Most Virginia court activity postponed as state confirms second COVID-19 death

By: - March 17, 2020 12:01 am

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Department of Health announced Monday that a man in his 70s died of respiratory failure caused by the COVID-19, the state’s second death associated with the new coronavirus.

The first  — another man in his 70s — was announced Saturday. Both deaths occurred in the Peninsula Health District which includes hard-hit James City County, where at least 10 coronavirus cases have been confirmed by state officials.

“We will continue to work toward a day where no one dies from this virus,” said Dr. Steve Julian, acting director of the Peninsula Health District.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Virginia stood at 51, according to a noon update posted on the VDH website, though that count didn’t appear to include a handful of additional cases being reported by media outlets and local health districts.

Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted about the second death, but did not hold a media briefing or issue any additional guidance Monday on the state’s response to the crisis. On Sunday, the governor announced a ban on public events involving more than 100 people, but he stopped short of ordering mandatory closures of bars, restaurants and other places where people might continue to gather in large numbers.

The federal guidelines for how to handle restaurants and large crowds shifted Monday as President Donald Trump urged Americans to avoid social gatherings with more than 10 people and only patronize restaurants offering drive-through, delivery or pickup options.

With nothing new from the governor’s office Monday, it was the judicial branch that ordered the latest sweeping change intended to slow the spread of the virus.

The Supreme Court of Virginia declared a “judicial emergency” Monday, postponing routine court activity for at least 21 days in response to the COVID-19 outbreak that has now caused two deaths in the state.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons issued an order suspending many functions of circuit and general district courts throughout the state, saying the move was intended to “to protect the health and safety of court employees, litigants, judges, and the general public.”

The order postponed “all civil, traffic and criminal matters,” with an exception for emergency matters such as child custody cases, civil commitments, restraining orders and “quarantine or isolation matters.” The order gives judges leeway to make their own decisions on cases where jury trials have already begun or the defendant is in jail awaiting trial.

The order is set to expire April 6, unless the judicial branch decides an extension is needed. Lemons wrote that the emergency order had been requested by the governor.

The State Corporation Commission issued a separate directive ordering utilities not to disconnect anyone’s electricity, gas or water for the next 60 days.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.