Northam cancels school, orders closure of many non-essential businesses

RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — As of Monday, March 23, the commonwealth of Virginia has 254 positive or presumptive positive cases of COVID-19. All public K-12 schools will remain closed through the end of the school year and many – but not all – non-essential businesses will be required to close their doors.

Graphic: The Virginia Department of Health as of 12 p.m. on March 23, 2020

The latest updates

Schools closed for the rest of the academic year

In Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's 2 p.m. press conference on March 23, he announced that all K-12 public schools across the commonwealth would be ordered to remain closed at least through the end of the 2019-2020 academic year.

Previously, Northam had ordered school closures through this coming Friday and said that the commonwealth would reevaluate as that date got closer.

By Monday afternoon, bordering states to Virginia, including North Carolina and West Virginia, had already taken similar measures to close schools.

“This is an unprecedented situation, and it requires unprecedented actions to protect public health and save lives,” said Governor Northam.

According to Northam and state officials, the Virginia Department of Education will issue guidance to help individual school districts execute plans to carry on instruction for students while ensuring that everyone is served equitably, regardless of income level, access to technology, English learner status, or special needs.

Officials say that will include options for instruction through summer programming, integrating instruction into coursework next year, and allowing students to make up content.

This includes options for additional instruction through summer programming, integrating instruction into coursework next year, and allowing students to make up content.

Individual school districts will determine next steps as to how to proceed with graduation for seniors.

The state has already applied to the Department of Education to be able to waive end-of-year testing requirements for the year.

School districts across our area have stepped up in recent weeks to continue providing meals to students while they're at home. You can find a list of how local schools are providing meals here.

Business restrictions

Northam also announced on Monday that he would be signing Executive Order 53, which would take effect at the end of Tuesday (11:59 p.m. on March 24) ordering some non-essential services, including all recreation and entertainment services, to close.

The order covers three categories of businesses:

1. Recreational and entertainment businesses, like bowling alleys and theaters, which must close their doors by midnight on Tuesday.
2. Non-essential retail stores, which are allowed to remain open so long as they can limit patrons to 10 at most, maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet, and follow CDC guidelines on sanitation.
3. Restaurants and food service establishments, which can remain open for carry-out, curbside pickup, or delivery, but not in-house dining.

Hair salons, barbers, massage therapists and similar non-essential services who can't feasibly carry out social distancing must close.

Dining and on-site alcohol establishments are allowed to keep operating through delivery and takeout services, but must close on-site dining to the public. That includes restaurants, food courts, farmers markets, breweries, distilleries, vineyards, and tasting rooms.

Grocery stores, health services, businesses in supply chains, and other essential businesses will be able to remain open no matter what. Virginia ABC stores are also considered an essential service, Northam clarified in response to a reporter's question.

The construction industry and construction supply stores are also considered essential services.

Here's a comprehensive list of businesses considered essential that may remain open during normal hours:

• Grocery stores, pharmacies, and other retailers that sell food and beverage products or pharmacy products, including dollar stores, and department stores with grocery or pharmacy operations;
• Medical, laboratory, and vision supply retailers;
• Electronic retailers that sell or service cell phones, computers, tablets, and other communications technology;
• Automotive parts, accessories, and tire retailers as well as automotive repair facilities;
• Home improvement, hardware, building material, and building supply retailers;
• Lawn and garden equipment retailers;
• Beer, wine, and liquor stores;
• Retail functions of gas stations and convenience stores;
• Retail located within healthcare facilities;
• Banks and other financial institutions with retail functions;
• Pet stores and feed stores;
• Printing and office supply stores; and
• Laundromats and dry cleaners.

All essential businesses must still adhere to social distancing as much as possible and implement enhanced sanitation practices.

According to a press release issued by Northam's office following the briefing, the following list of businesses must close to the public as off 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday:

• Theaters, performing arts centers, concert venues, museums, and other indoor entertainment centers;
• Fitness centers, gymnasiums, recreation centers, indoor sports facilities, indoor exercise facilities;
• Beauty salons, barber shops, spas, massage parlors, tanning salons, tattoo shops, and any other location where personal care or personal grooming services are performed that would not allow compliance with social distancing guidelines to remain six feet apart;
• Racetracks and historic horse racing facilities;
• Bowling alleys, skating rinks, arcades, amusement parks, trampoline parks, fairs, arts and craft facilities, aquariums, zoos, escape rooms, indoor shooting ranges, public and private social clubs, and all other places of indoor public amusement.

Professional businesses not in any of the above lists must utilize telework as much as possible. Where telework is not feasible, such businesses must adhere to social distancing and other CDC guidelines.

Businesses violating the governor's order can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.

"I know the next several weeks will be difficult," Northam said. "These restrictions on non-essential businesses will create hardships on the businesses and employees affected. But they are necessary, and we do not undertake them lightly. I am calling on Virginians to sacrifice now, so that we can get through this together.”

The order will remain in effect for at least 30 days in Virginia.

Other updates

Northam said over the past week, the Virginia Employment Commission has received more than 40,000 applications for unemployment insurance.

The governor has been holding daily press briefings at 11 a.m. each day to provide the latest updates on the commonwealth's response to the novel coronavirus, but Monday's briefing was scheduled for 2 p.m. instead.

Total cases in Virginia

The Virginia Department of Health updates its state website at noon each day with the new total and a breakdown of the cases by locality. Those numbers are based on the cases that had been submitted to the department by 5 p.m. the previous day, so there is always some lag in numbers appearing in the state total.

According to the health department's latest update as of noon on March 23, 254 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed across the commonwealth.

The large majority are in northern and eastern Virginia.

In our area, there have been confirmed cases in Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Rockbridge County, Albemarle County, and Charlottesville.

There have been 38 total hospitalizations and six deaths due to the coronavirus in Virginia.

Over the weekend, the Virginia Dept. of Health reported three new deaths, all of which were women in their 80s in the Peninsula Health District: Newport News, Williamsburg and James City County respectively.

Where are the confirmed cases?

Representatives for the Virginia Department of Health said in the March 19 briefing that their online system updates each day at noon to show the cases that had been confirmed by 5 p.m. the previous day, so there is always some lag between when local health districts announce positive test results and when the department's numbers reflect those new results.

For instance, the numbers released on March 19 did not include three cases in the Charlottesville area confirmed by the Thomas Jefferson Health District Thursday morning, which included two cases in Charlottesville and one in Albemarle County.

The numbers released on March 20 did not include two new cases in Rockingham County.

According to the department's Monday breakdown, 3,697 people in Virginia had been tested for the virus, with 254 positive results.

Their breakdown and location map, available to the public here, briefly had a region-specific breakdown of which cases in an area were travel-related, which came from contact with a known case, and which have unknown sources of transmission — However, those numbers were discontinued by the VDH due to the logistics of keeping them updated with the constantly growing case total.

Dept. of Health investigators are still looking into the most recently confirmed cases in Rockingham County to determine who the patients may have been in contact with.

The initial case in Harrisonburg was for a patient in their 60s. One of the Rockingham County cases was for a patient in their 30s or 40s.

The other most recently identified Rockingham County case was a JMU student who traveled to Spain over her spring break before returning home early as travel restrictions went into effect. She shared her experience with the coronavirus with WHSV this past weekend, saying she expects many people may not realize they have been infected, like she initially didn't.

She self-quarantined as soon as she returned to the U.S.

Here's the full breakdown of cases as of noon on March 23:

• Alexandria City - 6
• Botetourt County - 1
• Arlington County - 34
• Harrisonburg - 1
• Rockbridge County - 1
• Rockingham County - 2
• Amherst County - 1
• Bedford County - 1
• Chesterfield County - 9
• Charles City County - 1
• Goochland County - 2
• Hanover County - 2
• Accomack County - 1
• Fairfax County - 43
• Henrico County - 11
• Lee County - 2
• Loudoun County - 15
• Norfolk - 4
• James City County - 34
• Newport News - 2
• Williamsburg - 5
• York County - 5
• Prince Edward County - 1
• Danville - 1
• Portsmouth - 1
• Prince William County - 18
• Spotsylvania County - 2
• Stafford County - 6
• Culpeper County - 2
• Richmond - 8
• Mecklenburg County - 1
• Albemarle County - 2
• Charlottesville - 4
• Fluvanna County - 1
• Louisa County - 2
• Gloucester County - 2
• Virginia Beach - 17
• Franklin County - 1
• Isle of Wight County - 1
• Suffolk County - 1

Response across Virginia

In Northam's weekend press conferences, he reminded restaurants, fitness centers and theaters that if they allow more than 10 customers inside a space, they can be charged with a misdemeanor and lose their operating license on the spot.

While Virginia's testing capacity increased over the past week, on Saturday, Northam said the state will begin giving testing priority to medical professionals who may have come in contact with COVID-19, as well as to people in nursing homes.

Health officials say another hurdle in testing going forward is having enough swabs to take samples - the state is currently in short supply.

Northam says more supplies are coming, but exact details on quantity and timing were unknown Saturday.

The governor signed an executive order to allow hospitals and nursing homes to add more beds. More PPE (protective gear) has been ordered, and the state lab maintains the capability to test over 1,000 patients.

Governor Northam says social distancing remains the key to stopping the spread.

Testing

Officials with the state lab said in the Friday press conference that there is no backlog in test processing, but acknowledged that other states are seeing backups in receiving the reagents needed for tests to be performed.

They said they have "adequate supplies to respond to the testing that they need to," but that the situation is changing on a daily basis.

Dr. Norm Oliver also stated in the Friday briefing that the state would likely be announcing an update to testing criteria for the virus later in the day to make the requirements for testing less restrictive on a statewide level.

But due to testing capacity for 1,000 people still being a limited amount, they will still require screening restrictions to avoid running out of supplies. As of right now, the requirements to receive a test for COVID-19 in facilities across Virginia are that you must show symptoms – including a high fever, cough, and shortness of breath – and have traveled to an affected area or been in contact with a person with a confirmed case.

Unemployment updates

State leaders said that the Virginia Employment Commission received more than 16,000 applications for unemployment on Thursday alone, which was a little more than the over 14,000 applications received from Monday to Wednesday.

They reiterated that the state's 1-week waiting period to receive benefits has been waived, as well as the regular work search requirement while so many employers remain closed due to the coronavirus.

You can find more information on unemployment claims at www.vec.virginia.gov.

A FAQ guide from the Office of the Governor also outlines policies for workers that have been temporarily laid off or discharged during the public health crisis.

Deploying the National Guard?

When asked if deploying the National Guard is in the works, Gov. Northam said the National Guard has been activated, as that's automatic when declaring a State of Emergency, but they have not been deployed.

Northam said if they are deployed at any point in the days to come, it would be to provide more capacity and staff at hospitals.

Stress and anxiety

Northam also touched on the stress and anxiety that many people are feeling due to the spread of the virus and encouraged people to call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK if they are feeling thoughts of suicide. He noted that the Disaster Stress Hotline is also available to provide counseling and support for people during an emergency like this one at 1-800-985-5990.

The ongoing situation across Virginia

Community spread

On Thursday, state health officials said in the afternoon briefing that they have identified distinct "clusters" of COVID-19 cases in several communities across Virginia, confirming that there is ongoing "community spread" of COVID-19 between Virginians.

Northam clarified that those clusters have been detected in the northern, central, and Peninsula regions of the state.

Everyone living in those areas is asked to stay home, practice social distancing, and follow all CDC and VDH guidelines for prevention of the virus.

Medicaid

State leaders clarified in the Thursday afternoon conference that Medicaid coverage covers testing and treatment for patients with COVID-19.

Child care

Gov. Northam directed the Dept. of Social Services to modify Virginia’s Child Care Subsidy program, which is currently caring for 25,000 children, to increase support and flexibility for enrolled families and providers. These modifications include:

• Expanding eligibility for school-aged children currently designated for part-day care to full-day care.
• Increasing the number of paid absences from 36 to 76 days for both level 1 and level 2 providers.
• Automatically extending eligibility for families due for eligibility redetermination in the near future by 2 months and temporarily suspending the requirement for face-to-face interviews.

SBA loans

Northam announced on Thursday that Virginia's application to the Small Business Administration for businesses to apply to the SBA for federal disaster loans as a result of COVID-19 has been approved.

The SBA’s Disaster Loan program is designed to help small businesses and nonprofits meet their ordinary and necessary financial obligations that cannot otherwise be met as a direct result of COVID-19.

To learn more about the program, the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center has a rundown on their website of what to know about the program. You can also find more directly through the SBA at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela/Information/EIDLLoans.

Tax changes

State officials said the sales taxes owed by Virginia businesses on Friday, March 20, can be extended to April for some businesses that apply to the state. The process requires applying, however.

Virginia Tax will consider requests from sales tax dealers for an extension of the due date for filing and payment of the February 2020 sales tax return due March 20, 2020. If the request is granted, Virginia Tax will allow filing and payment of such return on April 20, 2020, with a waiver of any penalties that would have applied. However, interest will accrue even if an extension is granted.

Dealers can submit a request for extension by using a secure e-mail system available on the Virginia Tax website.

State leadership is also extending the due date for Virginia individual and corporation tax payments to June 1. Tax returns will still be due on May 1 across Virginia, but the date for Virginians to pay any taxes owed will be extended.

Vehicle inspections

Gov. Northam announced on Thursday that they would be asking Virginia State Police to suspend enforcement of vehicle inspections for the next 60 days.

Blood donations

Northam encouraged everyone in his Wednesday address to donate blood for the American Red Cross, which announced yesterday that they're seeing an extreme shortage due to thousands of canceled blood drives.

The governor said he would be donating blood Wednesday afternoon and emphasized that there's no evidence the virus can be transmitted through blood. Officials encouraged people to make an appointment at their local blood centers.

Elections

In Wednesday's briefing, the governor also said the Virginia Dept. of Elections is encouraging people to vote absentee in any upcoming May elections, but is not planning at this time to postpone any elections.

DMV closures

The governor announced early last week that the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will be closing all offices (about 70 across Virginia) to the public from March 18 to April 2, at least.

People who have licenses or registrations expiring by May 15 will be granted 60-day extensions.

Northam also encouraged Virginians to take care of DMV tasks online, at dmvNOW.com, if possible.

Utilities

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) issued an order directing utilities it regulates, such as electric, natural gas, and water companies in Virginia, to suspend service disconnections for 60 days to provide immediate relief for any customer, residential and business, who may be financially impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Some, like the SVEC, have also temporarily suspended late or nonpayment fees.

Courts

The Supreme Court of Virginia granted a judicial emergency in response to COVID-19. From Monday, March 16 through Monday, April 6, non-essential, non-emergency court proceedings in all district and circuit courts are suspended absent a specific exemption.

This includes a prohibition on new eviction cases for tenants who are unable to pay rent as a result of COVID-19.

All non-exempted court deadlines are tolled and extended for a period of 21 days.

State of Emergency

On March 12, Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19, with many local officials doing the same in the following days.

On March 13, he ordered all public K-12 schools across Virginia to close for at least two weeks.

What is canceled?

Locally, major events have been postponed or canceled due to the health risks surrounding COVID-19 and the governor's limit on gatherings of 10 or more. Check our community calendar and closings page for the latest cancellations and postponements.

Many businesses and offices have also closed. Make sure you call ahead before you go places throughout the weekend!

Flattening the Curve

All of the cancellations - including major sporting events around the country - are happening in hopes of “flattening the curve” of the virus.

While letting the virus spread rapidly could shorten the duration of the pandemic, it could be a lot of strain on hospitals, putting them overcapacity. The goal is to keep the apex curve below hospital capacity.

How can we prevent the spread?

People are rushing to stores to buy cleaning supplies or other items in the event of a quarantine.

To help your shopping, the Environmental Protection Agency has expanded its list of disinfectants that have qualified for use against the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. The list contains nearly 200 additional products, including 40 new products that went through the agency’s expedited review process.

But in the end, hand washing and social distancing is your best bet!

Who gets tested for the virus?

Currently, there are two main reasons someone would be tested for the coronavirus: having symptoms or exposure to an infected person.

The main symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. These look a lot like the flu and the common cold, so it takes a physician to determine if testing for the virus is necessary.

How does the coronavirus test work?

For a patient, the process of being tested for the virus is easy and can potentially be done almost anywhere. It typically involves taking a swab from deep in a patient’s nasal cavity to collect cells from the back of the nose.

The sample is then sent to a lab, where it will be tested to determine if the patient’s cells are infected with the virus. The same process is used to collect a sample from a patient who is tested for flu.

What to know about preventing the virus

Most people don't suffer much from COVID-19, but it can cause severe illness in the elderly and people with existing health problems.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can cause mild to more severe respiratory illness. In a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can cause death, particularly among those who are older or who have chronic medical conditions. Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person. COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

To lower the risk of respiratory germ spread, including COVID-19, the Virginia Department of Health encourages the following effective behaviors:

• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Avoid contact with sick people.
• Avoid non-essential travel.

For the latest factual information on COVID-19, you're encouraged to check both the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC.