Virginia officials encourage social distancing, stop short of widespread closures or quarantine

By: - March 15, 2020 5:45 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency on Thursday, freeing up state funds and resources to respond to COVID-19. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Starting Sunday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam banned any public event with more than 100 people — part of new measures to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus.

But he stopped short of a mandatory statewide quarantine or new restrictions on bars and restaurants, steps that other regional leaders have taken as new cases of coronavirus increase in Virginia and across the country.  The same day, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the state’s casinos, race tracks and off-track betting parlors to close indefinitely. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced additional regulations on the city’s bars and restaurants, shutting down nightclubs and banning more than 250 people from being seated in a single space.

Northam did suggest that restaurants in Virginia could “space the tables out” to encourage social distancing among patrons. The announcement came after a busy pre-St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Richmond, with lines snaking onto the sidewalk outside many downtown bars.

Virginia now has the most coronavirus cases in the region (as of Sunday, Maryland had 31 and D.C. had 16). During an afternoon briefing with reporters, Northam confirmed that the state has 45 confirmed or presumptive positives, including a “cluster” in James City County with signs of community spread. (A Chesterfield man also tested positive for the virus Saturday morning.)

“It’s just not a good idea for that many people to be close to each other right now,” he said during the news conference. “We ask people to use common sense. That means events that bring together more than 100 people in a single room, or a single confined space, at the same time without room to spread out.”

In an interview after the briefing, Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said the state was encouraging social distancing — when individuals limit their contact with other people and avoid public gatherings — but wasn’t at the point of issuing more stringent restrictions. Those would be reserved “only in a situation where we have really massive, widespread disease,” he said. 

Oliver couldn’t say how many cases would constitute “widespread disease” in Virginia.

“It’s also, quite frankly, not just my decision,” he added. “I think a lot of communities — because these things happen in local areas, I think we’ll see local areas probably taking those sorts of actions even before we do it at the state level.”

But state officials said they were growing particularly concerned by coronavirus spread in James City County, which had eight cases as of Sunday. The state reported its first coronavirus death in the district on Saturday — a man in his 70s who had been hospitalized for the disease. 

The cause of death was “respiratory failure as a result of COVID-19,” according to a release from the Virginia Department of Health.

Fairfax County, with 10 confirmed positives, currently has the most cases of coronavirus in the state. But Oliver said those cases are believed to be unrelated, while most of the spread in James City County can be linked back to a pair of patients.

Those two cases were linked to four others in the district. Health officials have been unable to determine how the deceased patient contracted the disease, making it a suspected case of community spread, Oliver said.

The county’s eighth case was a contact of the man who died. State and local health officials have identified 284 additional people who have been in contact with sick residents in the area, Oliver said.

None have exhibited symptoms, but the state is working to reach all of them to ensure they self-quarantine and avoid contact with other residents in the area.

“I’m very concerned about what’s going on in James City County,” he added. “It’s likely there’s community spread, and I think steps have been taken to increase social distancing.”

Northam announced that local governments in the Peninsula health district, an area that includes Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg, James City County and York County, will be closed through March 30. The areas will continue to provide essential services — including police, fire and rescue, and trash pick-up — but public buildings, including libraries and recreation centers, will be closed for the next two weeks.

The new guidelines are the state’s latest efforts to control the spread of the disease. Northam previously declared a state of emergency on Thursday and ordered Virginia schools to close for two weeks on Friday. On Sunday, he added that the state was continuing to “phase in” telework options for public employees. 

State agencies are working with local districts to determine how they’ll provide services, including educational instruction, during the closures, Northam said.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management also confirmed Sunday that one of its own employees tested positive for COVID-19. State officials gave no additional information about where the employee was stationed or how the transmission occurred. 

The same day, Virginia Commonwealth University announced that someone who attended a program at the school’s Larrick Student Center tested positive for coronavirus. 

“The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) reports that the individual, who is not a VCU, VCUHS employee or a student, is self-quarantined at home,” university president Michael Rao wrote in an online statement.

Oliver said it was time for all Virginians to be having frank discussions about their own contingency plans in the event of widespread disruptions and continued closures. The state is still struggling with limited testing capacity, a major barrier to tracking and containing the spread of the virus. 

Currently, the state lab has the capacity to test between 370 and 470 patients, according to director Denise Toney. It’s still waiting on additional test kits from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which are expected to arrive some time in the next week.

In the meantime, academic labs in Virginia are likely weeks away from developing their own tests. LabCorp and Quest, two private diagnostic companies, have launched their own tests, but a recent tally suggests a combined capacity of 2,500 patients a day (both labs are accepting samples from across the country). The state lab is working on developing its own test, but is still very early in the process, according to spokeswoman Dena Potter.

The nationwide shortage of testing has led some public officials to pivot towards containing the spread. In a statement on Friday, Hogan said Maryland officials have “moved on” from testing and were more focused on treating those already sick.

Virginia’s own medical infrastructure is dependent on containing the spread of the disease. Oliver said he was confident “right now” that the state has enough hospital beds and personal protective equipment to address the current number of cases. But if spread of the virus continues, hospitals and doctors will likely struggle to respond.

“If this becomes a really widespread, community-spread infection, it would tax our system,” he added. “And that’s why we’re taking the measures that we are in order to flatten that curve. If we do nothing, and the infections take off — if you double every day, pretty soon things are gonna get bad.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.