Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Starting May 15, Virginia will significantly relax capacity restrictions on social gatherings and entertainment venues as COVID-19 numbers plateau across much of the state.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced the latest rollback in a video message on Thursday, citing the state’s continued progress in vaccinations. Data from the Virginia Department of Health indicates that more than 40 percent of the population has received at least one shot and more than 26 percent are fully vaccinated. Every Virginian 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine on Sunday.
“Vaccination numbers are up, and our COVID case numbers are substantially lower than they were earlier this year,” Northam said in a statement. “So, we have been able to begin easing some mitigation measures.”
Those include the state’s current limits on indoor and outdoor social gatherings. Next month, the attendance cap for indoor groups will increase from 50 to 100 people. The limits on outdoor gatherings will increase from 100 to 250.
Capacity restrictions on entertainment venues, including theaters, concert halls and convention centers, will also expand. Indoor venues — currently capped at 30 percent capacity or 500 people, depending on which number is lower — will be permitted to operate at 50 percent capacity or 1,000 attendees. Outdoor venues will also be permitted to operate at 50 percent capacity with no specific limit on crowd size.
Indoor sporting events will be permitted to host 250 spectators or 50 percent of their total capacity, depending on which is lower. Attendance limits for outdoor events will increase from 500 to 1,000 spectators, or 50 percent of capacity.
The current rules governing restaurants will also be significantly relaxed. Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor will remove the state’s current midnight to 5 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants. They’ll also be permitted to sell alcohol past midnight. The announcement comes a day after Northam quietly amended his current executive order to allow bar seating — with six feet of social distancing between patrons — for the first time in more than a year.
Under the relaxed restrictions, restaurants will be permitted to book private indoor parties of up to 100 people, but the governor’s executive order still requires six feet of distancing between tables and bar seats.
“We felt that given the fact we had over 40 percent of Virginians with at least one dose — and with over 76,000 shots going into arms every day — we were at the point where we didn’t have to wait to make the change to bar seating,” Yarmosky said. “Again, this is socially distanced seating. We’re not allowing folks to party on bars.”
While the state has still been averaging between 1,300 and 1,500 daily new coronavirus cases for the last week, those numbers have largely plateaued since a record-breaking surge in December and January. Fewer than 6 percent of COVID-19 tests are returning positive statewide, though testing numbers have also declined in recent weeks. But health experts say a declining positivity rate — combined with fewer number of tests conducted — represents a true reduction in infections rather than insufficient testing.
In Virginia, like the rest of the country, progress has also been tempered by a rise in COVID-19 variants. The state has recorded cases of all five strains circulating across the U.S., including the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil. VDH detected the first cases of P.1 last week, including one case identified in an Eastern Virginia resident with no history of travel — suggesting the variant is circulating more widely than data currently suggests.
There’s no evidence that any variant can cause more severe disease. But they are believed to be more infectious, and there’s risk that the virus could continue to mutate and evolve among unvaccinated residents. Ballad Health — the largest hospital system in Southwest Virginia — recently warned that the UK variant appears to be driving new infections in the region.
The area’s caseload has increased by 7 to 8 percent over the last several weeks, Ballad reported — prompting concern in a region that saw a larger holiday surge than any other part of Virginia.
But as cases across most of the state continue to gradually decline, Northam said he’s hopeful that restrictions could be further rolled back in June. Yarmosky said that could mean putting an end to all capacity restrictions on businesses within the next two months if vaccinations continue to rise while cases, deaths, and hospitalizations fall.
Given those metrics, Northam said he’s hopeful that restrictions could be further rolled back in June. There’s currently no formal reopening framework for the state, but the governor has been gradually relaxing COVID-19 emergency mandates every month since late February.
Yarmosky said that could mean putting an end to all capacity restrictions on businesses within the next two months if vaccinations continue to rise while cases, deaths and hospitalizations fall.
But masking and social distancing are on a “different track,” she said. There are currently no plans to lift the state’s mask mandate, which has been in place since late May of 2020. Distancing restrictions for businesses are also unlikely to change without dramatic progress in vaccination numbers.
“We don’t feel we have enough information to say anything about masking,” Yarmosky said. “And we think it’s incredibly important. After May 15, we’re probably seven to eight weeks out before we make any more changes. But what those exact changes will be has yet to be determined.”
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