Gov. Ralph Northam announced Monday that he anticipates Virginia will begin to ease restrictions on businesses as early as next week.
Northam extended his executive order that closed restaurants, entertainment businesses, hair salons and other businesses from May 8 to 14. If current COVID-19 trends continue to hold, lifting some restrictions could begin at that point, Northam said.
“All of our efforts have slowed its spread, but they have not cured the disease,” Northam said. “We must figure out a path forward, but we must always be aware that this virus is still with us. Even when we ease some restrictions, we must continue to behave more cautiously than before.”
Public health officials said Monday that data show a decline in the daily share of positive cases among total tests performed over the last week. Northam said Virginia has flattened the curve and stepped up testing, and hospitals have not been overwhelmed. He acknowledged that the restrictions have come at a “tremendous cost.”
“Everyone in Virginia made sacrifices, but everything you have done has truly made a difference,” he said.
Northam said the first phase would possibly last two weeks to a month.
Businesses that reopen would need to have an environment that allows for social distancing. For example, he said restaurants would need to use less seating to spread people out. Hair salons can operate by appointment only. Gyms will have to limit how many people they allow inside.
Businesses would also have to enhance their cleaning and disinfection, and employees will have to wear face coverings. Teleworking for non-essential employees would be encouraged.
Social gatherings would still be limited to 10 people. People would be encouraged to wear face coverings in public.
People wouldn’t be required to stay at home but should still consider that it’s safer to do so.
He didn’t elaborate on guidelines for places of religious worship besides to say their needs would be accommodated and that they would have to follow social distancing.
Phase two would also last about two weeks to a month. Social gatherings would be capped at 50 people. Teleworking would still be encouraged, but more restrictions on businesses would be lifted.
In the third phase, which would come if there is no evidence of a coronavirus rebound, the ban on social gatherings and capacity limits on establishments would be removed.
Public officials and business owners in rural parts of Virginia with low numbers of coronavirus cases have urged Northam to consider using a regional approach, as some other states are doing, but he said that he was not making that part of the reopening plan.
“We would be picking winners and losers in Virginia,” Northam said.
Northam said Virginia is working with neighboring states to align reopening efforts and reduce confusion. He’s mostly been emphasizing coordinating with Maryland and Washington, D.C., because of the higher number of coronavirus cases in Northern Virginia and its population density. Meanwhile, states along Virginia’s southern border have already begun to lift restrictions.
Far Southwest Virginia has the least number of coronavirus cases and the lowest rates in the commonwealth. Few of those who tested positive required hospitalization, and there have been less than 10 deaths.
Northam didn’t provide a reason backed by data for his decision to not adopt a regional system to reopen Virginia.
“What I worry about, if we do one region open rather than another, it has tremendous potential for more division,” he said. “The last thing we need in this state, the last thing we need in this country right now, is division.”
In downtown Bristol, State Street separates Virginia and Tennessee. Tennessee has already eased restrictions on businesses. Joe Deel, owner of Burger Bar just off State Street on the Virginia side, has been watching people walk across the street to go into restaurants and stores in Tennessee.
“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense when I’m watching people cross the street to another state,” Deel said. “I wish Northam would come down here and see where we’re at and could see you can’t stop people from going across the street and coming right back to Virginia.”
Deel said he supports a regional approach to reopening Virginia. Burger Bar is offering curbside service, but he’s doing 20% of his regular business.
He lost business when one NASCAR race didn’t happen as scheduled, and he expects he’ll lose revenue from another NASCAR race not bringing in tourists. Bristol Rhythm and Roots is later in the summer, and he’s nervous how that will go, too. Those events are essential to his business.
“I’m scared this year,” Deel said.
Businesses are barely getting by. Macado’s in Bristol — on State Street on the Tennessee side — announced Monday it is closing.
“It seems like every day the last week, I’ve watched something close around me,” Deel said.
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