As coronavirus crisis drags on, Virginia Republicans escalate calls to reopen

By: - April 17, 2020 12:03 am

A few dozen protesters gathered on Capitol Square to protest Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay at home order Thursday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

On Tuesday, state Sen. Amanda Chase, the only declared Republican candidate for Virginia governor in 2021, took to Facebook Live to warn supporters that Gov. Ralph Northam might be using University of Virginia COVID-19 models to justify extending his shutdown orders into August.

That prediction — delivered via a video viewed more than 400,000 times — turned out to be incorrect.

On Wednesday, Northam said he was extending mandatory closures for certain types of businesses by two weeks, setting a new expiration date of May 8.

In a Facebook post Wednesday night, Chase told followers she was glad her theory didn’t pan out and suggested the governor may have sensed a backlash coming from Virginians who “want to get back to work.”

“I think it’s time to put pressure on him,” Chase said. “And say May 8th is it.”

As Virginia enters its second month of social distancing, Republicans are becoming increasingly vocal about calling for a plan to reopen the economy, signaling an initial period of bipartisan consensus over how to manage the crisis may be coming to an end. 

Northam, the only medical doctor serving as governor of any state, has showed no signs of changing course, saying he’s following the advice of health experts and responding to data showing that lifting social distancing rules too quickly would put more people in danger. The governor’s stay-at-home order asking Virginians to avoid leaving the house is still scheduled to be in effect until June 10.

As the Northam administration continues to confront the public health crisis, Republican General Assembly leaders are beginning to press for a plan to get business moving again.

“Virginia can’t go on like this,” Senate Republican leaders said in a statement responding to the governor’s extension of his order banning large gatherings and closing restaurant dining rooms, gyms, theaters, hair salons and barber shops and other businesses. “For the sake of our state’s economy and the quality of life of all Virginians, we need to prepare for a safely ‘Reopened Virginia’ as soon as possible.”

Opponents of the governor’s shutdown policies have been using social media to try to organize protests. The first one, held outside the Executive Mansion Thursday, was sparsely attended, with only a few dozen people gathering to hold signs and picnic with their families. 

Other demonstrations at statehouses this week drew bigger crowds.  The Associated Press reported that the protests coincide with a push to reopen the economy “being influenced and amplified by a potent alliance of big money business interests, religious freedom conservatives and small-government activists.”

After the protest in Richmond began, police closed the gates to Capitol Square, blocking a small group from entering. Capitol Police, who had a heavy presence and urged those gathering to maintain six feet of distance between each other or face summons, deferred questions about the closure to the Department of General Services.

Chase had mentioned Thursday’s protest on her Facebook page. She said she might get involved in a more organized protest effort depending on what Northam chooses to do.

“If he had extended it into August, I would’ve joined right in there in protest against it,” Chase said. “If I’m going to protest, you’ll know it.”

A few dozen protesters gathered on Capitol Square to protest Gov. Ralph Northam's stay at home order Thursday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Police kept tabs on a few dozen protesters gathered on Capitol Square to protest Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order Thursday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

At his briefing Wednesday, Northam said data shows the state’s social distancing measures are helping slow the spread of COVID-19. But with new modeling prepared by scientists from UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute cautioning against lifting social distancing rules in the near future, Northam said, it’s too soon to talk about returning to old ways of living.

“When people say that it’s time to stop what we’re doing and get back to normal, they’re wrong,” Northam said. “If we let off the brakes and try to go back to the way things were, we’ll get another spike of cases that could overwhelm our hospitals.”

A recent Virginia Commonwealth University poll found a 76 percent approval rating for Northam’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with about 70 percent of Republicans and independents indicating either slight or strong approval. Around 90 percent of Democrats approve of the governor’s performance, the poll found.

Medical experts broadly support the continuation of social distancing rules to limit the spread of the virus.

Dr. Tom Yackel, the president of MCV Physicians at VCU, described the pandemic as a wildfire and social distancing as the only tool officials have to fight the flames. 

“If we lift those measures, the fire will just pick up where it left off. We’ll turn on the fans,” Yackel said. “And for a while, it will seem like everything’s great. But then you’ll see that curve start to go up because we haven’t changed anything.”

In a statement Thursday, left-leaning advocacy group Progress Virginia called the Republican rhetoric “nothing short of reckless,” saying it threatens “the health and safety of Virginia families.”

As of Thursday morning, Virginia had 6,889 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 1,114 hospitalizations and 208 deaths, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Since March 15, nearly 420,000 Virginians have filed for unemployment.

In an interview Thursday, former Gov. George Allen, a Republican tapped to serve on a coronavirus recovery commission convened by the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he’s hoping to bring “concepts of proportionality and balance” to the question of how states can begin to gradually reopen.

“We just can’t be paralyzed by fear,” said Allen, who served as governor from 1994 to 1998 and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate.

General social distancing should continue even after society starts to reopen, Allen said, and stricter measures will probably be necessary to continue to protect vulnerable populations like nursing home residents. 

“It’s going to be slow,” Allen said. “But the sooner it gets moving, in my view, the better, with the proper protocols. I’m not saying you ought to open up everything tomorrow or next week.”

Rural areas that seem to have been spared the brunt of the virus, he said, could potentially start back up before regions with more density and more COVID-19 cases.

“I would not hold the whole state back if there’s large areas and communities that look relatively safe and with the proper protocols can reopen,” Allen said.

It won’t do any good, he said, to turn the issue of when and how to reopen into a partisan fight.

State lawmakers will get their first formal chance to shape the state’s coronavirus response next week when the General Assembly meets for the first time since adjourning its regular business session March 12. 

On Wednesday, the House and Senate will be meeting in different locations in Richmond after legislative leaders decided that going to work in the Capitol’s two chambers was unsafe. The House is expected to meet outside the Capitol building. The Senate will convene at the Science Museum of Virginia.

House members, Republicans and Democrats alike, are being encouraged to wear masks, wash their hands and stay at least six feet away from their colleagues’ desks.

In interviews, several Republican lawmakers were quick to note they aren’t advocating for doing away with social distancing altogether or ignoring guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, the chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, said his office has been inundated with calls from people telling him they’re “on the brink of going out of business” and can’t last until June.

“If we’re saying social distancing works in the public and you can go to the grocery store, buy liquor or go to Home Depot, what is the difference in saying that you can’t do that in the other establishments that the government has mandated to close?,” McDougle said. “Let’s give them the tools to be responsible and stay open.”

Northam’s executive actions have been less strict than orders issued by other Democratic governors. He has not ordered mandatory shutdowns for non-essential businesses, saying workplaces he hasn’t explicitly shut down can continue operating as long as they follow social distancing guidelines.

Chase said that’s led to inconsistencies in what’s open and what’s closed. As an example, she pointed to the mandatory closure of the Metro Richmond Zoo in her district.

“You can do social distancing at the zoo,” Chase said. “Why are we closing down a zoo but you can go play golf?”

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a COVID-19 news briefing last week. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Northam has said he’s making decisions based on data that’s changing every day.

“We’re going to need to keep living this way for the near future… The key is for us to keep doing what we’re doing,” the governor said at his Monday briefing. “Just as soon as we can get people’s lives back to normal, we will. But we also have to do it safely.”

Mercury reporters Kate Masters and Ned Oliver contributed to this story.

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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.