Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia could put an end to all capacity and distancing restrictions by June 15, Gov. Ralph Northam announced in a Thursday news briefing.
It’s the first time he’s put a firm potential date on what would be the biggest rollback of the state’s emergency orders in more than a year. The governor has been gradually easing restrictions since February, when COVID-19 cases in Virginia finally declined after a massive winter surge. But businesses across the state are still subject to capacity limits and distancing requirements to reduce the number of indoor patrons.
“If our COVID case numbers keep trending down and our vaccination numbers keep going up, we plan to lift our mitigation measures, capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements,” Northam said.
The state will continue to evaluate its ongoing mask mandate, which was recently amended to match new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky. Current sanitation requirements for businesses are also likely to stay in place even as capacity restrictions lift.
Virginia has taken a more cautious approach to easing restrictions than some neighboring states, with Northam citing continued concerns over transmission. The state has recorded cases of all five of the CDC’s variants of concern, which are more contagious than earlier forms of the virus.
Some additional restrictions will lift on May 15. As Northam announced last month, the attendance cap for indoor groups will increase from 50 to 100 people. The limits on outdoor gatherings will also increase from 100 to 250.
Capacity restrictions on entertainment venues, including theaters, concert halls and convention centers, will similarly 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.
Attendance limits for most outdoor venues and events lifted last week. Sporting events, for example, are largely allowed up to 1,000 spectators, which Northam said would allow more people “to participate in final games of the current high school sports season and the summer sports season.”
Northam said Virginia’s COVID-19 numbers — cases, hospitalizations and deaths — have all been trending in the right direction, hitting the lowest levels since October.
“Today the data give us a very clear message. The vaccines are working,” Northam said.
In an attempt to get more hesitant Virginians to get vaccinated, Northam announced that state health officials will start using more mobile vaccine units in rural areas and open all mass vaccination centers to walk-in patients effective May 15, among other measures. In an appeal to Virginians reluctant to get the vaccine, Northam, who had COVID-19 last fall, said he still can’t smell or taste anything nearly seven months later.
“Get your shot,” he said. “The vaccine is free, it’s easy and it could save your life. It’s the best way for us all to get back to doing the things that we love to do.”
Mercury Editor Robert Zullo contributed to this story.
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