas of the state where fewer cases are present were hoping to see the restrictions ease in their region before more densely populated parts of the state, such as Northern Virginia.
Northam said Virginia will reopen as an entire commonwealth rather than regionally.
“It’s a tremendous potential for more division,” he said. “The last thing that we need in this state — the last thing we need in this country — is more division.”
Northam also responded to residents and Republican lawmakers pushing him to reopen the state sooner rather than later.
“My decisions are made to protect Virginians — to keep Virginians healthy and safe, and to prevent deaths,” Northam said. “I understand people have made sacrifices; I understand people are upset by our decisions. But I’m not standing up here to punish people. I’m standing up here representing 8.5 million Virginians, and doing what’s in the best interest of them, to keep them safe, to get this health crisis behind us, and to get our economy up and running again. That’s what I come to work to do every day, and what I’ll continue to do for the next year and a half, as long as I’m governor.”
Northam’s counsel, Rita Davis, said that on Friday, the Lighthouse Fellowship Church, in Chincoteague, was denied a restraining order allowing it to hold services, and that the U.S. Department of Justice has entered a “statement of interest” in favor of the church.
Davis said Northam’s order was “prudent, necessary and constitutional, and we look forward to the Fourth Circuit affirming.”
Northam said he has been in contact about his plans with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Govs. Larry Hogan, of Maryland, and Roy Cooper, of North Carolina.
“We do communicate. We’re probably not going to do everything on the exact same day, but we’re working as close as we can, and we want to be as consistent as we can with our neighbors,” Northam said.