RICHMOND, Va. — Governor Ralph Northam has officially delayed the start of Phase 1 of his "Forward Virginia" reopening plan for Northern Virginia. The rest of the commonwealth will proceed as planned into Phase 1 this Friday, so long as current data trends continue.
Executive Order 62, signed by Northam, gives specific localities in Northern Virginia the ability to keep current COVID-19 business restrictions in place for longer than in the rest of the commonwealth.
Based on the current data trends for confirmed cases in Virginia, in addition to hospital capacity and PPE supplies, Northam said Virginia as a whole will be able to start Phase 1 of reopening on May 15.
But in Monday's briefing, Northam and his coronavirus task force went into great detail about how, while the rest of Virginia has the downward trend in the percentage of COVID-19 labs coming back positive necessary to enter Phase 1, Northern Virginia does not.
Northam said most of the state has a 10% positive rate for the coronavirus, while the Northern Virginia area's positive rate is 25%.
A few counties in Northern Virginia accounted for more than 70% of new positive tests the state got over last weekend. Because of these higher than average coronavirus cases, Northam originally stated that he would work with leaders in the area to slow its reopening.
“As I have said, it’s important that the commonwealth as a whole can meet key health metrics before moving into Phase 1. The Phase 1 policies are a floor, not a ceiling,” Northam said in a statement.
Executive Order 62 extends the “Phase Zero” restrictions in Northern Virginia until May 29.
Virginia localities that will not reopen on May 15, and instead target May 29:
- Loudoun County
- Fairfax County
- City of Alexandria
- Arlington County
- Prince William County
- Fairfax City
- Manassas Park
- Falls Church
Here is what remains as the only things open in Northern Virginia through May 29:
- Elective surgeries
- Veterinarian offices
- Dental offices
- Outdoor exercise
- Travel to medical appointments
- Engage in essential activities, including obtaining medical care that cannot be provided through telehealth and obtaining food and essential household goods;
- Travel to your essential job
- Grocery stores
- Other retailers that sell food and beverage products or pharmacy products, including dollar stores, and department stores with grocery or pharmacy operations;
- Medical, laboratory, and vision supply retailers;
- Electronic retailers that sell or service cell phones, computers, tablets, and other communications technology;
- Automotive parts, accessories, and tire retailers as well as automotive repair facilities;
- Home improvement, hardware, building material, and building supply retailers;
- Lawn and garden equipment retailers;
- Beer, wine, and liquor stores;
- Retail functions of gas stations and convenience stores;
- Retail located within healthcare facilities;
- Banks and other financial institutions with retail functions;
- Pet stores and feed stores;
- Printing and office supply stores; and
- Laundromats and dry cleaners
You still aren't allowed to gather in groups of 10 or more people, and social distancing is required.
“While the data shows Virginia as a whole is ready to slowly and deliberately ease some restrictions, it is too soon for Northern Virginia. I support the request from localities in this region to delay implementation of Phase 1 to protect public health,” Northam said.
Here's what else Phase 1 will look like in the rest of Virginia beginning May 15:
- Retail stores will be able to host up to 50% of a store's capacity,
- Restaurants and breweries will still have curbside and takeout. If they already have a required permit, breweries and restaurants are allowed to serve on outdoor seating at 50% of their capacity.
- Entertainment and amusement businesses remain closed
- Fitness centers remain closed unless there is an outdoor exercise area
- Beaches are for exercise and fishing only
- Places of worship can have 50 percent indoor capacity and drive-through services
- Barbershops and salons will be appointment only with strict social distancing and a requirement of face coverings.
- Private campgrounds can reopen
- State parks will still be day use only, with a slow phase-in of overnight camping
- Child care remains open for essential workers only
- Overnight summer camps will remain closed.
- Policies to keep customers and workers separate at in-person businesses
- Conferences and trade shows limited, as short as possible
- No social gatherings of more than 10 individuals
- Short breaks for workers to wash hands
- Outdoor fitness activities only
Northam said Phase 1 will last a minimum of two weeks but may last longer depending on what data shows. The commonwealth will use health metrics and guidance to see when to specifically move into Phase 2.
On Sunday, leaders of five different Northern Virginia communities – Prince William, Loudoun, Arlington, and Fairfax counties as well as the mayor of Alexandria – sent a joint letter to Northam saying they do not feel they have met the necessary health criteria to reopen.
"Northern Virginia’s Health Directors tell me that those same health criteria needed to move forward are not currently being met in our region," the letter said. "We all want to reopen our economy in the safest, data-driven way possible. It is only through our regional achievement of these milestones that we will be positioned to avoid a more damaging return to business closures later in the summer.”
The leaders stressed that while they understand the importance of reopening the economy and respect the governor's decision, they are still looking carefully at the required data and monitoring when their regions can cooperate.
"Regardless of the governor’s decision about how we move forward, we will continue to monitor our local statistics and be fully transparent about where we stand as a region," the letter said. "I look forward to continuing to work closely with our state and federal partners throughout this pandemic."
In an interview with WUSA9 on Sunday, Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey said the decision by the Northern Virginia leaders came after plenty of discussions and working together.
"Behind the scenes, the staff is working 24/7 and they actually have been since January," she said. "We’re using science and data to figure it out and we’re all working together because viruses don’t respect boundaries.”
Garvey said the local leaders were in contact with each other for around 12 hours on Saturday before releasing the announcement about not being ready to reopen for Phase One.
In Arlington County, the board chair said testing for the virus continued to be one of the top things being focused on.
"We are not great on testing at all," she said. "We are working as hard as we can to get better testing.”
Garvey did not say when Northern Virginia could enter Phase One and said the biggest goal was to meet Northam's criteria before committing to anything.
"We want to continue making progress," she said. "We don’t want to open up prematurely and then have a spike and go back to the beginning as if we never have done it.”
Northam's reopening plan said the state needed to show a 14-day downward trend in positive test results, as well as increased hospital capacity, PPE, and contact tracing abilities.
According to an analysis by the region’s public health directors, all five metrics for Northern Virginia are either unmet or cannot be determined based on currently available data.
Mayor Justin Wilson of Alexandria, who co-signed the letter, said that after the city saw a 400% rise in unemployment since February, he knew businesses in the area were eager to reopen.
"Behind every one of those businesses, there are a whole number of employees that are employed and for every one of them there are families," he said. "The heartbreak we’ve seen and the economic ruin that our residents and businesses have experienced is wrenching. It’s absolutely wrenching and it’s every day.”
However, with the city seeing around 1,000 cases of coronavirus and more than two dozen deaths, he said it was important not to rush a decision.
"We have one of the highest rates of infection in Virginia right now," Wilson said.