Northam sticks with decision not to close bars, restaurants and other businesses

821 Bakery Cafe advertises for customers that they are still open in Richmond, Va., March 18, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Virginia officials announced new actions on Saturday aimed at addressing a growing epidemic of COVID-19 — the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus. 

And while the commonwealth has relaxed some of its criteria on testing and removed barriers for hospitals and nursing homes hoping to add beds, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is remaining steadfast in his limited restrictions on businesses. 

At a briefing on Saturday, he told reporters that he had no immediate plans to add new types of businesses to an executive order giving localities the ability to enforce a statewide ban on gatherings of 10 people or more. Restaurants, fitness centers and theaters are included on the list, but other communal spaces — including hair salons and malls — are still exempt.

Piercer Charlotte Coffey (left) watches tattoo artist Abel Killian (center) work on a client at Lucky 13 Tatto and Piercing in Richmond, Va., March 19, 2020. “I guess people are bored at home so they decide to get tattoos,” said Coffey. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury

Northam announced the state-wide prohibition on gatherings of 10 or more earlier this week. There have been reports of noncompliant businesses, but Northam and Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said no company has been formally charged with breaking the rules as of Saturday.

Unlike Maryland and Washington, D.C., Virginia restaurants have not been mandated to close their dining rooms. Even with the executive order, some restaurants initially opted to keep their dining rooms open with decreased capacity.

In previous briefings, Northam also emphasized that localities were responsible for enforcing the order. The governor declared a state of emergency on March 12, which put the Virginia National Guard on standby, but Northam has not yet mobilized armed forces to impose the commonwealth’s new restrictions. The same day that Northam announced a state of emergency, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sent National Guard troops to enforce a containment zone in New Rochelle.

On Saturday, Northam called the outbreak a “dynamic situation” that state officials continued to “monitor literally minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour.” But “it’s all of our responsibilities” to comply with restrictions in the commonwealth, he said.

“It’s really in the people’s hands of Virginia,” he added. “And we will do what we need to do to enforce, but I would encourage Virginians, if you don’t abide by our guidelines, you’re not only putting yourself at risk, but you’re putting others at risk.”

Northam has taken a markedly different approach to managing the pandemic than other leaders in the region. Both Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser have taken additional steps to enforce their own orders, with Bowser sending alcohol inspectors to make sure local bars had shut down and Hogan relying on National Guard troops to enforce restaurant closures, according to reporting by The Washington Post.

Gov. Ralph Northam, pictured Tuesday, has been holding daily briefings on the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia and the state’s response. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Bowser has also extended school closures and bans on public gatherings in D.C. until the end of April. Hogan has taken additional steps to close public spaces, ordering shopping malls and entertainment venues to close along with off-track betting parlors and casinos. He’s also expressed frustration with Northam’s decision not to shut down public restaurants.

“If we really need to shut down this community transmission, we’re all in this together, and we’ve got to work together as a team,” Hogan told an interviewer on Wednesday.

Northam announced Saturday that he was relaxing certificate of public need restrictions on hospitals and nursing home facilities to allow them to add beds without going through the state. The Virginia Department of Health also announced new criteria for coronavirus testing.

Under the new guidelines, testing at the state lab is now eligible for areas with potential clusters of COVID-19 — with a particular emphasis on health care facilities — where flu has been ruled out. Nursing home residents are now eligible for testing without first testing negative on a full respiratory virus panel (though they’re still required to test negative for the flu).

A group of nursing home medical directors expressed frustration with the state’s earlier guidelines that required residents to go through a full panel before being tested for COVID-19. Administering those diagnostics and waiting for results could take up to a week, they told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.