Northam announces rollback of some COVID-19 restrictions as experts warn against a ‘predictable’ spring surge

By: - March 23, 2021 2:02 pm

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

With COVID-19 cases down after a winter surge, and with nearly a quarter of the population having received at least one dose of vaccine, Gov. Ralph Northam is again rolling back some of Virginia’s pandemic restrictions — cautiously.

At a Tuesday news briefing, the governor announced the expansion of the attendance cap on indoor social gatherings from 10 to 50 people. Outdoor gatherings, currently limited to 25 attendees, will be allowed up to 100.

Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the new guidelines will offer slightly more flexibility to events-oriented businesses — including Virginia’s wedding industry, which has lobbed some of the harshest criticism at Northam’s health and safety guidelines (at least two venue owners have sued over the restrictions). 

But the governor is still taking a moderate approach to reopening compared to some neighboring states, including Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan lifted all capacity restrictions for the vast majority of businesses earlier this month. Northam’s executive order requiring mask wearing in indoor public areas remains in effect. 

“It’s been really important to the governor that we’re slow and steady on this,” Yarmosky said. “We want to make sure we’re in a position where we’re not going backwards before we reach the finish line.”

The state’s new guidelines will go into effect on April 1 — exactly a month after the governor relaxed restrictions for the first time since last summer. Northam has pledged to take a gradual approach to reopening amid concerns over coronavirus variants and a still-in-progress vaccination campaign, which is expected to open to all adults in Virginia by late April.

“We hope that with trends continuing as they are, we can look at further steps in the coming months. But it’s critical we do this slowly and thoughtfully,” the governor said last month. He’s indicated that he’ll wait at least four weeks between rolling back restrictions to ensure metrics in Virginia continue to decline.

But as Northam promised in February, the state is also relaxing capacity restrictions on entertainment venues. Currently, indoor spaces are capped at 250 people or 30 percent of total capacity — whichever is lower. Starting in April, indoor venues will be allowed to admit up to 500 people as long as it doesn’t exceed 30 percent of their capacity.

The governor is also completely lifting the current thousand-person cap on outdoor venues as long as they continue to meet 30 percent capacity restrictions.

“What that means is that these really big stadiums where you can fit 50,000 people — you can have 30 percent capacity that’s more than 1,000 people,” Yarmosky said. “Because we recognize that it’s outdoors, there’s much less risk of transmission and you can spread folks out.”

What won’t change are current guidelines for restaurants and retailers, which have six-foot distancing requirements rather than set capacity restrictions. Northam extended alcohol sales at dining establishments to midnight last month, and that restriction will also stay the same, along with a midnight curfew for restaurants.

Gyms and fitness centers are currently limited to 75 percent capacity with 10-foot distancing requirements between equipment — guidelines that will also stay the same. But Yarmosky said that fitness classes are considered “gatherings” by the state, which means they can accommodate up to 50 attendees indoors and 100 outdoors as long as they don’t exceed 75 percent capacity. The state is expanding the permitted number of spectators at recreational sports events to 100 for indoor venues and up to 500 outdoors.

Last week, Northam also released preliminary guidance for in-person graduation and commencements. The new requirements allow up to 5,000 people outdoors, or 30 percent of capacity — whichever is lower. Indoor events will be able to host 500 people or 30 percent of venue capacity.

Part of the state’s optimism is also tied to an expected increase in vaccine supply to Virginia. Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, previously anticipated that the state’s share of Johnson & Johnson shots would increase significantly by the end of March after an initial 69,000-dose shipment at the start of the month. Yarmosky said Tuesday that the state is now expecting 48,000 doses next week, “which is really exciting.”

Health experts have been pushing for a fast vaccination campaign since doses were first released in December. While infections and hospitalizations in Virginia have declined significantly since a record-breaking surge over the holidays — with daily cases spiking to nearly 10,000 on some days — data from the Virginia Department of Health shows an uptick since mid-March

The New York Times lists Virginia as one of 21 states where there’s been an average of at least 15 cases per 100,000 residents over the last week with no sign of a decline.

Infectious disease experts are still worried that a rise in more infectious variants could result in a spring surge before most of the population has been vaccinated against the disease. “That’s a nightmare for me. And it’s a predictable one,” Dr. Taison Bell, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia, told the Mercury last week.

Some European countries, including Germany, are ordering new shutdowns as variant cases surge. Bryan Lewis, a computational epidemiologist for UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, said a major concern is that Virginians will let their guard down before there’s significant herd immunity — generally defined as at least 70 percent of the population with resistance to the virus. Mobility data is showing an increase in restaurant visits and other pre-pandemic activity, and travel could also bring new variant cases into the state.

“In my mind, this is a race between variants and the vaccine,” Lewis said last week.

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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.