RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam spoke publicly for the first time since he announced new coronavirus restrictions last Friday.
News of the stricter standards came via press release–rather than press conference–causing confusion initially among some businesses. Now, we’re learning more about why Northam’s Administration chose certain mitigation strategies over others.
Virginia posted a record number of daily cases this week, according to Northam. Amid a nationwide surge, he noted that the commonwealth’s growth rate is still lower than almost every other state.
The Governor said the “most rapid and concerning” spread remains in rural Southwest Virginia, where the percent of positive tests regionally is over 11 percent. Meanwhile, Northern Virginia–an early hotspot–is once again seeing its percent positivity rate grow to more than 8 percent.
“We don’t want to wait until we’re seeing overwhelmed hospitals and double-digit positivity rates in every region,” Northam said. “I’ll tell you what really motivated me was seeing mobile morgues because there’s no place to put the dead — we don’t need that in Virginia.”
Across Virginia’s northern border, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is going back to Phase Two and telling people to cancel trips to high-risk areas ahead of the holidays, impacting non-essential travel to dozens of states. Other governors are now requiring people to get tested within days of their arrival and quarantine if they can’t show negative results.
Northam said–for now–he’s not limiting travel, adding that all options are on the table if metrics don’t improve. However, he is encouraging virtual or outdoor Thanksgiving celebrations.
“I ask you, Virginia, to think hard about how you celebrate this holiday. Consider the risk, not just to yourself, but to your family and loved ones,” Northam said. “This year, staying home is an act of love too.”
To rein in recent increases, Northam said his administration is sticking to a similar playbook that helped bring down cases in Hampton Roads earlier this summer, including a decreased cap on social gatherings.
Health officials have warned that small gatherings of family and friends are largely driving surges. Northam said his team decided a 25 person limit–down from 250–would be a good starting place based on risk projections associated with different maximums.
“This isn’t a floor, this is a ceiling. I strongly discourage Virginians from having social events with that many people, especially indoors,” Northam emphasized.
“Obviously that is difficult to enforce but if someone is not following the guidelines and law enforcement becomes aware of it they may intervene,” he added when asked about compliance in private homes. Currently, the possible punishment remains a Class One Misdemeanor, as the $500 civil penalty for violations recently passed by the General Assembly doesn’t take effect for several months.
Also among the new restrictions that started earlier this week is a 10 PM cutoff on alcohol sales and consumption at various businesses.
“We know the later it gets, the more likely people are to drink and forget about social distancing,” Northam said.
Northam’s order also specified that customers could only be served at socially-distanced tables, which he described as an alternative to decreasing indoor dining capacity.
The Governor went on to provide an update on the Rebuild VA grant program for small businesses, which is currently operating under expanded eligibility and increased funding. Northam said the state has received nearly 15,000 applications and more than $59 million in payments have been approved so far.
Additionally, Northam weighed in on two promising vaccines, describing them as the ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ “And I think we all can agree it has been a long tunnel,” he said.
Commissioner of Health Dr. Norman Oliver said the vaccine will takes months to distribute and vulnerable groups like healthcare workers will be prioritized first. He said the Virginia Department of Health has already identified 14 sites for ultra-cold storage, a necessity for the immunization Pfizer is developing.
Watch the full press conference here: