Gatherings capped at 10, mask mandate expanded in latest round of COVID-19 restrictions

By: - December 10, 2020 2:04 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Starting Monday, gatherings in Virginia will be capped at 10 people and the state’s mask mandate will be expanded to include outdoor settings where social distancing isn’t possible.

The latest round of restrictions, announced by Gov. Ralph Northam at a news briefing on Thursday, comes a day after Virginia recorded 4,398 new COVID-19 cases — the largest single-day increase since the state confirmed its first infection in early March. 

As of Thursday, the statewide positivity rate (or portion of COVID-19 tests that return positive) had grown to 11 percent — an increase of more than three percentage points since late November. Hospitalizations are rising across the state. And in Southwest Virginia, where one of the region’s largest health systems has been nearly overwhelmed by a growing surge in patients, the National Guard is planning mass testing events in an effort to bring down a percent positivity rate that’s spiked to more than 20 percent in some health districts, according to the Bristol Herald Courier.

“These numbers are very high, they continue to grow, and I’m afraid we haven’t seen the full surge of hospitalizations yet,” Eric Deaton, the chief operating officer of Southwest Virginia’s Ballad Health system, said in a briefing on Wednesday. “We’re just now starting to see the hospitalizations that were affected due to Thanksgiving gatherings.”

The new restrictions on gatherings reduce the number of people allowed to meet for public and private events from 25 to 10. The rule applies both indoors and outdoors. Northam also announced a modified stay-at-home order from 12 a.m. to 5 a.m., a time period during which his administration said people are less likely to follow public health guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing.

“It’s aimed at emphasizing the importance of being home unless it’s essential,” said Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky. Like some of the governor’s other executive actions, Yarmosky said the goal of the new stay-at-home policy is “education, not enforcement.” The latest executive order doesn’t include an enforcement mechanism for the rule, meaning that police officers or officials with the Virginia Department of Health — who can currently issue citations against restaurants and other businesses who violate state guidelines — can’t take action if people break the rules.

There are also exceptions in certain circumstances, including traveling for work, seeking medical care, volunteering, and “engaging in exercise, provided individuals comply with social distancing requirements.”

But combined with the state’s ongoing ban on alcohol sales at restaurants, breweries, and other dining establishments past 10 p.m. — and a midnight curfew for the same businesses — officials are hoping to significantly curtail late-night gatherings. Yarmosky emphasized that the order will instruct Virginians to remain in their own homes between the hours of 12 a.m. to 5 a.m., discouraging social events even if a friend or family member is hosting them.

“’Stay at home’ means in your personal residence,” Yarmosky said. “The goal is really to get Virginians back into the mindset of ‘safer at home’ in a way that’s a little bit more clear.”

The state’s mask mandate, which is enforceable through the Virginia Department of Health, will also be expanded. Currently, the order applies to all Virginians aged five and older in most indoor public settings, including personal grooming businesses such as barbershops, brick-and-mortar retail stores, entertainment venues, bus stations, and restaurants (unless a customer is eating or drinking). But under the new restrictions, Yarmosky said the order will also apply to private indoor settings including office buildings and social gatherings at private homes.

“Now it’s going to include all indoor settings that are shared with others,” she said. Notably, the mandate will also apply to outdoor settings and events where social distancing isn’t possible, including whenever someone is within six feet of another person.

Capacity in educational settings, which can fully reopen for in-person instruction under the state’s current guidelines, won’t be impacted by the new orders. And while nonessential businesses such as restaurants, gyms and movie theaters are required to physically distance customers and follow enhanced cleaning procedures under Virginia’s Phase Three reopening plan, the occupancy currently allowed under the state’s business guidelines will remain largely unaffected by the latest restrictions, which don’t prohibit indoor dining or recreation.

The environment is notably less restrictive than the early days of the pandemic in late March, when Northam became one of the first governors in the country to close K-12 schools for the remainder of the academic year. He also warned Virginians to prepare for a “period of sacrifice,” shutting down almost all nonessential businesses and banning in-person dining.

The current surge in cases greatly surpasses Virginia’s COVID-19 numbers from earlier in the pandemic. Northam said Thursday that the average number of daily new cases, at roughly 4,000, is nearly four times as many as the state saw in May.

“Hospitalizations have increased statewide by more than 80 percent in just the last four weeks,” he continued.

Amid the record-breaking numbers, the governor fielded pointed questions on the underlying logic of his latest set of restrictions. In a Thursday statement, Republican leaders from the state Senate said the new stay-at-home order “smacks of martial law,” calling the rule “neither common nor sensible” and “wholly unnecessary.” Some reporters asked Northam to explain how asking Virginians to stay home between the hours between 12 and 5 a.m. would effectively curb transmission of the virus — even as restaurants and other public-facing businesses remain open.

“I’ll use two words to summarize it — it’s called ‘common sense,'” he responded. “I’ll also say something my parents taught me when I was younger, and that’s that nothing good happens after midnight.”

But state public health officials largely acknowledge that little data is available on where transmission of the virus is occurring. Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said after the briefing that only about 14 percent of all cases in Virginia have been linked to a known cause. There’s also universal agreement among health experts that dining indoors and participating in other public activities, like fitness classes or church services, can pose a significant risk of catching or transmitting the disease — especially with growing levels of community spread. 

But limitations in contact tracing data make it difficult to quantify how many cases spread in restaurants and other nonessential businesses. As a result, many experts say public officials have turned their focus to family gatherings and other personal behaviors that are known to increase the risk of transmission — and don’t have the same financial ramifications of fully closing businesses.

“There’s a delicate balance between public health concerns and economic concerns,” said Madhav Marathe, director of the UVA Biocomplexity Institute’s Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing Division, in an interview last week. “And one might argue, ‘Why shut down certain types of businesses but not others?’”

The latest round of restrictions will go into effect at 12:01 on Monday and remain through Jan. 31 unless amended or rescinded, Yarmosky said. Community spread in Virginia still varies by region, with some areas — like Northern Virginia — with caseloads that are relatively more contained than many other areas of the country. 

But some counties — especially in rural areas with smaller populations — are seeing case rates that rival some of the worst-hit states in the nation. Bland County, in the southwestern corner of Virginia currently has a rate of 257 cases per 100,000 residents, according to The New York Times. Nottoway County, roughly an hour from Richmond, has a rate of 259 per 100,000.

Some advocacy groups are also asking Northam to expand protections as cases continue to surge. The Virginia Education Association, one of the state’s largest teacher unions, issued a Thursday statement calling on the governor and local school boards to ” immediately order a conversion to all-virtual instruction in public schools until at least mid-January 2021, when the numbers can be re-evaluated.”

“Public schools are attempting an unprecedented balancing act,” VEA President James Fedderman said. “We must ensure that our students are learning — but we cannot take actions that put the health and safety of students, or educators, or Virginia families at risk when safer options are available.”

The Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income Virginians, also called on Northam to take “immediate steps” to stop evictions and reduce the population within state prison facilities.

“Thirty-five people have died already in our prisons alone, not including jails and other detention facilities,” the group said in a statement. “As the danger increases in the outside world, those locked away, and the communities where these facilities are located, will see their risks explode.”

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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.