Here’s what will — and won’t — change under Gov. Ralph Northam’s new stay-at-home order

By: - March 30, 2020 3:59 pm

A pedestrian bridge across the James River in downtown Richmond was crowded hours after Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay at home order. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order for Virginians on Monday in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — just a few days after describing the difference between the mandate and existing state orders as “semantics.”

The order came hours after a similar directive from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, highlighting an increasingly regional response to a growing crisis. Northam said he spoke with Hogan and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser earlier on Monday to coordinate guidelines related to the virus. Later that day, Bowser issued her own stay-at-home order for D.C. residents.

Northam also spoke with both leaders last week shortly before announcing extended school and business closures throughout Virginia. 

As of Monday, there were a combined 2,840 coronavirus cases in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. Virginia alone has 1,020 known cases with 136 hospitalizations and 25 deaths. 

“This weekend, some of our beaches and recreation areas were literally packed,” Northam said before issuing the order.

On Brown’s Island, a busy park along downtown Richmond’s riverfront, a sign advises people to stay six feet apart. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“I will remind those folks, you are being very, very selfish,” he added later. “Because you are putting all of us, and especially our health care providers, at risk.” 

The new stay-at-home order marks the most restrictive measures that Northam has implemented since Virginia recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 7. The rules extend through June 10 — roughly 90 days after the state’s first known infection — though Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said that date could change depending on the trajectory and spread of the disease.

But for everyday Virginians, there’s not much of change between the new directive and previous restrictions announced by the administration.

The shift is largely rhetorical. Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said Northam’s administration had already implemented restrictions similar to other states, but had not invoked the stay-at-home language they used to describe them. “I think messages matter,” he said.

Here’s what the new executive order will — and won’t — affect for residents across the state:

What does Virginia’s stay-at-home order actually mean?

While Northam has repeatedly asked Virginians to stay at home over the past few weeks, the new order specifically forbids all public and private gatherings of more than 10 people. Residents are required to stay at home unless they’re leaving for “essential” reasons — a broadly defined list of errands and tasks.

“To date, this has been a suggestion to Virginians,” Northam said. “Today, it’s an order.”

Gov. Ralph Northam announced he had issued a stay-at-home order Monday that will remain in effect until June 10. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginians can still go to work or out to shop for groceries and household supplies, pick up school meals and receive medical care. Nonessential retail businesses — including brick-and-mortar stores that don’t sell food, household supplies, liquor, or medicine — will still be allowed to remain open as long as they limit patrons to 10 or fewer, Northam said. Restaurants are also permitted to remain open for takeout and delivery.

The 10-person restrictions do not apply to families living in the same residence. Virginians will still be able to leave their homes if they’re “taking care of other individuals, animals, or visiting the home of a family member,” according to the order.

One of the biggest changes applies to colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education are now required to cancel all in-person classes and gatherings of 10 people or more. 

The new limits were implemented days after Liberty University in Lynchburg allowed more than a thousand students to return to campus. Nearly a dozen students are now sick with COVID-19 symptoms, and one has tested positive.

Asked explicitly Wednesday if he could force Liberty to close, Northam said “No. We just are asking them to follow the same guidelines as other colleges and universities.”

Can I still go out for exercise?

Yes. Residents are still permitted to exercise outside, but are expected to maintain six feet of distance from other people. 

While the new executive order closes public beaches, Virginians can still visit for “fishing or exercising.” Yarmosky said localities can use common sense in enforcing the guidelines — breaking up gatherings on public beaches, for instance, but allowing walkers and runners as long as they maintain social distance.

Public parks in Virginia are still open during daylight hours. Private campgrounds are now prohibited from allowing stays shorter than 14 days.

Golf courses and other outdoor recreation facilities can also remain open.

“I think it’s fairly straightforward,” Northam said. “One can go to the golf course and play golf, but club houses are closed.”

What are the penalties for breaking the order, and who’s in charge of enforcement?

Only parts of the executive order are enforceable, Yarmosky said. State and local authorities can enforce the sections that restrict gatherings of 10 people or more, order colleges and universities to cancel gatherings and classes and set limits on public beaches and campgrounds.

Violating the executive order is considered a Class 1 misdemeanor, Northam said, which is technically punishable by up to 12 months in jail, a fine of $2,500, or both. But he emphasized that state officials are not planning to imprison residents for noncompliance.

“This is not a time when we’re looking to put people in jail,” he said. State officials also will not (and cannot) penalize anyone for leaving their homes, even for “nonessential” reasons.

“We’re saying you should stay home to the greatest extent possible,” Northam added. “Paired with adequate social distancing, staying at home is an important way to combat this virus. This is a community-wide effort and I’m depending on all of you to comply.”

Does my office have to close?

No. While Northam said that businesses are encouraged to comply with the 10-person guidelines, Yarmosky clarified that the new executive order maintains the same guidance as the governor’s previous directive. Professional businesses, such as law firms, “must utilize telework as much as possible” and “adhere to social distancing recommendations.” But firms are not mandated to send all their employees home.

Will it work?

Given the absence of widespread testing, strict social isolation measures are one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of disease, said Dr. William Petri, an infectious disease specialist and associate director of the microbiology department at the University of Virginia.

“It’s a way to physically separate us all from each other,” he said in an interview on Monday. “Because right now, we can’t reliably separate who’s infected from who’s not.”

As of Monday, 12,038 Virginians have been tested for COVID-19 — roughly 0.14 percent of the state’s population. Right now, the Virginia Department of Health — and most hospitals — limit testing to the most high-risk groups, including health providers and nursing home residents with symptoms of the disease. But Petri said there’s now solid evidence that coronavirus can be transmitted through asymptomatic patients or those with mild symptoms of the disease.

“They tested all the residents at Life Care Center [a nursing home in Washington state] and found that many who had no symptoms had the virus in their samples,” Petri said. “And the levels of virus were sometimes as high in asymptomatic people than in patients with symptoms.”

The riverfront on Belle Isle in downtown Richmond was crowded hours after Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay at home order Monday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia, like most states, is likely missing most asymptomatic cases of the disease. Further restrictions are a way to keep those patients from spreading the disease to higher-risk groups and rapidly increasing the strain on the hospital system, Petri said.

Experts now believe that the strict isolation measures in Wuhan, China — the epicenter of the global outbreak — were effective at stopping transmission. Officials in Seattle have also seen evidence that spread is slowing thanks to local restrictions.

Northam’s new executive order takes a more moderate approach than either area. It’s also less restrictive than similar directives in nearby states, including Maryland, where campgrounds and golf courses are closed along with all nonessential brick-and-mortar stores.

Northam said that stopping the transmission of COVID-19 in Virginia will largely depend on whether residents comply with the new directives.

“What we are seeing now is the result of how people interacted two or three weeks ago,” he said. “What we will see a few weeks from now will be determined by how people behave today and in the following days.”

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver contributed to this story.

UPDATE: This story was updated to include the stay-at-home order issued in Washington, D.C. after Gov. Ralph Northam’s briefing.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, 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. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.