Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news briefing on May 7, 2020. (Gov. Ralph Northam's office)

Some Virginians — and Gov. Ralph Northam’s political opponents — were surprised when Northam announced the state wouldn’t be proceeding into its third phase of reopening, despite significant improvements in COVID-19 metrics since the start of Phase 2 earlier this month.

“Let us be clear, the Governor is once again walking back his own criteria,” Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the House minority leader, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Tens of thousands of Virginians have lost their jobs, and unemployment spiked to 10 percent. If Governor Northam genuinely wants ‘science, data, and testing’ to drive our reopening, he should allow Phase 3 to proceed.”

Northam, a physician, has never specified exactly how long Virginia would stay in each stage of his gradual reopening plan. But he’s emphasized that each progression would depend on positive trends in data, generally defined as a decrease in deaths, hospitalizations and the percentage of total tests that return positive. He’s also called for an increase in testing, an area where Virginia has historically struggled

The state hadn’t met all of those metrics when the governor first announced the start of Phase 1. But over the last month, there’s been significant progress in almost every essential measure, according to an analysis by The Virginian-Pilot. Testing has increased (though it’s not always at the 10,000-a-day goal Northam set for the state). Daily new cases are declining. And the percentage of positive tests has dropped steeply to 7.1 percent, according to the most recent data from the Virginia Department of Health — well below the 10 percent rate recommended by most health experts.

So, why is Northam taking a more cautious approach? There are multiple factors to consider, according to Dr. William Petri, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia. For one, the national outlook is different, with 27 states reporting increases in cases. Then there’s the state’s own data, which shows a decline — but not a total stop — in new transmissions.

“I think it’s the right decision,” Petri said. “The main message is that we’re not out of the woods quite yet. So, to me, it seems the prudent thing is to go in a slow, measured way.

Virginia data is better — but not THAT much better 

While the state has seen a steep decline in daily new cases, Petri said the recent average has been about 500 a day. That’s a decrease from the roughly 1,000 new cases a day Virginia was seeing in mid-May, but still doesn’t indicate that transmission has dramatically slowed or stopped.

“We’re down by half, but we’re not down by 90 percent,” he added. Meanwhile, some localities, including Richmond and Virginia Beach, haven’t seen the same dramatic decreases in case numbers. In Southwest Virginia, Dickenson County just recorded its first case of COVID-19, which Petri said was another indication that transmission largely varies by region. The gains also aren’t as clear-cut for all Virginians, with Latino and Black residents shouldering a disproportionate caseload and ongoing outbreaks at 71 long-term care facilities

“Phase 2 just started two weeks ago,” Petri said. “I’m sure we will be at Phase 3 really soon, but the important thing is to be patient.”

Other states are seeing concerning increases in case numbers

At a news conference on Thursday, Northam cited a recent story from Florida — one of the states seeing an increase in coronavirus cases — where 16 people tested positive for the disease after a night out at a recently reopened bar. 

“I would just ask all Virginians to look at what’s going on in some of these other states,” he said. “We’re watching some of their practices. And this is why — I know everyone wants to get back to that near normal, but we’ve really got to take our time.”

While some have referred to recent spikes as a “second wave” in the virus, Petri said they’re a reflection of the fact that the country’s “first wave” never ended — meaning that new transmissions of the disease never fully stopped. 

In Virginia, modeling from UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute indicates there’s still a chance that that cases could peak in late June if residents and businesses “return to normal” without an improvement in the state’s ability to test and trace new cases. Petri said that’s unlikely — especially with a cautious approach to lifting restrictions — but smartphone data already indicates that Virginians are beginning to move around as frequently as they were before the start of the pandemic, according to The Virginian-Pilot. Data from the University of Maryland indicates that only 23 percent of residents were staying at home last week. 

“You can just look at the data from the country as a whole and there’s been one wave of illness that we’re still getting out of,” Petri said. “What we’re seeing is that there are some areas where the rate of decline is less than the average for the state or the country.”

With transmission still active, Northam said Thursday that he’s reluctant to risk a surge in new cases like other states that have reopened “prematurely.” Under current guidelines, capacity restrictions are still in place for bars, restaurants and retail spaces, which would be lifted under Phase 3. The next progression will also allow entertainment venues, including theaters and amusement parks, to reopen at 50 percent capacity.

Better to go slow than to go backwards

Petri pointed out that a surge of new cases in Virginia would likely force a difficult decision on whether to reimpose distancing guidelines and business closures. “If we give it a little patience, we won’t have to backtrack,” he said.

That’s become a hot-button issue in states including Texas and North Carolina, where leaders have expressed reluctance to draw back or reverse reopening plans. Political analysts in Virginia have also expressed doubt that state and local leaders will willingly reverse reopening plans once they’re already in motion.

“That’s what scares me,” said Raymond Scheppach, former executive director of the National Governors Association and a professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, in an interview last month. “Across the board, there’s going to be very few governors who are going to roll that back. I think they’ll do whatever they can to make it work because they really want to make it work.”

For Northam, who’s currently favoring what Petri described as a “cautious” approach, that means holding back while “continuing to analyze the data,” as he told Virginians on Thursday. Petri, who’s been encouraged by the state’s progress, said that’s likely the best approach as some states continue to see growing increases in case numbers.

“I’d be surprised if we, in Virginia, didn’t continue to see this slow, steady decline,” he added. “Again, I think the message is to be patient.”