Restrictions come after virus cases climb across the state
RICHMOND-Gov. Ralph Northam’s new COVID-19 restrictions only apply in certain circumstances. The governor’s office made that clear Friday night, after an original statement that left business owners confused and school districts scrambling.
In a departure from his normal press conferences, Northam released a statement and YouTube video Friday afternoon, announcing the return of multiple restrictions across the state. After a day that saw Virginia hit 1,521 new COVID-19 cases and approach 200,000 overall, the governor said it was time to take some preventive measures.
“We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse,” Northam said. “Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work. I am confident that we can come together as one Commonwealth to get this virus under control and save lives.”
To do that, he announced several changes that take effect Sunday at midnight. First, in-person gatherings will be restricted to 25 people, down from the current 250. Second, all Virginia residents age 5 and older will be required to wear a mask. The current order only involves those 10 and older.
Third, all essential retail businesses like groceries and pharmacies, have to enforce the mask order. Anyone caught not wearing a mask inside one of these stores will face a Class One misdemeanor. Finally, Northam installed a series of curfews. All restaurants, food courts, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries and tasting rooms have to close by midnight each day. They also have to stop selling alcohol by 10 p.m. each day.
Order Sparks Confusion
Understandably, that order didn’t go over well. The biggest issue, however, was confusion over who those orders affected. Almost immediately, Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni tweeted “the gathering limit does not apply to instructional educational settings, including classrooms, buses, cafeterias and recess.”
Instead, he said for schools the 25-person limit only involved “[the] total number of spectators at athletic competitions.”
But that’s not what Northam’s order stated. And instead of the typical Q & A session with reporters at a press conference, where that could have been clarified, everyone only had the recorded video to go off of.
Dogwood reached out to Northam’s office for clarification, but didn’t hear back. However, Northam’s spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky did give an update to the Associated Press. She told the AP that the 25-person limit does not involve restaurants, gyms or retail businesses. As Qarni said, schools aren’t affected in the classroom and churches don’t have to follow the 25-person rule either.
The Virginia High School League said they would have a statement on Monday, about what this means for the upcoming winter sports schedule, which Northam approved two weeks ago.
College Teams Take a Hit
One of the biggest challenges involves college athletics. Currently teams can have up to 1,000 people in the stadium. That includes players, coaches and fans. Now that number drops to 250 people total.
But colleges had already started marketing and selling tickets to upcoming events like next week’s NCAA basketball season opener. Dogwood reached out to multiple colleges for comment and most said it would be next week before they could answer any questions.
James Madison University sent out a statement, both to media and on social channels.
“[The restrictions] will impact the Nov. 25 start to the basketball season in the Atlantic Union Bank Center,” JMU officials said. “JMU Athletics will have more information early next week regarding impact on ticket sales and seating distribution for upcoming basketball games in line with the new guidelines.”
Why Are We Going Back?
The question people mainly had Friday night was why. Why now? The problem isn’t just a one day spike. In fact, cases have been spiking higher nearly every day over the last week. For example, the Virginia Department of Health says the state now averages 1,500 newly-reported COVID-19 cases on a daily basis. By comparison, we averaged 1,200 in May.
Also, more COVID-19 patients are ending up in the hospital. Hospitalizations related to the virus climbed more than 35% over the last four weeks.
And once again, it’s Southwest Virginia leading the way. The region currently ranges between a 9 to 10% positive COVID-19 test rate. That’s up from 8% at the end of October. In a Tuesday news conference, Northam referenced concerns over the southwest region, but at that point stopped short of putting new restrictions in place. On Friday, he reversed course.
A Problem With Masks
The issue is that many people across the state still don’t wear masks. Dogwood was one of several media groups at an Oct. 28 press conference, where Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift outlined the issue in Southwest Virginia.
“We’ve talked and talked about mask use, but we still see so many people flouting mask recommendations or openly defying them,” Swift said. “A lot of you are trying. But a lot – and just trying – isn’t good enough anymore. We have to be all-in.”
On Tuesday, Northam echoed Swift’s comments, saying that it had been a challenge getting people in the Southwest region to wear a mask. Many local residents don’t believe masks protect people from the virus.
Until that changes, it looks like Virginia will have to adapt to a new set of restrictions.
Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.