In the wake of soaring COVID-19 cases across commonwealth — and the United States — Virginia has instituted tighter restrictions including lowering the number of people who can gather to 25 in certain situations.
In an email and video address Friday afternoon, Gov. Ralph Northam announced the changes that almost amount to reversing a stance taken in a briefing early in the week. In a Tuesday address, while the governor called the trend of increased cases “concerning,” he focused more on stressing to residents the importance to double down on measures to slow the spread of the illness caused by the coronavirus instead of suggesting implementing further restrictions.
“Virginia is in a much better place than other states,” Northam acknowledged in Friday’s video address, praising residents for working hard to do the right things.
However, with that being said, cases continue to rise in all parts of the state. The percent of people testing positive also is on a steady incline. And in a more dire overview of the situation, more people are being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19.
That rise — a 35% increase in the last four weeks — is putting a strain on medical facilities and frontline workers, he said, while raising the danger level for everyone across the state.
The virus is spreading rapidly in places like indoor restaurants where people take off their masks, Northam said. It’s also being spread at small social gatherings like dinner parties and when people think they don’t need to wear a mask inside.
“It’s safer to stay at home unless you need to go out.”
The tighter restrictions went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Monday and will remain until amended.
The biggest change is lowering the number of people allowed to gather — inside or outdoors — from a cap of 250 to only 25 now. The keyword in the amended executive order is “gathering,” a term used to describe parties, celebrations and all other social events.
There are exemptions, although not all are spelled out in the executive order. For example, people working and assembled in a school are not considered a “gathering,” the order specifies, so they are exempt.
Yet, there’s no mention of churches in the official order.
Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Northam, took to Twitter on Friday evening to say the new regulations do not apply to religious services or retail stores.
For indoor and outdoor sporting events, the total number of spectators cannot exceed 25, suggesting no limit on the number of players or coaches.
“Virginia is not an island,” Northam said in the video citing the sharp rise of caseloads around the country.
He said Virginia was acting now to prevent things from getting worse.
“We know these mitigation measures work,” the governor said. “We saw that earlier this year.”
The sale of alcohol is now prohibited after 10 p.m. in places like restaurants and breweries. In addition, all dining establishments must close by midnight.
Northam has previously cited the impairment of alcohol as a catalyst for the spread of the coronavirus. When people become intoxicated, they are more likely to not make decisions aimed to keep the virus at bay, such as wearing masks or maintaining 6-feet of distance from others. A similar rule was imposed on the Eastern Shore of Virginia when numbers were surging over the summer.
Everyone over the age of 5 must now wear face coverings in indoor public spaces. That’s an expansion of the current order that’s been in place since May 29 requiring anyone over the age of 10 to wear a mask.
The state also will be cracking down on what it calls “essential retail businesses” making sure those establishments adhere to guidelines already in place. Those measures for places like grocery stores and pharmacies include physical distancing, wearing face coverings and enhanced cleaning procedures.
Preciously these were along the lines of “best practice” suggestions. However, now businesses that do not follow these rules will face a misdemeanor charge enforced through the Virginia Department of Health.
The new orders come ahead of what’s traditionally a busy travel time for Thanksgiving, followed by myriad gatherings to celebrate Christmas and the New Year.
It’s those tight-knit social activities that have health leaders worried.
“Careless behavior by one person puts everyone they come in contact with at risk,” Northam said Friday.
The blossoming cases illustrate that the virus is still “alive and well and it’s very, very contagious,” Northam said earlier this week.