Amid a rising number of new COVID-19 cases in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday announced new public restrictions aimed at curbing a dramatic surge in the Hampton Roads area.
While the rest of the state will remain under the Phase 3 guidelines, private and public gatherings in the state’s eastern region will be limited to 50 people, compared with the current statewide limit of 250.
The Northam administration is also moving to shut down bar activity in the Hampton Roads area, and as such, will mandate that all restaurants stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m., and close down for service at midnight.
In addition, restaurants will now need to limit indoor dining capacity to 50%. Current Phase 3 guidelines pose no capacity limits, and only say that parties must be socially distanced.
The stricter restaurant guidelines will only apply to a subset of the state’s eastern region: Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Williamsburg, Newport News, Poquoson, James City County and York County.
“This effectively closes all bars,” Northam said. “This is about stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Hampton Roads. … We all know alcohol changes your judgment. You just don’t care as much about social distancing after you’ve had a couple of drinks.”
The new restrictions will go into effect at midnight Thursday night.
Virginia law doesn’t allow for bars — only food establishments that also serve alcohol, though many businesses have adapted their business models to create bar-like establishments.
“Closing alcohol sales at 10 p.m. is our attempt to close bars and end the sort of congregating we’re seeing in bar-like establishments,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.
In recent weeks, Virginia has seen its count of new daily COVID-19 cases rise after weeks of downward trends. The seven-day average of new daily cases hovers above 800, not far from the 1,036 average seen at the state’s peak on May 21. (Some of those increases can be chalked up to increases in testing.)
Much of that growth has stemmed from dramatic increases in the state’s eastern region, a hot spot for beachgoers.
Statewide, the share of people testing positive for COVID-19 is just above 7%, but it is 11% percent in the eastern region. In some localities within the region, the positivity rate has reached nearly 20%.
An increase in the positivity rate, according to health experts, should prompt additional testing to make sure outbreaks are contained. Northam and Birx acknowledged Tuesday long delays of 14 days or more before some individuals receive their COVID-19 test results, largely stemming from backlogs at the nation's largest private labs.
The administration’s decision falls in line with recommendations from federal officials brought to Virginia’s doorstep on Tuesday.
A top White House official working on the nation’s coronavirus response, Dr. Deborah Birx, urged leaders in Virginia during a meeting in Richmond to increase public restrictions to curb the spread of the virus amid an uptick in cases.
Birx said the federal government is urging universities to reopen their labs to help build additional capacity. It is also urging hospitals and clinics to batch test large numbers of samples from people believed to be at low risk, and only run individual tests if the batch comes back positive. The practice is known as pool testing.
Birx met with Northam and other Virginia officials as part of a multi-state tour that includes Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. All five states are seeing a rise in new daily COVID-19 cases.
Birx said that restricting indoor dining and closing down bars and increased mask wearing has been a successful strategy in states with growing COVID-19 numbers.
Birx’s cautionary message on Tuesday seemed a departure from past interactions between states and the White House, which has at times chided states for being heavy-handed with public restrictions.
For example, President Donald Trump has at times challenged face mask orders, while Birx on Tuesday urged “100% mask mandates.”
Northam said that he and Birx did not discuss the president. Still, during a news conference with reporters, Northam noted the disconnect.
"She advocates for wearing masks, for social distancing, staying at home unless you need to go out, while the message from the president is to 'liberate' Virginia and put pressure on governors like myself," to reopen in-person schooling in the fall, he said.
Birx’s message on mask wearing went further than what health officials in Virginia have advised.
Northam’s face mask order requires people to wear masks inside in settings where people congregate, like office buildings and stores. Birx said on Tuesday that people residing with someone who is particularly vulnerable to the virus — the elderly or those with pre-existing health challenges — should consider wearing a mask in their home.
Northam agreed that Birx's advice of masks doesn't fully align with the mask order he issued. He said that overall, people should get used to wearing masks broadly, according to their particular circumstances. He said that he wears his mask outdoors, with some exceptions, like when he is running.
"We have to use some common sense, but as a general rule, we have to get used to wearing masks," Northam said.
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