‘We’re talking semantics here’: Northam defends not issuing stay-at-home order for Virginians

By: - March 27, 2020 5:18 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news briefing in March 2020 on the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia and the state’s response. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Asked whether he would implement a shelter-in-place order to reduce further spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam contended that the mandate was just another description for what he had already done.

“We’re talking semantics here,” Northam said at a news briefing on Friday. “We’re talking about how to enforce this. I think if you go back and listen to my comments, not only from today but from previous days, I have said repeatedly, ‘Stay at home unless it’s essential that you go out.’ 

“That’s what we’ll continue to say, that’s what our guidelines will be,” he added. “If you look at whether this is a shelter-at-home, whether it’s a shutdown, whether it’s a lockdown, however you want to describe it, all states are giving the same directions, and that is to stay at home.”

But some residents and local leaders have called on Northam to implement additional restrictions as COVID-19 continues to spread across the commonwealth. As of Friday, there were 604 positive cases, 83 hospitalizations and 14 deaths in Virginia.

Efforts to track the transmission have been stymied by continued shortages of testing materials. Laurie Forlano, the deputy commissioner for population health at the Virginia Department of Health, said it would be accurate to consider the known number of cases as a fraction of the overall spread.

Earlier this week, city officials in Charlottesville  urged Northam to take stricter measures to contain the disease. In a letter on Tuesday, Mayor Nikuyah Walker, Fire Chief Andrew Baxter, and Police Chief RaShall Brackney specifically asked the governor to reconsider his latest executive order and issue a mandated stay-at-home order similar to ones in Louisiana, New York, and California.

Those orders allow residents to leave the house for essential errands such as grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, or even picking up takeout orders from restaurants. But residents are widely restricted from going to work, visiting friends and families, or standing more than six feet from another person in public spaces.

Northam has repeatedly called on Virginians to police their own behavior and stay home whenever necessary. “This will unfortunately be the case for weeks to come,” he said at Friday’s briefing. “This virus clearly spreads when people gather together. I can’t repeat myself enough: Virginians, please stay at home.”

But his executive orders, so far, have placed fewer restrictions on residents and businesses than those in other states. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has shut down all “nonessential businesses” including brick-and-mortar stores that don’t offer food, medicine, household goods or alcohol. Outdoor recreation areas, including golf courses, are also closed.

In Virginia, Northam is allowing “nonessential” retail stores (with the exception of bars and restaurants) to remain open as long as they limit their capacity to 10 patrons. All places of “indoor public amusement” are closed under the governor’s latest executive order, but outdoor facilities, such as golf courses and driving ranges, can remain open.

Northam’s administration has become increasingly candid about the continued spread of coronavirus and the already strained capacity of Virginia’s health care system. In his strongest call on the federal government to date, Northam said Friday that it’s vital for President Donald Trump to take the lead on expanding the country’s access to testing equipment and personal protective gear for medical providers.

Northam participated in a call with the president and Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday along with other governors across the country. Governors on the call “repeatedly said that production and distribution of personal protective equipment must be managed at the federal level,” Northam told reporters.

“We’re all out there bidding literally against each other,” he said. “We’re bidding against our own hospitals, other states, and the federal government.”

State leaders have called on Trump to use the Defense Production Act — which he activated last week — to require manufacturers to produce personal protective equipment and sell it back to the federal government. On Friday, after talks initially appeared to break down, Trump announced that he would deploy the act and require General Motors to produce ventilators.

It’s unclear how many ventilators Virginia would receive if production increased. Currently, the state has roughly 2,000 ICU beds with accompanying ventilators, Health Secretary Dr. Daniel Carey said during Friday’s briefing. The respiratory machines are often needed to help coronavirus patients breathe in severe cases of the disease.

The state has also placed an order for 350 additional ventilators from the National Strategic Stockpile — a stash of medical equipment available to states and localities during public health emergencies — according to Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s press secretary. 

Officials say they’re still determining the full extent of potential COVID-19 spread. Carey hasn’t given a definite estimate of how many ventilators and hospital beds may be needed to treat coronavirus patients in Virginia. He and other health officials have said repeatedly that they don’t have forecasts for when the virus might peak.

Data from the Harvard Global Health Institute projects that Virginia may have 57,648 coronavirus patients requiring ICU care. In the first six months of the epidemic, the state is projected to need 3,843 ICU beds.

Meanwhile, doctors across Virginia are reporting shortages and rationing of personal protective equipment. Some providers, such as primary care doctors and nursing home facilities, have received little to no supplies from the state.

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.