Virginia will move into Phase 3 next week, Northam announces

Gov. Ralph Northam answered questions from reporters about how the state will and won't enforce a requirement that people wear masks indoors. (May 28, 2020 -- Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia will move into the next phase of its gradual reopening plan on July 1, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday.

Phase 3, which significantly lifts many of the restrictions set in place at the beginning of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic, has been eagerly anticipated since Northam outlined new guidelines last week. But the governor declined to move into the next stage at the time, saying he needed to carefully examine the state’s public health metrics to avoid a new surge of infections.

“I would just ask all Virginians to look at what’s going on in some of these other states,” he said Thursday, citing 16 new cases in Florida linked to a recently reopened bar. “We’re watching some of their practices. And this is why — I know everyone wants to get back to that near normal, but we’ve really got to take our time.”

The start of Phase 3, just under a month after most of the state entered Phase 2 in early June, was announced amid declining COVID-19 statistics in Virginia, which experts have cited as a promising sign as other states see a troubling resurgence of the virus. Testing — a historic weakness for the state — has increased, while the percentage of positive tests sank to 6.4 percent as of Tuesday.

An analysis by The Virginian-Pilot found that Virginia is seeing a steeper decline in daily new cases than every other state since May 31 except New Jersey. Deaths and hospitalizations have also declined, and hospitals are reporting sufficient ventilators, bed space and personal protective equipment.

“Statewide, our data continues to look good,” Northam said at a news briefing on Tuesday.

“I want to remind all of you, this is because Virginians, you have followed the guidelines of social distancing, hand-washing, and use of facial protection,” he added. “And we continue to encourage you to do that.”

While Phase 3 retains a statewide mask mandate and physical distancing guidelines in public spaces, it relaxes some of the more rigorous restrictions set in place at the beginning of the pandemic. Under the governor’s guidelines, social gatherings can include up to 250 people, and bars, restaurants and nonessential retail businesses no longer have capacity restrictions in place.

Gyms and fitness centers can operate at 75 percent of capacity and entertainment venues — including theaters, amusement parks and zoos — can open at 50 percent capacity with a cap of 1,000 people. Swimming pools are also allowed to reopen, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

Northam said the next phase will also include Richmond and Northern Virginia unless the regions request an additional delay. Both entered the first two phases of reopening more slowly than other areas of the state, citing continued increases in COVID-19 metrics.

While Virginia has so far avoided a spike in new cases — seen in some neighboring states such as North Carolina and Tennessee — Northam said avoiding a similar increase was “in all of our hands” as the state continues to reopen.

“We all have a responsibility to continue the social distancing, the hand-washing, the not gathering in large groups,” he continued. A uptick in cases would force officials to make “difficult decisions,” Northam added — including reintroducing earlier restrictions.

“The reality is that this virus is still out there — it’s still very contagious,” he said. “We need to take this very seriously, and if we don’t — if we become complacent and don’t continue follow these guidelines — then the possibility is there that we would have to go back.”