Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam provides updates to reopening Virginia's economy at a briefing Monday.

Want to get a haircut? How about do some heavy workouts at the gym? Or enjoy a sit-down meal at a local restaurant?

If data continues a downward track, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam hopes to reopen nonessential businesses on May 15 but warned even as the commonwealth lifts restrictions, the coronavirus threat will remain.

The governor’s previous order closed businesses that fell into the nonessential category like salons, eateries and gyms through Friday. Northam on Monday afternoon announced an extension of the closures until May 14 and said Virginia will enter what’s known as phase one of reopening its economy if data continues to show a descending trend of the percentages of new coronavirus cases.

“We will reopen Virginia next Friday,” he said, expecting the commonwealth to enter into the new phase on May 15.

However, opening the economy does not lower the threat of the coronavirus.

“This virus is still here,” Northam said at Monday’s briefing. “It has not gone away, and it will not go away until we have a vaccination.”

There were 18 cases of COVID-19 in Halifax County, according to Tuesday morning data from the Virginia Department of Health. This is a decrease from 19 cases reported Sunday and Monday.

“Results on the website are preliminary and subject to change as data is analyzed and verified,” Dr. Scott Spillmann, director of the Southside Health District that includes Halifax County, wrote in an email to The Gazette.

“Given the volume of data reported statewide every day the staff endeavor to ensure accurate information is available, but counts may be adjusted to reflect corrections to data, such as address changes.”

As of Tuesday, there were 19,357 confirmed cases in Virginia of the severe respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. That’s a daily increase of 717.

Dr. Norm Oliver, Virginia’s state health commissioner, said Monday cases will still rise even when Virginia reopens. The health department’s workforce will require more people to do contact tracing — a step to locate and isolate people after someone has come in contact with a person who tested positive for the virus — and work on containment when new case arises.

Outlining what’s involved in phase one, Northam said businesses will be asked to enhance physical distancing, ramp up cleaning efforts and promote workplace safety.

As an example, Northam said in phase one residents will be able to get a haircut, but it would require an appointment, and the salon will take extra precautions and look a little different. Restaurants will be able to open to dine-in options, but customers will have to be spaced out. Also, churches may hold in-person services with proper social distancing measures.

The new phase takes a softer tone with a “safer at home” approach versus the current stay at home order, except for vulnerable people. Elderly residents and those with pre-existing health problems are still urged to stay at home.

Face coverings are still recommended in the new phase as well as a 10-person limit on social gatherings. Teleworking and social distancing practices also continue.

These guidelines mostly mirror recommendations established last month by President Donald Trump and his administration to help states manage reopening procedures.

Testing and numbers

While the number of new COVID-19 cases have increased in Virginia, so has the number of individuals tested. The metric used now is a percentage of those positive results in relation to the total number of people tested. A graph showing these percentages displayed during a media briefing Monday shows a downward trend. The line is not a drastic drop, but instead illustrates a “bending of the curve” officials have noted needed to happen to ease restrictions.

The state has a goal of 10,000 tests per day to enter the first phase of reopening the economy.

Dr. Karen Remley, a former health commissioner who was tapped to lead a group on virus testing in Virginia, plans a webinar Friday for doctors across the commonwealth on testing.

“Making sure all of those loops in the process are closed,” is a main goal in reaching the 10,000 daily testing numbers. She’s also working on plans “to meet people where they are for testing” in an effort to make it more mainstream and less of a hassle.

After weighing options of a regional approach, the governor said the entire state will enter the new phases together. There were talks of opening certain regions earlier, but that “gets complicated in a hurry,” the governor said at Monday’s briefing, stressing unity is needed rather than division.

More details are expected to come this week with specifics and guidelines surrounding different businesses. This first phase could last about three weeks, he said.

New projections

The reopening plans, known as Virginia Forward, came on the same day a data group drastically upped the projected death toll associated with the virus in the United States to more than 134,000 by early August.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation of the University of Washington has been a key point of data throughout the coronavirus pandemic for experts. However, the institute has highly fluctuated with numbers over time. It first predicted more than 100,000 deaths, then dropped that to about 60,000 when it factored in social distancing efforts. Last week it raised it slightly more than 70,000.

On Monday, it released a revised projection “reflect rising mobility in most US states as well as the easing of social distancing measures expected in 31 states” by Monday, according to a statement from the institute.

“Growing contacts among people will promote transmission of the coronavirus,” the statement goes on to report.

“In each state, the evolution of the epidemic depends on the balance between relaxed social distancing, increasing temperature, and rising rates of testing and contact tracing,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the institute. “We expect that the epidemic in many states will now extend through the summer.”

This institute predicts about 1,200 deaths in Virginia by Aug. 4.

Criticism

Northam drew sharp criticism and protests lately from groups pushing to state to ease lockdowns, and some organizations even took the governor to court.

“Everything we do is based on our constitution,” Northam said when he was asked how his decisions have impacted Virginians and to respond to some lawsuits that claim his actions are illegal. In those instances, the state has prevailed, he said.

“I’m not standing up here to punish people,” Northam said with strong emotion, referring to the podium where he’s delivered dozens of briefings on the pandemic. Flanked by the United States flag to left and Virginia’s flag to the right, the governor said he’s representing 8.5 million Virginians, and his goal is to keep them safe.

“My decisions are made to protect Virginians,” he said.

Virginia saw its first positive case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on March 7.

“Our lives have changed drastically since then,” Northam said. “Everyone in Virginia made sacrifices.”

Dozens of restrictions were ordered to slow the spread of the virus as fears mounted across the nation of stressing the health care system.

“We flattened the curve, and our hospitals have not been overwhelmed,” Northam said.

The governor took aim at Washington at the beginning of the pandemic, but later praised recent efforts.

“What we’ve been asked as governors is to fight this war without any supplies,” Northam said, explaining states had to start from “ground zero” and competed against one another for things like personal protection equipment. Northam has often called the pandemic a biological war.

However, Northam said things have changed and Virginia is in a better place now.

“I commend what is going on in Washington,” Northam said pointing to stepped-up efforts by FEMA to help the states.