"We will again be strong;" Northam addresses Virginia as cases pass 2,000

RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — Virginia Governor Ralph Northam addressed the commonwealth at 2 p.m. on Friday for his latest briefing on Virginia's response to COVID-19.

The governor has been providing regularly scheduled briefings at 2 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to provide the latest updates. In Monday's briefing, he issued a 'Stay at Home' order for all Virginians that is scheduled to run until June.

In Wednesday's briefing, he had no new executive orders to announce, but followed up with details on what his order means, why it was set to end on June 10, how the state is addressing PPE shortages, the plan for elections, and more.

You can watch each of those briefings live on WHSV on your TV or through WHSV's livestream at whsv.com/livestream or on the WHSV News app. That livestream can also be watched through our Roku and Amazon Fire apps.

The latest updates from Gov. Northam's April 3 briefing

Disaster declaration

Gov. Northam began Friday's briefing by mentioning the Trump administration's approval of Virginia's request for a major disaster declaration, which will free up additional federal funding for equipment and supplies.

Money from that federal declaration is being used to establish a $2.5 million emergency fund to benefit the homeless in Virginia, used for hotel and motel vouchers, case management, food, cleaning supplies, and medical transportation.

Community transmission

Virginia's state health officials announced in the Friday briefing that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has officially listed Virginia as a state with widespread community transmission of COVID-19.

The areas with the highest concentration of cases from community spread remain in central Virginia around the Richmond area, as well as the Tidewater and Peninsula regions, and northern Virginia.

Sites for alternate care

In those areas hit hardest by community spread of COVID-19, Virginia's state government has, with the Army Corps of Engineers, identified three locations to establish sites for alternate care.

In northern Virginia, the state will use the Dulles Expo Center to accommodate 315 acute or 510 non-acute beds. In central Virginia, the Richmond Convention Center will accommodate 432 acute or 758 non-acute beds. In eastern Virginia, the Hampton Roads Convention Center will accommodate 360 acute or 580 non-acute beds.

Each of these locations is being established to free up capacity at existing hospitals in those hard-hit areas, especially as Virginia is not projected to see its peak of cases until May.

Masks

When asked about the need or lack of a need for members of the public to wear face masks, Governor Northam said he is not issuing any directives on the topic right now, but that he sees no drawbacks to people wearing cloth face masks in public.

While the masks do not offer much protection against you potentially contracting the virus, if you already have it and just don't know because you're asymptomatic, the masks can help prevent you from spreading the virus to others.

He did encourage people to reserve the much-sought-after N95 masks for medical professionals and first responders on the front lines of the crisis, however.

Unemployment claims

Gov. Northam addressed the surge in unemployment applications across Virginia, which saw 46,277 initial claims filed in the week of March 21.

He acknowledged that the Virginia Employment Commission's systems have been overwhelmed due to the amount of applications, and said that the VEC is upgrading their website to handle the increased traffic and increasing call center staffing by at least twenty percent.

Northam also said the Department of Labor is rolling out a system to provide unemployment benefits for people who are self-employed, gig workers, and other people who do not meet the normal qualifications for unemployment benefits.

The future of the state budget

In regards to Virginia's state budget, which was passed just a month ago, the governor said he has directed the heads of state agencies to prepare for budget cuts in the next cycle, re-examine their budget plans, and eliminate all discretionary spending for the rest of the fiscal year.

The current state budget cycle ends on June 30 and the new one begins on July 1. Northam said the state is facing recession due to COVID-19 while having to make major investments in personal protective gear (PPE), hospital space, and other medical needs.

Northam said federal funding will help but will not fully fix the problem, which is why the state budget changes are being considered.

"We were in a good financial position," Northam said, adding that "when this pandemic is finished, we will again be strong" with responsible budget planning.

The effect on nursing homes and rehab centers

Gov. Northam spoke on the devastating effect that nursing homes, long-term care centers, and rehab centers have seen from community spread of COVID-19.

He specifically addressed the situation at the Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in suburban Richmond, where there have been 16 deaths.

Working with the Virginia Department of Health, Northam said the center was able to test all of their patients, finding that 92 tested positive for the disease, even though 53 of those residents with positive cases showed no symptoms.

"I know that it is heartbreaking" to not be able to see loved ones, Northam said, but "we all have the responsibility to stay home."

The effect on natural resources

Northam said he has spoken with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, as well as the state's departments of conservation and recreation, hearing that many Virginians are using public lands to get outside for recreation and fresh air during the Stay at Home order, which is encouraged.

But he said department officials told him many people are still gathering in large groups, directly violating Executive Order 53, which banned gatherings of more than 10 people.

He also reminded Virginians that littering and vandalism are still against the law and urged people to treat Virginia's natural resources with respect.

"Everyone needs to stay apart for your own safety and the safety of others," Northam said.

He said if people keep not adhering to social distancing and the order against large gatherings, he may have to close public lands to visitation because of the irresponsibility of a few people, and he said he does not want to have to do that.

The impact on faith celebrations

With Easter, Passover, Ramadan and other large-scale faith celebrations coming up this month, the governor said his administration has developed additional guidance to encourage other means of gathering for these celebrations normally marked together.

"We all lean on the people around us," Northam said.

He specifically recommended places of worship use either virtual or drive-in services.

Northam invited his own pastor, Rev, Jones, to share a few words during the briefing as well.

Rev. Jones encouraged Virginians to not spend time being angry or frustrated with the government right now, because he said they're trying to preserve lives.

He also encouraged people to hold on to and rely on their faith.

"Our faith will be our stimulus package long after the $1,200 is spent," Rev. Jones said.

The status of ABC stores

In response to a reporter question about the continued function of ABC stores in Virginia, Gov. Northam said they are not being kept open for the purpose of keeping people from withdrawal to free up space in hospitals, as some have claimed.

The governor encouraged people seeing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal to seek help.

As to the function of the stores, he said the state is treating them like any other retail in that so long as they can maintain social distancing and the limits of fewer than 10 people, they can stay open.

Modeling

"I'm all about data," Northam said in the briefing.

He said his administration has been reviewing a range of models and projections each day from a variety of sources, which is how they've determined, based on a consensus of data, that Virginia's peak is expected to be in May.

"It's not a perfect science by any means," the governor said, but emphasized that they will continue to rely on the data and science there is available.

State health officials said they're working with UVA Health and other researchers across Virginia to establish one relied-upon model for COVID-19 projections local to Virginia.

The statewide situation in Virginia

As of Friday, April 3, the Virginia Department of Health has received 2,012 positive or presumptive positive tests for COVID-19 across the commonwealth.

Virginia crossed the 1,000-case threshold on Monday, but has seen 1,000 more tests come back positive in the days since.

Those positive test results are out of 19,005 people that have been tested in Virginia.

At this point, 317 Virginians have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus, and 46 have died of causes related to the disease. That's an increase of nearly 70 hospitalizations since the day before and 5 deaths.

The department's breakdown and location map, updated each day at 9 a.m. based on the tests submitted to the department by 5 p.m. the previous day, is available to the public here.

On Monday, when the case total was at 1,020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued a 'Stay at Home' order for all Virginians by signing Executive Order 55, effectively instructing all Virginians to stay home except for essential needs.

Virginia remains under a state of emergency until June 10, and Northam's previous order that closed many non-essential businesses, Executive Order 53, remains in place.

Currently, someone who hosts a gathering of more than 10 people in violation of the governor's orders can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor. You can learn more about what police enforcement of Northam's executive orders will look like here.

All elective surgeries have also been postponed in Virginia hospitals through a public health order signed by Northam on March 25, designed to help preserve critical equipment like ventilators and personal protective gear.

Local cases

In our area, as of April 3, there were at least 7 confirmed cases in Augusta County, 22 cases in Harrisonburg, 14 cases in Rockingham County, 2 cases in Page County, 10 cases in Shenandoah County, 1 case in Staunton, 3 cases in Waynesboro, 20 cases in Frederick County, 9 cases in Winchester, and 2 cases in Rockbridge County.

Just to the east, there have been at least 26 cases in Albemarle County, 17 in Charlottesville, 1 in Greene County, and 2 in Nelson County.

In the part of West Virginia we cover, one case has been confirmed in Pendleton County and two cases in Hardy County.

The numbers provided here are a blend of the data provided by the Virginia Department of Health and case updates provided directly by our local health districts.

Why do some cases that have been confirmed in my area not appear on the state map?

The VDH numbers always lag behind the numbers reported by local health districts because of multiple factors.

First, they're based on the test results that had been submitted to the department by 5 p.m. the previous day, so any positive cases announced in the late afternoon or evening cannot appear on the department's list.

In addition, representatives for local health districts have told us their first priority when a new case is confirmed in their district is to work on tracing the contacts the patient had to let anyone who may have potentially been exposed to the virus know. With that as the priority, sometimes reporting of local cases to the Virginia Department of Health falls lower on the ladder and those results may not show up on the state tally for another day or two.

Plus, the exact locations of cases can sometimes appear differently on the state map than they do for local health districts that know their localities better.

Considering all of those factors, for instance, Thursday's state website update did not show one case in Staunton that the Central Shenandoah Health District confirmed to WHSV on Sunday, though it had updated to show the two cases confirmed in Augusta County at the same time. It also showed the two cases that were confirmed in Waynesboro on Tuesday.

With those lapses between local case reporting and the VDH, while we report every morning on the latest statewide totals, we're also reporting local case numbers based on results directly confirmed to us by local health districts.

West Virginia's communication system between the local and state health departments is a little different, and their numbers, at this point, are considerably lower, so a similar discrepancy hasn't been seen there yet.

Local hospitals, local businesses

A variety of new developments came with cases reported across our area this week. A breakdown of those recent reports is below:

Confirmation from Augusta Health

Augusta Health confirmed Wednesday afternoon that they had received their first two positive results from tests administered at their hospital. However, the hospital provided no specific information on the patients, including their places of residence, which determines where cases appear on the VDH breakdown.

Dr. Laura Kornegay, the director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, says their district is thoroughly investigating each of the COVID-19 cases identified at Augusta Health to identify anyone who may have been in close contact with the patients and have them take necessary steps to avoid further spread of the coronavirus.

Anyone who was exposed will be notified by the Virginia Department of Health and told what they need to do.

There had already been two cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Augusta County prior to April 1, but neither of those test results were for patients who had been tested at Augusta Health. Instead, it's likely their testing was done through a commercial lab.

As of March 26, Augusta Health began working with UVA Health to increase testing capacity for the Augusta County area through the tests developed by UVA researchers.

There's no word on whether either of the two newly confirmed cases may have been the second McKee Foods employee who tested positive or the newly identified case in a Western State Hospital staff member.

McKee Foods

On Wednesday, McKee Foods confirmed to WHSV that a second employee of their Stuarts Draft facility had tested positive for COVID-19.

The company said the new case was not directly related to the first case, however, and that they're reaching out to all employees the person with the most recent case may have come into contact with to have them take the proper CDC-recommended precautions, including self-isolation.

Company spokesperson Mike Gloekler said the new patient was a long-haul driver and completely separate from manufacturing. That driver had also not been in any facilities since March 20, according to Gloekler.

Gloekler says McKee Foods continues to "run increased cleaning and sanitation protocols" and that they're carefully monitoring employee health.

He said the company sees no indication of any need to stop operations of the facility at this point, as they carry out their "mandate to keep grocery shelves stocked."

The first case confirmed at McKee Foods, over this past weekend, was for a patient from Nelson County, so that case was listed among Nelson County's case total, which now stands at 8.

Western State Hospital

Also on Wednesday, Western State Hospital confirmed to WHSV that a part-time staff member had tested positive for COVID-19.

A spokesperson for the facility said they couldn't release any further details about the staff member, but that they hope for a full recovery as quickly as possible.

Western State staff is working with the Virginia Department of Health to identify any employees or patients that had close contact with the staff member and have them monitor their symptoms and take necessary precautions according to CDC guidelines.

They say they've been screening employees before each shift since March 14, in accordance with guidelines from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS).

No patients at the hospital have shown any major symptoms of the coronavirus, according to staff, but Western State says they are "working to prevent possible cases and planning for what to do should there be one."

The hospital is also preparing for ways to isolate any patients should there be any positive cases there.

Reporting by local health districts

Local health districts are no longer sending individual updates for every new case, as they expect, realistically, that numbers will keep rising until we hit the peak of cases, which current models, highlighted by Gov. Northam on Wednesday, don't project until most likely some time in May.

Our Virginia counties are primarily served by the Central Shenandoah Health District, which covers Augusta, Bath, Highland, Rockbridge and Rockingham counties, as well as the cities of Buena Vista, Harrisonburg, Lexington, Staunton and Waynesboro; and the Lord Fairfax Health District, which covers Shenandoah, Page, Frederick, Warren, and Clarke counties, as well as the city of Winchester.

Updates from the April 1 briefing

Follow-ups on Northam's 'Stay at Home' order

Governor Northam started Wednesday's briefing by addressing questions that he's received about the 'Stay at Home' order issued on Monday.

Northam acknowledged that the June 10 date set for the order to end is significantly later than the dates set in most other states with similar orders.

"My strategy has always been to plan for the worst and hope for the best," the governor said.

He said that date, the same as the current ending date for Virginia's state of emergency, is to help Virginians prepare for the long haul, considering the reality of data on COVID-19.

Northam cited models that currently project that Virginia's cases will reach their peak by late April into late May.

"For now, we are at the beginning of this virus," Northam said.

The governor said he hopes he'll be able to lift the order early if the situation changes enough before June 10.

Considering the models projecting the peak of cases in April or May, Northam said that's exactly why it's so important for everyone to stay home to make it as difficult as possible for the virus to latch on to a host.

Essentially, Northam said the order means, "Stay at home. Don't go out if you don't need to. . . Go out when you need to and not when you want to."

The governor reiterated that Virginians who don't adhere to the ongoing order limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 people can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Locations across Virginia to accommodate surplus patients

Gov. Northam said the Army Corps of Engineers has worked with the Virginia state government to evaluate 41 sites across Virginia for places that could be converted into field hospitals to care for surpluses of patients to assist surge planning for hospitals in areas with clusters of cases.

Northam said they identified an Exxon Mobil facility in Fairfax, the Hampton Convention Center, and a site in the Richmond area as possible sites.

At this point, no locations have been surveyed west of Richmond because the concentrations of cases in Virginia have thus far been in central, northern, or eastern Virginia. However, state officials said engineers will be heading to the Charlottesville and Roanoke areas in the days to come.

Decisions will be made on those locations by Virginia's Friday briefing.

The need for PPE in Virginia hospitals

State health officials said they're getting requests from all quarters of the supply chain to get more protective gear to the front line medical workers responding to COVID-19.

When asked how much PPE the state needs, Northam said, "We need as much as we can get, bottom line."

Northam said the state received its 3rd shipment of PPE from the national stockpile on Wednesday and is working with private corporations across Virginia to get more out to local hospitals.

Elections

Virginia has local elections coming up in May and Congressional primaries coming up on June 9, both before the end of the Virginia 'Stay at Home' order.

Northam said he considers elections to be a fundamental democratic event and is encouraging all Virginians to use absentee voting to vote by mail.

You can request an absentee ballot online here.

Clusters of cases

Dr. Norm Oliver, Virginia's state health commissioner, said we're currently seeing clusters of high numbers of cases in northern Virginia and in central Virginia, as well as the peninsula region.

Ventilators

Dr. Oliver said that there are 108 COVID-19 patients currently on ventilator support across Virginia.

State-level models

In addition, Dr. Oliver said the state government is working with UVA researchers, who have built a model currently being used by federal agencies to project the 'curve' of cases across the country.

With their help, the state health department plans to have state-level models by Friday's press briefing.

Testing

The governor said that the state government is working everyday to improve access to testing across the commonwealth, especially leading up to the projected peak of cases in late April or May when it will be most needed.

Evictions

With April 1 as the day many people across Virginia have mortgage and rent payments due, Northam said the Supreme Court of Virginia's declaration of a judicial emergency last month suspended all non-emergency court proceedings, and that included suspending all eviction orders through at least April 26.

Ongoing effect on religious celebrations

With Easter, Passover, and Ramadan all coming up in April, Gov. Northam said faith is more important than ever for many people, but "for the safety of everyone, we need to find other ways to celebrate right now."

He specifically mentioned the online services and drive-in services many churches, synagogues, and mosques have been providing in the last few weeks as great examples.

Specific suggestions from faith leaders will be presented in the state briefing on Friday, Northam added.

Essential work

Northam ended the main portion of his briefing, before questions, by thanking the workers on the front line of the coronavirus outbreak, including grocery store employees, school employees delivering meals, first responders, and many others. He also thanked all the Virginians who have volunteered time and effort in this time.

Budget changes ahead

A group of Virginia businesses submitted a petition on Wednesday for Gov. Northam to delay the implementation of several laws passed by the General Assembly earlier this spring, including a minimum wage hike.

When asked about that request, Gov. Northam said his administration is getting input from business owners, advocacy groups, local governments, and more to evaluate whether to delay those new laws as a way to reduce impacts on companies and municipalities.

Details of the 'Stay at Home' order

In Northam's Monday briefing, he announced that he was immediately implementing a 'Stay at Home' order for Virginia, taking effect from March 30 until June 10, unless it's later amended or rescinded.

The move came after Maryland's governor announced a similar order in the morning. West Virginia and North Carolina each already had similar orders in place before Monday.

The order Northam announced in his press conference is Executive Order 55.

What does a 'Stay at Home' order mean?

It, essentially, means that Virginians can only leave home for food, supplies, work, medical care, or exercise/fresh air purposes.

Only leave home if you have an essential reason to do so — Going to visit a friend for a poker game would not be essential. Going to visit a friend to help care for them because they have a broken leg would be essential. Exercise common sense about what is or isn't essential, and if it isn't, then don't go out.

You're still free to leave the house to get groceries or go to the pharmacy. You're also still free to go on a run or go for a hike, so long as you're following social distancing. But if you're not doing something essential and if you're not following social distancing orders, then just don't do it.

“Our message to Virginians is clear: stay home. We know this virus spreads primarily through human-to-human contact, and that’s why it’s so important that people follow this order and practice social distancing," Northam said.

It doesn't mean you have to be barred inside your home and cannot leave at all; but it does mean you should limit leaving homes as much as possible.

What changed from Friday to Monday?

Last Friday, when asked why he had not issued a 'Stay at Home' order at that time, Gov. Northam said, "We're talking semantics here."

Northam said his message, repeatedly each day, had been to tell Virginians to stay at home, and that that was the same message that all states were giving.

But on Monday, the governor said after seeing people not following social distancing guidelines and packing beaches and trails, he was changing course and issuing an order.

"This was a suggestion," Northam said. "Today, it's an order."

Possible consequences

Anyone holding a gathering of more than 10 people can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor while the order is in place. That's through the previous Executive Order 53, which closed many non-essential business across Virginia.

Any violations of the parts of the order requiring the cancellation of in-person college classes, the closure of public beaches, and the closure of short-term stays at overnight campgrounds can also be charged as Class 1 misdemeanors.

What about non-essential businesses?

The language from Gov. Northam's previous executive order, Executive Order 53, remains in place, which allows restaurants and "non-essential" brick-and-mortar retail stores to continue operating, so long as they limit people in any space to 10 and stick to delivery, takeout, and pickup services at restaurants.

Any business that cannot follow the social distancing order of 10 patrons or fewer is required to close, according to Northam.

Previous updates on the situation across Virginia

Elective procedures postponed

Gov. Northam and State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, MD, MA directed all Virginia hospitals to stop performing elective surgeries and procedures in order to help conserve supplies of personal protective equipment.

The direction came in Order of Public Health Emergency Two.

The order does not apply to any procedure if the delay would cause harm to a patient and does not apply to outpatient visits in hospital-based clinics, family planning services, or emergency needs.

“Hospitals and medical facilities in Virginia and around the country are in desperate need of additional masks, gowns, gloves, and other personal protective equipment,” said Governor Northam. “While we work to increase our supply, it makes sense to decrease the demand on that equipment where we can. Postponing elective surgeries allows us to divert more PPE to the medical staff who are dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak so we can better protect the men and men on the front lines of this public health emergency, fighting to keep us all safe.”

Licensed inpatient and outpatient surgical hospitals, free-standing endoscopy centers, physicians’ offices, and dental, orthodontic, and endodontic offices may perform any procedure or surgery that if delayed or canceled would result in the patient’s condition worsening.

Outpatient surgical hospitals are encouraged to work with local inpatient hospitals to assist with surge capacity needs.

State parks

Gov. Northam announced that all Virginia state parks will be day-use only, meaning that all cabins, campgrounds, and bath houses at state parks will be effectively closed.

That order will last until at least April 30.

According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, all reservations for stays at state parks will be canceled and reservation holders will receive automatic refunds.

The parks themselves will remain open as "an essential good to the general public for day-use activities such as hiking, biking, wildlife viewing and exercise."

Anyone using the parks in those ways is asked to keep the following in mind:

• Stay close to home.
• Guests should bring their own soap and hand sanitizer to use during day-use visits.
• Groups and gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited and these restrictions will enforced by park staff.
• Guests should keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others at all times. While on trails, alert others of your presence and step aside to let others pass at a safe distance.
• Parking fees remain in place. Guests should be prepared to self-pay with cash or check at the contact station.

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.

Unemployment updates

State leaders said that the Virginia Employment Commission received more than 40,000 applications for unemployment from March 16-23.

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.

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.

Community spread

At this point, state health officials have confirmed that there is ongoing "community spread" of COVID-19 between Virginians, especially in distinct "clusters" of cases seen in parts of northern and eastern Virginia where the virus has been the most prevalent.

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 their March 19 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 March 19 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, could 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 March 19 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 March 18 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 the March 18 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 that the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) would be closing all offices (about 70 across Virginia) to the public from March 18 to April 2, at least. That closure was later extended to at least April 23.

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.

General info on COVID-19

Flattening the Curve

All of the cancellations, postponements, and closures, locally and nationwide, 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 put a lot of strain on hospitals, putting them over capacity. The goal is to keep the apex curve below hospital capacity.

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. In our area, requirements for testing include both symptoms and either travel to an affected area or exposure to someone with a confirmed case.

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.