Gov. Ralph Northam met with Dr. Deborah Birx, a top White House official handling the coronavirus response, Tuesday in Richmond. (Governor’s office)
It started with a scolding — and a vow to crack down on businesses that weren’t following the state’s safety orders.
Now, with cases rising throughout many parts of Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that he was implementing new restrictions in Hampton Roads, a region he cited for one of the most troubling increases in caseloads.
“I want you to know we are putting a lot of attention on Hampton Roads,” he said, introducing three primary restrictions for the area. Starting midnight on Thursday, indoor dining is limited to 50 percent capacity, including food courts, breweries, wineries and distilleries. Social gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited as part of a new emergency order.
Northam also announced that no alcohol can be served onsite at businesses past 10 p.m. Restaurants are required to close by midnight — effectively shutting down bars in the region, Northam said (though Virginia technically does not allow the sale of alcohol without food, and bar seating has been forbidden in the commonwealth since the early days of the pandemic).
“This is about stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Hampton Roads,” he added. “It happens when too many people gather together, when too many people are noncompliant, and as I’ve said before, when too many people are selfish.”
Enforcement has also focused on the Hampton Roads region since Northam announced the Virginia Department of Health would begin unannounced inspections to ensure businesses were complying with the commonwealth’s mask order and other safety guidelines. Truman Braslaw, a spokesman for VDH, confirmed Monday that the department has suspended a total of eight permits.
Three — for Chicho’s Backstage, Mack’s Barge, and The Living Room — were restaurants or venues in Norfolk. VDH also suspended two permits in Virginia Beach, for The Boxx (a nightclub) and Central Shore (a tapas lounge). Rick’s Frozen Custard in Portsmouth and the Eagles Nest Rockin’ Country Bar in Chesapeake had their permits suspended, as did Calabash, a restaurant in Mechanicsville.
Other businesses have remained unscathed, despite a total of 12,415 complaints across the commonwealth. Northam also painted a rosier picture of the pandemic in other parts of Virginia, pointing to a “dramatic decrease” in the percentage of tests that return positive in Northern Virginia — once a hotspot for the virus — and a “largely stable” case rate in four out of five regions in the commonwealth.
“Do not let yourself get weary,” he said. “We’re going to get through this together. I know that we all need to know what we can to let a little air out of a very tense balloon. But we do have the power to turn this around.”
Many health officials, though, recently sounded an alarm over what one epidemiologist described as “sustained growth” in COVID-19 cases throughout a significant portion of Virginia. Data from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute show that roughly a third of the commonwealth’s health districts are experiencing a spike in cases. Southwest Virginia has also seen an uptick throughout most of July, and one hospital in Albemarle County recently ended community testing events to reserve resources for a surge in new hospitalizations.
Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the Trump administration’s top advisers during the coronavirus pandemic, met with Northam earlier on Tuesday to recommend stricter mitigation measures — part of a five-state tour, including Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, aimed at areas with growing COVID-19 numbers.
“We wanted to come by and really talk to the governor and health leadership about additional mitigation efforts that they may be using over the next several days to decrease the spread,” Birx said at a briefing after her meeting with Northam. A recent White House document classified Virginia as a “yellow zone” state with a percent positivity rate that’s crept above 10 percent in some regions. Birx also highlighted a recent surge in the “heart of the vacation land” — an area that includes Virginia Beach and the Hampton Roads region — and an uptick of cases in Richmond.
The new mitigation efforts recommended by Birx and federal officials in a July 14 report stand in stark contrast to earlier messaging from the Trump administration, which spent much of April pushing states to reopen their economies and decide on their own guidelines for lifting restrictions. Birx said Tuesday that the state’s hardest-hit localities should strictly limit gatherings (new White House guidelines recommend 10 people or fewer), move away from indoor dining, and emphasize mask use, “not only in public but also potentially at home” for households with high-risk family members.
“We wanted to make sure we brought that information in person,” she said, pointing to recent measures in Texas and Arizona, which responded to a surge in cases by closing bars, adding social distancing measures and introducing universal mask mandates. Birx said those policies led to “significant improvement” in transmission, urging Virginia officials to take similar mitigation efforts.
Northam described the meeting as positive, saying he was still considering many of the stricter measures suggested by the federal administration. “I would start by saying all options are on the table,” he said during his briefing. “I look at the data every day, at specific regions.”
But the governor also aimed some of his strongest criticism to date at Trump, saying there was a “disconnect” between advice from health experts and messaging from the president. “What is very concerning to me is the inequity in testing,” he added, blaming delays on a lack of federal leadership.
“It’s just unacceptable — and I say this as a provider — to wait seven to 10 days for test results,” Northam said. “This started back in February, and there’s been no direction, no program, nationally. This is something that states had to do on their own, governors have had to compete with each other, and it’s been a chaotic process. And one that I believe could have been avoided with better leadership.”
Other governors have criticized the administration for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including ongoing messaging over the severity of the virus. Birx pushed back on Tuesday morning, saying she’s conveyed the seriousness of the pandemic since it began.
“After joining the White House, I carried the same message that I always have, focused on public health,” she said. “And that message is really a seriousness, and a seriousness that noted from the very beginning in March what we had learned from countries around the world — that there were groups that were very specifically, highly susceptible to this virus as a serious outcome.”
She largely did not respond to a question about more specific concerns over the administration’s response. “I think what’s important, at the moment that we’re in now, is really working with each state as we see the virus spread across the South,” Birx added.
As of Tuesday, Virginia had a total of 86,994 COVID-19 cases and a statewide percent positivity rate of 7.3 percent. With Hampton Roads removed, Northam said the statewide average fell to 6 percent — though several health districts, including Chesterfield, Crater, and the Cumberland Plateau, have moved significantly higher and show continuing signs of upward growth.
While Birx said states would ultimately have to make their own decisions about mitigation efforts, she expressed concern over reintroducing restrictions on a regional basis.
“What always worries me is if there’s people that have gone to the Virginia Beach area or the Portsmouth area or the Hampton area and unknowingly bring that virus back,” she said. “That’s really the decision.”
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