RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — Note: This article appears extremely long. That's because it includes previous updates from Gov. Northam's briefings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, if you would like to compare statements or consider the commonwealth's overall timeline of response. The latest updates always come just below our introduction that overviews the current situation in Virginia.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam at a May 8 briefing on COVID-19
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam addressed the commonwealth on Friday for his latest briefing on Virginia's response to COVID-19, providing details on Phase 1 of his 'Forward Virginia' plan.
At his most recent briefing on Wednesday, as the governor discussed Virginia's efforts to increase testing across the commonwealth, he said he and his coronavirus response team would be providing specific plans for businesses and outlining specific restrictions that will continue as Virginia moves into Phase 1 of reopening.
On Monday, he outlined the overarching goals of Phase 1 for Virginia and announced that he expects it to begin on May 15.
Now, one week away from that May 15 goal set by Northam, he will be following up with a lot more detail on his "Forward Virginia" blueprint for reopening the commonwealth, including specifics on Phase 1, business guidelines, and how to keep consumers comfortable when they enter businesses.
The governor also said on Wednesday that the restrictions in Phase 1 established by his administration will be "the floor" and that local governments around the state can implement more severe limits if they determine it's needed based on their case counts, as well as hospital and PPE capacity.
As of May 8, Virginia has 22,342 total cases of COVID-19, including confirmed lab tests and clinical diagnoses, with 812 total deaths and 3,059 cumulative hospitalizations.
According to the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, there are currently 1,625 Virginians hospitalized with either confirmed COVID-19 tests or pending COVID-19 test results.
The past few days of test results have yielded lower daily case totals, even with increased testing, which means the "curve" of cases in Virginia has begun to flatten.
The commonwealth is still working to overcome an earlier backlog in testing and catch up to the national average of how much of the population has been tested.
You can watch each of the governor's briefings through WHSV's livestream at whsv.com/livestream2 or on the WHSV News app. That livestream can also be watched through our Roku and Amazon Fire apps. You'll also be able to watch it live in the video player above during the briefing.
The latest updates from Gov. Northam's May 8 briefing
Where we've been and where we are
As he has done at the past several briefings, Governor Ralph Northam began Friday's briefing by recapping where the commonwealth has been – starting with the first confirmed COVID-19 case just over a month ago on March 7.
The governor said at the start of dealing with the pandemic, he all governors across the U.S. had "one blunt tool" to confront the crisis, which was "shutting everything down."
He provided a brief overview of the actions taken throughout Virginia's response, including directing everyone to stay home except for essential reasons, because he said the only way to slow the spread of the virus was and still is to stay apart, with business closures designed for the same reason.
"And it's worked," Northam said, pointing to Virginia's latest data, which shows that hospitals have not been overwhelmed, that Virginia has a steady supply of PPE with no hospitals reporting any supply problems now, and the percentage of Virginians testing positive now trending downward.
The governor said Virginia is also continuing to work to ramp up testing across Virginia. Friday's numbers indicated more than 6,000 tests over the past day, and Dr. Karen Remley, who heads up Virginia's testing task force, said on Friday that they're working with local officials around Virginia to increase the daily test number to around 10,000 tests a day by the end of next week.
Northam cited an example that officials will be testing about 1,500 people on the Eastern Shore this weekend around the locations of outbreaks at poultry plants there.
He also highlighted the Virginia Department of Health's ongoing effort to hire 1,000 more contact tracers across all health districts in the state, and said that Virginia currently has about 325. Previously, Dr. Norm Oliver, the state health commissioner, had said they could not identify the exact current number because all tracers are employed at local health district levels.
How Virginia is moving forward to May 15
Gov. Northam said, so long as the current trends in Virginia's COVID-19 data continue, he believes we're set to start Phase 1 of reopening on Friday, May 15.
However, he did emphasize that if those trends change, that date can be adjusted if needed.
"While our tools to fight this virus have changed, our commitment has not," Northam said.
He said beginning Phase 1 will not be "opening the floodgates" or "flipping a light switch" but instead used the analogy of turning a dimmer switch up just a notch to gradually begin reopening Virginia.
Northam said the date of May 15, so long as data trends continue, will begin a three-phase process for Virginia and restrictions will continue because the virus is still in nearly every community.
Science, data, and safety, Northam said, will be his criteria to move Virginia forward.
Virginia's data trends that will move the commonwealth forward
The governor showcased a variety of charts and graphs to present the data metrics he said he and his staff are relying on to determine when and how Virginia moves forward. He said those will later be available on the state website at virginia.gov/coronavirus/.
Specifically, Northam showed Virginia's 7-day moving average of new cases, which is steadily dipping; the 7-day average of tests being performed, which is trending upward; the rate of Virginians who are tested that test positive, which is trending downward; PPE supply difficulties at hospitals, which have dropped to zero; hospital bed capacity and surge capacity, which have remained steady; and hospitalization numbers for COVID-19 patients, which have remained essentially flat.
The rate at which cases have doubled in Virginia has also slowed over time, down to 16 days now.
Gov. Northam did say that they are keeping an eye on the hospital capacity numbers as elective procedures resume across the commonwealth to see if that steady rate changes.
The specifics of Phase 1
According to Gov. Northam's Friday presentation, the overarching guidance for Phase 1 involves the Stay at Home order switching to a Safer at Home order, which means Virginians should still stay home when possible, and that Virginians who are vulnerable, like the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, need to continue saying at home except for essential reasons.
The 10-person gathering limit established in Executive Order 53 will remain in place for any public gatherings – though it does not apply to all gatherings within specific businesses, as outlined below.
Face masks are heavily encouraged in public, social distancing is still required, and the state still strongly suggests continued teleworking if possible.
When it comes to industries, there is specific guidance on how limitations are being eased, which is broken down below:
• Non-essential retail stores – have been open with a 10-person limit and in Phase 1 can open to a maximum of 50% of their store's customer capacity.
• Restaurants – have been open for takeout and delivery and in Phase 1 can open up outdoor seating at 50% capacity
When asked why restaurants cannot open their doors to in-house dining yet, while non-essential retail stores can open their doors to more customers, Gov. Northam said the decision was made based on a "tremendous amount" of discussion with restaurant owners and that it was their collective decision that outdoor seating, for now, would be in the best interest of customers and employees.
Northam said if data keeps trending downward, and Phase 2 can be entered in hopefully two weeks, restaurants will be allowed to open dine-in eating in Phase 2, with 50% capacity and social distancing between tables.
• Entertainment and amusement venues – have been closed and in Phase 1 will remain closed
• Fitness and exercise centers – have been closed and in Phase 1 will be able to hold outdoor classes with social distancing
• Beaches – have remained open only for exercise and fishing and in Phase 1 will continue to be open only for those reasons
The governor said when asked about beaches later in the press conference that the state government is working with localities like Virginia Beach, letting each locality focus on their own comprehensive plans to make sure their beaches are ready before a decision is to made to open them further.
The bottom line, Northam said, is that people need to feel comfortable when they go to a beach, grabbing handrails, standing on the boardwalk, etc., that they won't contract the virus.
He said there's no date yet on when they'll open up to more than exercise and fishing, but it won't be when Phase 1 starts.
• Places of worship - have been able to hold drive-in services and small services with fewer than 10 people and in Phase 1 will be able to hold services inside with 50% of the building's capacity while drive-in services remain allowed
• Personal grooming services – have been closed and in Phase 1 can open by appointment only, with strict social distancing in place and face masks required
• Private campgrounds – have been closed and in Phase 1 can open, with restrictions on distance between campsites
• State parks – have been open for day use only and in Phase 1 will open up to overnight camping in gradual regional phases. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation issued an update shortly after the governor's briefing explaining their approach to reopen overnight camping by May 22.
• Child care centers – have been open for working families and in Phase 1 can continue that way
• Overnight summer camps – will remain closed in Phase 1
All of Virginia's guidelines will be posted on the Virginia state website.
Gov. Northam said Phase 1 will last a minimum of two weeks, but may last longer depending on what the data on health metrics shows as we move forward.
Local governments and stricter measures
The governor said some communities may enter Phase 1 more slowly than others, but those decisions will have to be made by local governments coordinating for an overall region, like northern Virginia, which is not seeing quite the same declines in cases that the rest of the state is seeing.
According to Northam's chief of staff, they have spoken with localities in northern Virginia, including Prince William, Loudoun, Fairfax counties, which he said have each expressed interest in possibly delaying entering Phase 1 so that they can meet the criteria the rest of the state is meeting for Phase 1.
But local officials who may plan to do that are in coordination with the state government to determine if they should delay entering Phase 1.
But the state government only plans to allow moves like that on regional levels – not individual cities or counties.
Businesses not ready to reopen
Northam said Phase 1 means that businesses may reopen, but not that they are required to reopen. If a business cannot meet the guidelines of Phase 1, he said they should not reopen yet.
Any economic recovery, Northam said, will be consumer-driven, and he encouraged businesses to take all precautions possible to protect everyone, including their employees.
What about enforcement?
Gov. Northam said the restrictions of Phase 1 will be enforced like Executive Order 53 has been enforced so far, with local law enforcement and Virginia State Police holding the authority to cite people who do not obey the guidelines.
However, the goal, Northam said, is not to cite people but to protect Virginians.
What if the data changes?
If there were to be a new surge in cases of COVID-19 across Virginia or a second wave, the governor said previous restrictions can be put in place if need-be because it 's a dynamic, fluid process, with data changing every day.
However, Northam said the entire goal of the restrictions in Phase 1 is to prevent a situation like that.
But if numbers go in a direction that the administration is not comfortable with, based on the same metrics being followed now, like hospital capacity, PPE supplies, and case trends, they will move restrictions back as needed.
What about workers not ready to return?
Governor Northam said if any workers are afraid to return, even if their business reopens, because they or a loved one has an underlying condition, his administration is developing ways to protect them.
He said restrictions are meant to protect workers as much as customers and that his administration is asking Virginia's Congressional delegation to ask the federal government to give Virginia more flexibility with unemployment insurance if they cannot return to work due to valid COVID-19-related concerns.
They're also asking any workers who are concerned about unsafe conditions at their workplace to report them to the Department of Labor.
Encouraging caution for everyone
The governor's main goal, he said, is for Virginians to be careful and cautious, especially moving into reopening.
"Our efforts have slowed the spread, but they have not cured the disease," he said, adding that it's more important than ever for Virginians to behave cautiously as we ease restriction – if not for their own sake, for the vulnerable, like the elderly and those with underlying conditions.
Without a vaccine or a proven treatment, Northam said being cautious is the only way to handle a virus we may be living with for months or years.
With elective procedure resuming across Virginia, Northam also encouraged all Virginians to take care of their health and see a doctor or provider if needed, saying that people cannot let illnesses or injuries go untreated because of coronavirus.
"We're all in this together," Northam said, repeating a phrase he has used frequently throughout the pandemic, and he asked everyone to "continue to act with your own health and the health of others in mind."
Reaching out to doctors
The Virginia Department of Health is reaching out to physicians across Virginia to get their expertise, conducting a needs assessment of all doctors to determine how best to move forward for all of them in the weeks ahead.
The high proportion of cases in the Latinx community
State health commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver, reviewing Virginia's current COVID-19 case, death, and hospitalization statistics, pointed out that demographic data shows a disproportionately high number of case and death numbers among the Latinx community.
Dr. Oliver specifically pointed to the Shenandoah Valley as contributing to that, stating that he believes it's largely correlated to outbreaks in and around poultry plants, which employ disproportionately large numbers of Latinx workers.
The testing situation across Virginia
Dr. Remley, heading up Virginia's testing task force, said officials helping ramp up testing in Virginia are working with free clinics and drugstores to expand testing sites.
But their man focus at the moment, she said, is to work out the testing chain to get everyone on the same page and reach around 10,000 tests a day by the end of next week.
However, she said, even once to that trend, there's no guarantee that number gets hit every day. For instance, testing usually drops over the weekends.
The goal, she said, is to get to a point where every Virginian with symptoms can have the opportunity to get tested.
A representative of the Virginia Employment Commission said they have been able to get benefits for over 70,000 gig workers and self-employed workers since adding a process to expand eligibility through their system.
Acknowledging but largely dismissing reports from many people about problems with the VEC system, the representative said many people are receiving their benefits and that they're still ramping up staff to handle more calls and the appeals process.
What about changing the state code to identify facilities with outbreaks?
As has been mentioned in many of the most recent governor's briefings, facilities in Virginia with confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks cannot be identified by the Virginia Department of Health unless the facility chooses to publicly release their identity.
That has resulted in many long-term care centers, businesses, and apartment complexes, among other kinds of facilities, facing outbreaks that the community never has confirmation about.
Dr. Oliver has said they can't identify the facilities because the Virginia code treats facilities as "persons" and prohibits the release of health information about persons.
However, some state lawmakers have proposed a bill that would change that part of the state code and allow the health department to share more information on places with outbreaks.
Asked if he would support that bill, Gov. Northam said it's difficult for him to respond to questions about if he'll support bills because so much can change about a specific bill as it goes through the process from the House to the Senate and eventually gets to his desk.
But he said he supports transparency and wants to let the public and loved ones know what's going on in long-term care centers.
The governor said, overall, he is open to the idea, but would need to review the details of the legislation.
He said he suspects the part of the Virginia code causing the issue was meant to protect patient privacy, so he said any change would need to still protect that.
Governor Northam thanked business owners and all consumers with plans to move forward to Phase 1.
He encouraged all Virginians to start thinking about what it will take for you to be comfortable going back into places of businesses because that's what he says the state needs to hear to develop future guidance.
The statewide situation in Virginia
Virginia remains under a series of public health orders and executive orders designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the commonwealth. The timeline of those measures can be seen below.
On Monday, May 4, Governor Ralph Northam announced that Executive Order 53, which closed many non-essential businesses across Virginia, would be extended until May 14.
At that same briefing, the governor outlined his plans for Virginia's "Phase 1" of reopening, which he said he anticipates will begin on Friday, May 15. At that point, at least some of the businesses that had to close due to EO 53 will be able to reopen, though they'll operate with restrictions in place, including social distancing measures, safety measures like PPE for employees, and increases sanitation.
On Wednesday, April 29, Gov. Northam announced the first public health order to end, letting elective procedures resume on May 1. That also effectively re-opened dentist's offices for regular appointments and veterinarian's offices.
On April 24, the governor outlined a blueprint on how Virginia can enter phases of reopening, calling for the commonwealth to see a 14-day trend of declining daily case totals before the process begins.
Executive Order 53, which closed many non-essential businesses and banned gatherings of more than 10 people and is now set to last until at least May 14, had been previously extended by Northam in April before being extended again this month.
Executive Order 55, the 'Stay at Home' order signed by Northam on March 30, is set to run through at least June 10, as it has been since its signing. It instructs all Virginians to stay home except for essential needs.
Virginia remains under a state of emergency until June 10 as well.
Of the orders in place, Executive Order 53 is enforceable by law, so someone who hosts a gathering of more than 10 people can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor. You can learn more about what police enforcement of Northam's executive orders looks like here.
Statewide case totals and testing numbers as of May 8
By May 8, the Virginia Department of Health had received reports of 21,274 confirmed and 1,068 probable cases of COVID-19 across the commonwealth.
"Probable" cases are cases that were diagnosed by a doctor based on symptoms and exposure without a test – also known as clinical diagnoses.
Those positive test results are out of 143,220 total tests administered in Virginia, which were between 128,877 unique people. (Health commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver explained in a briefing last Friday that around 10% of people get tested more than once, so the state now reports both total tests and total people tested).
Tests from Monday to Tuesday increased by more than 5,000. From Tuesday to Thursday, there were 8,620 new tests, and from Thursday to Friday, tests rose by 6,662.
Overall, considering testing numbers and positive results, about 15.6% of Virginians who have been tested have received positive results. The recent increase in testing has already brought that percentage point down from over 17% last week – and that number is a key to reopening on schedule, Gov. Northam said Monday.
At this point, 3,059 Virginians have been hospitalized due to the disease caused by the virus, and at least 812 have died of causes related to the disease - an increase of 43 deaths since Thursday.
The hospitalization and death numbers are the totals confirmed by the Virginia Department of Health, which are always delayed by several days due to the logistics of medical facilities reporting information to local health districts, when then report it to the state health department.
The state website shows a lot of detail by locality, including hospitalizations and deaths for each city or county, and will soon be updated to break the data down by zip code as well.
The hospitalization numbers are cumulative — they represent the total number of people hospitalized due to the disease throughout the outbreak and not the total number currently in the hospital. For current hospitalization stats, the VHHA offers more helpful data.
In our area, as of May 8, there were at least 55 confirmed cases in Augusta County, 574 cases in Harrisonburg, 320 cases in Rockingham County, 123 cases in Page County, 236 cases in Shenandoah County, 15 cases in Staunton, 20 cases in Waynesboro, 2 cases in Highland County, 150 cases in Frederick County, 61 cases in Winchester, and 8 cases in Rockbridge County, along with 5 in Lexington.
Part of the Harrisonburg number, which has the most confirmed cases in our region, comes from an outbreak at Accordius Health Harrisonburg, where the Virginia Department of Health and UVA Health collaborated to test every resident and staff member, finding 81 residents and 12 staff members positive.
By Tuesday, May 5, the facility had confirmed 22 deaths due to coronavirus.
A separate outbreak in Harrisonburg, at the Harrisonburg Men's Diversion Center, has resulted in at least 25 positive cases, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Another involves LSC Communications, which confirmed six cases as of April 30. The health district has not publicly identified LCS as an outbreak site, but the number of cases they have confirmed to employees meets the VDH definition of a congregate setting outbreak. Since that date, the company has ceased providing updates on their employee hotline.
In Page County, which went from 30 cases on April 23 to 100 as of April 30 and is now up to 122, a large part is accounted for from an outbreak at Skyview Springs Rehab, where 59 residents tested positive for the virus amid an outbreak.
The facility has 115 residents total. According to Dr. Colin Greene, with the Lord Fairfax Health District, about 10-15 percent of staff members there tested positive as well.
In Shenandoah County, New Market Poultry Products, which has more than 100 employees working on a daily basis, confirmed that they have had multiple employees test positive – though an exact number was not provided.
The Central Shenandoah Health District currently has 11 identified outbreaks and the Lord Fairfax Health District has 13.
Dr. Colin Greene, the director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, told WHSV last Thursday that they're looking into three "significant outbreaks" in their area, including two at workplaces and one at a long-term care facility, though he does not have permission from the facilities to share their identities.
Those outbreaks are a major factor behind the increase of cases and deaths across their district since last week.
Health department officials have not specified the majority of the locations of our outbreaks, given that Virginia state code requires permission to be granted by a facility for their information to be released to the media. That;s because Virginia code treats facilities the same as "persons," meaning their anonymity has to be protected.
Many of the local outbreaks have been identified in congregate settings, which could include workplaces, apartment complexes, churches, gyms, or any setting with a group of people in one place.
Of the state's total hospitalizations, at least 57 have been in the Central Shenandoah Health District. Of those, 2 have been in Augusta County, 33 in Harrisonburg, 21 in Rockingham County, and 1 in Waynesboro.
In the Lord Fairfax Health District, there have been at least 55 hospitalizations. Eighteen of those have been in Shenandoah County and 13 in Page County.
As far as deaths, there have been 4 reported in Shenandoah County, 11 in Page County, one in Augusta County, 21 in Harrisonburg, and one in Rockingham County.
Although the statewide numbers list 21 deaths for Harrisonburg, the Central Shenandoah Health District confirmed that 22 residents of Accordius Health Harrisonburg have died of coronavirus-related causes.
However, if any of those patients had listed residences elsewhere in the state, the health department statistics are based on people's resident addresses.
With one death in Rockingham County, WHSV confirmed with Cargill that an employee of their Dayton plant has died of COVID-19. The company did not provide further details on if any outbreaks are investigation, though the situation at poultry facilities across Virginia has been a major focus of the governor's.
Dr. Norm Oliver, the state's health commissioner, has said that it often takes several days before local health districts are able to enter death information into the state database. Dr. Laura Kornegay, director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, told WHSV that deaths first have to be reported to them by medical facilities, which is a major cause for the delay on the numbers reported for our area.
Dr. Kornegay also explained that if someone has tested positive for COVID-19, that's what goes on their death certificate. Those death certificates have a space to list secondary causes of death, and that's where ongoing health issues like heart disease and cancer are listed – the same process is how flu deaths are reported.
Other local updates
Just to the east, there have been at least 116 cases in Albemarle County, 66 in Charlottesville, 14 in Greene County, and 10 in Nelson County.
Wondering about the number of people who have recovered from COVID-19 in Virginia? Recovery information is not required to be sent to the Department of Health, so there is no accurate way to track that data for every single confirmed case.
But there is a way to track the number of patients who were hospitalized due to COVID-19 and have since been discharged – effectively tracking how many people have recovered from the most severe cases.
The Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association updates their own dashboard of data each day on hospital-specific statistics, including bed availability, ventilator usage, and more. Their online dashboard indicates that, as of May 7, at least 2,997 COVID-19 patients have been discharged from the hospital.
Unlike the VDH data that reports cumulative hospitalizations, their data on hospitalizations reflects people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 (whether with confirmed or pending cases), and that number is at 1,625.
The data used by the VDH to report cumulative hospitalizations is based on information reported in hospital claims. On the other hand, the numbers reported by the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association are based on a current census from hospitals, which provides a separate data set.
Updates from Gov. Northam's May 4 briefing
The path forward
Governor Ralph Northam began Monday's briefing, as he's started each of the most recent briefings, by outlining Virginia's history so far in fighting COVID-19.
When Virginia's first case was confirmed on March 7, the governor said it launched very real fears that Virginia hospitals would not have enough ICU capacity or ventilators and realization that there was not enough PPE or testing supplies.
To combat those effects, the governor highlighted the measures that were taken throughout the pandemic: restricting non-essential businesses and limiting gatherings of people with Executive Order 53; ordering Virginians to stay at home except for essential reasons with Executive Order 55; encouraging houses of worship to move services online; asking restaurants to move to carryout and delivery; and more.
He said that as individuals and businesses worked to follow those guidelines, his administration focused on monitoring data, building new PPE supply chains, planning for long-term care facilities, and strengthening Virginia's testing system.
In response, Northam says the measures worked, and that the curve has been flattened, though cases continue to rise.
With plenty of hospital capacity across Virginia, more than enough ventilators, and a steadily reliable PPE supply now established, he said it's time to move forward to a new phase of our response.
However, he emphasized that Virginians cannot forget that the virus is still here – and will not be going away until a vaccination is developed, which could take a year or two.
"We've slowed the virus' spread," Northam said, "but we have not cured the disease."
Considering the reality of the coronavirus' continued existence, Northam said the path forward has to be created with an awareness that the virus is still with us and with no one relaxing their vigilance.
The timeline for reopening
"We re not entering Phase 1 today, nor this week," Northam said after discussing the reality of the virus' continued presence.
However, Northam said, based on the data his team is monitoring, he believes Virginia can enter Phase 1 as soon as next week.
In response, he announced that he is extending Executive Order 53, which was set to expire on May 8, until May 14.
That order is the one that closed many non-essential businesses in Virginia and limited gatherings in Virginia to no more than 10.
Northam said extending that order will give his administration time to monitor the latest data on Virginia's cases, hospital bed capacity, and PPE supplies to be sure that the state can be prepared to enter Phase 1 of reopening.
He anticipates, based on current data, that Virginia should be able to enter Phase 1 at that point, if numbers follow their current trends.
The governor also announced that Executive Order 55, the Stay at Home order for Virginia, is being adjusted to reflect a 'Safer at Home' order for the future as the commonwealth can move into Phase 1.
Asked if he would be able to let businesses know well in advance if Executive Order 53 is set to be extended again, Northam said he fully anticipates moving into Phase 1 on Friday the 15th based on current hospital capacity, steady PPE supplies, and the current trends in case numbers.
"My message today is that we will reopen Virginia next Friday," Northam said.
What will Phase 1 look like?
Governor Northam said Virginia's reopening plan will consist of three phases, each of which is likely to last two to four weeks. He said that duration is in accordance with CDC guidelines for states.
When Virginia does enter Phase 1 on May 15, as Northam currently anticipates, it will come with continued physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and disinfection, and enhanced workplace safety.
But Phase 1 will allow the businesses that were required to close to reopen their doors.
However, every industry will need to continue following guidance on how to operate safely – with continued physical distancing, like spaced-out seating at restaurants; with enhanced cleaning, meaning more sanitation at the restaurant after someone dines there; and more workplace safety measures, like employees wearing face masks or plexiglass shields between a salon worker and a customer.
Essentially, you'll be able to eat at a restaurant and you'll be able to go to the gym – but fewer people will be allowed in those facilities, the employees will be following key safety procedures, and there will be a lot more cleaning.
According to the governor, every industry will be sending out specific guidance for businesses within their fields. That applies to campgrounds, bowling alleys theaters, and all sorts of businesses that have been affected.
Northam specifically stated that houses of worship will be able to reopen, but are not immune from social distancing.
He also specifically talked about farmers' markets, saying they'll be able to reopen to browsing and not just for curbside pickup and online delivery, as many have developed procedures for in recent weeks.
What about Phases 2 and 3?
Each of the phases after Phase 1 will steadily loosen restrictions, but at this point, Northam did not provide many details for Phases 2 and 3, saying that Phase 1 is the first priority and future guidance will be shaped by the data as this pandemic develops.
Each phase is set to last 2-4 weeks, like Phase 1, according to CDC guidance.
Northam said entering Phase 2 will require stable PPE supplies and a continued downward testing trend, and the phase will lift the Stay at Home order for most people, but ask all vulnerable populations to continue staying at home.
Entering Phase 3 will require no evidence of a rebound in cases.
House of Delegates Minority Leader Todd Gilbert issues this statement in response to Northam's Monday announcements:
"We hope the Governor is serious about reopening next Friday. Virginians need a light at the end of this tunnel. The Governor’s decision to use a ‘one size fits all’ approach is going to negatively impact certain parts of Virginia worse than others. The ‘potential for division’ the Governor mentioned is already a reality, as citizens across Virginia watch their livelihoods wither."
Monitoring the data
To ensure that Virginia sees the downward trend called for in the governor's guidance for reopening, he said the Virginia Department of Health is taking more steps to track as much data as possible.
Acknowledging that cases continue to rise in Virginia, Northam said that is, in part, because of increased testing in Virginia.
Up until last week, Virginia was ranked among the lowest states in the country for per capita testing, but testing has increased significantly since then, rising from about 2,000 tests a day early last week to around 5,000 tests a day now.
Northam said the data being monitored shows the number of people tested and the number of those people testing positive. Looking for a decline, he said what officials are watching is the average of how many tests that are processed come back positive.
And that percentage - around 16% now - has been going down.
The governor said they're also looking for a 14-day downward trend in hospitalizations, which has not happened yet, and for steady hospital bed capacity, which has occurred.
Fewer and fewer hospitals have reported PPE shortages since the start of the pandemic in Virginia, down to only around one hospital, according to one graph the governor showed.
Asked if there's a particular metric he follows, Northam said the number that gets his biggest focus is the number of daily deaths reported. That number has been around 25-40 in recent days and has stayed steady.
"As governor and as a doctor," Northam said his goal is to prevent as many deaths as possible.
To help monitor and prevent future outbreaks, the Virginia Department of Health is also hiring 1,000 people to work as contact tracers, identifying as many people as possible who came into contact with any people with confirmed cases.
Dr. Norm Oliver, state health commissioner, said the state has to take a serious approach to identifying new cases and identifying anyone exposed if Virginia is to reopen safely.
He said the health department has already begun hiring hundreds of case identifiers and is setting up the process to hire 1,000 new contact tracers in the next two weeks.
The situation at poultry plants
Governor Northam said the state is continuing to closely track cases at meat processing facilities in the Shenandoah Valley and on the Eastern Shore, though the state's focus has remained on the Eastern Shore, which has seen the highest concentration of cases at poultry facilities.
New decontamination facilities
Last week, Gov. Northam announced that Virginia was opening three new large-scale sites to decontaminate mass quantities of PPE supplies for Virginia hospitals so they can be reused.
On Monday, Northam said the first of the three, in Blacksburg, has opened up.
Northam said Virginia has been working with FEMA, hospitals, and private labs to get more swabs and testing supplies across the commonwealth.
Highlighting the numbers now showing around 6,000 tests a day, compared to 2,000 tests a day a week ago, the governor said he's confident that Virginia's new supply chain will allow us to hit his administration's goal of 10,000 cases a day in the near future.
Dr. Karen Remley, who has headed up the governor's testing task force, said that surveys from clinics and doctors' officers are coming in to help the health department understand where any gaps in testing supplies remain.
She also said the department is holding a webinar for doctors' offices to go over all the guidelines on testing to close any loops in the process.
Doctors are also being advised to start the process of contact tracing for any COVID-19-positive patients, discussing with them any people living in their household and writing that data down as soon as a diagnosis is confirmed.
In addition, Dr. Remley said Virginia now has over 160 testing sites across the commonwealth and that they're each listed on the VDH website.
What happened to the possibility of a regional reopening?
Asked about the possibility for reopening Virginia on a region-by-region basis, which Northam previously said was something he'd be open to, he said the decision was made against it based on "overwhelming advice" from business owners, including those in rural areas with very few confirmed cases.
Northam said the concern expressed by many business owners was that a regional reopening would result in people traveling from closed areas with more cases to the open areas, unwittingly bringing in new cases and spreading the virus to the areas with the fewest cases.
The governor said it would also effectively "be picking winners and losers" for different regions of the state while he said his goal has been to move everyone into Phase 1 together "as a commonwealth."
He also said a regional reopening would bring tremendous potential for more division, so ultimately, the decision was made for Friday, May 15, to mark the start of Phase 1 for all Virginians.
What are the options for employees who may not feel safe returning to work?
Gov. Northam said the top priority for when the state moves into Phase 1 is workplace safety, He said businesses were eager to work with the CDC and VDH to develop plans to run their businesses safely.
However, as of right now, the state is still awaiting guidance from the Virginia Employment Commission, which is guided by U.S. Department of Labor policy, on what eligibility for unemployment insurance may look like if people feel unsafe going back to work.
A spokesperson for the governor's cabinet said they are developing criteria to outline specific reasons that workers may meet a qualification to continue receiving unemployment and not return to work, like having pre-existing conditions. Those guidelines would not apply to healthy individuals who simply think their workplace shouldn't be open.
Discussing farmers' markets as a great avenue for farmers to get their items to the market, Gov. Northam invited Virginia Agriculture Secretary Bettina Ring to discuss the future for them.
Ring said farmers' markets have done fantastic jobs adapting to the situation so far, setting up online ordering and curbside pick options, and said that Phase 1, on May 15, will mean that people will once again be allowed to browse farmers markets, rather than just order online and pick up their items.
People will need to wear masks and follow all relevant distancing guidelines, but markets will be able to be open for the spring and summer.
Response to a lawsuit
In Chincoteague, a church has sued Gov. Northam, claiming that executive orders preventing them from holding gatherings amid the pandemic violated the 1st Amendment. A district judge sided with Northam and the church appealed to the 4th Circuit Court.
Rita Davis, Northam's counsel, acknowledged that the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest on behalf of the church, but said the governor's authority was constitutional and she looks forward to the circuit court affirming that.
In response to a separate question about how Northam would respond to Virginians upset with his orders, claiming they were unconstitutional, the governor said all his administration's actions are based on the Constitution.
"My decisions are made to protect Virginians, to keep Virginians healthy and safe, and to prevent deaths," he said.
While he said he understands people are upset, he said he's not trying to punish people but making decisions based on the health and safety of millions of Virginians.
The response from Washington
Gov. Northam responded to a question about his calls with the White House by saying that since early March, "we have been fighting a biological war."
Northam said states were "asked to fight this war without any supplies," describing the circumstances under which governors had to compete for supplies with other states. He said they were forced to start "two months behind" because governors had to search for supplies on their own without federal assistance.
However, he said he "commends Washington" for the actions taken in the past few weeks, including the passage of the CARES Act and FEMA working more closely with states to provide supplies.
The 'silver lining'
Northam said he always tries to search for a reason for hope amid dark situations like this crisis, and said that the response of Virginians has provided a silver lining for how we can prepare if something like this ever happens again.
The governor pointed to the work of pharmaceutical companies and universities working as fast as they can to find solutions and treatments, researchers working to develop a vaccine, and those who helped with the clinical trial for remdesivir.
He said the vaccine, in the future, will be the "silver bullet" to put the crisis truly behind us.
He thanked everyone who has made sacrifices during the pandemic, including doctors, nurses, hospital staff, first responders, law enforcement, grocery store workers, and more.
Northam also took time to discuss the death of Dr. Lorna Breen, a New York doctor who took her own life in Charlottesville after witnessing the COVID-19 pandemic in a New York emergency room.
Northam said it's a devastating reminder for people to keep in mind the mental health and stress of front-line workers in this crisis and let them know that we're here for them.
He thanked everyone who has "been a part of the solution" and said "as long as we continue to work together, we'll get through this."
Updates from Gov. Northam's May 6 briefing
The 'Forward Virginia' blueprint and data guiding the process
Governor Northam started Wednesday's briefing by noting that Thursday, May 7, will mark two months since the first positive COVID-19 cases was confirmed in the commonwealth.
In the eight weeks since, he noted that our lives and the lives of people around the world have changed, but now, Northam said, we're able to start thinking about next steps.
He said Monday's briefing broadly outlined his "Forward Virginia" plan for the future, which calls for three phases over time based on the latest data and science, and that more specific guidance for businesses and the continuing restrictions in Phase 1 will be provided on Friday.
Northam said his administration is working with businesses and local governments across Virginia to determine what the next steps will look like.
Specifically, he said the restrictions being outlined on a state level for Phase 1 are "the floor," stating that local governments can implement more severe restrictions into Phase 1 and beyond if they determine it's needed based on their situations, like in northern Virginia.
When asked for clarity later in the briefing about that, Gov. Northam said his cabinet has been talking to local leaders in some of the hardest hit areas, like counties in Northern Virginia, and they said they may need to increase restrictions beyond the state level.
While the governor has previously said he chose not to move forward with reopenings on a regional basis to keep guidelines consistent across the commonwealth, he said that allowing potentially more severe restrictions in some areas will help on a local level and won't change the overall state guidance.
The governor said all decisions his staff is making are based on the latest metrics, and he hopes that we will be able to enter Phase 1 on May 15, because the data so far indicates that will be possible.
But, he said they'll be continuing to closely monitor the data to guide decisions on reopening and will make changes if necessary.
As far as the specific data guiding the process, Northam said the percentage of Virginians tested who receive positive results – around 16% at last count – is key, and it's been slowly but steadily going down. He also pointed to numbers of hospitalizations, which have remained steady, and the PPE supply in Virginia.
In the last few days, no Virginia hospitals at all have reported difficulty finding PPE.
However, he said the commonwealth still needs to significantly ramp up testing ability and the ability to trace more contacts of people with positive cases.
Ongoing testing efforts
Part of the effort to ramp up testing and increase contact tracing, Northam said, has been focused in the Eastern Shore, where the health department is working with CDC teams to conduct large-scale testing in the communities surrounding poultry plants with hundreds of confirmed cases.
To increase testing around the state, Northam said, we don't just need testing kits, but people – to carry out the tests and perform all surrounding tasks.
He highlighted the work the Virginia National Guard has done for that, providing manpower and logistical expertise.
Twelve facilities across Virginia with ongoing outbreaks have had testing provided with assistance from the National Guard.
A request of President Trump
Gov. Northam said all the work the Virginia National Guard, which has a dual mission of both federal and state interests, has done has been funded through the federal government.
That's thanks to a federal authorization from President Donald Trump for assistance from the National Guard in states to respond to COVID-19. But that authorization is set to expire on May 31.
Northam is asking President Trump to extend that authorization to enable continued federal funding for National Guard response.
According to Virginia's Secretary of Veterans Affairs, if not granted that extension for Title 32, which authorized the funding, Virginia's National Guard will continue to respond regardless.
He said the authorization is important to Virginia's response, but the response will be the same either way – the difference is whether the cost burden shifts to the state instead of the federal government.
How the Virginia National Guard is responding
The governor invited Maj. Gen. Tim Williams, with the Virginia National Guard, to elaborate on how the guard has been responding in Virginia.
Williams said their top priority has been to provide additional capacity for COVID-19 testing and mask fitting at long-term care facilities and other outbreak sites across Virgnia.
He said the guard has been assisting with planning and logistical work since Virginia's state of emergency was first declared in March, but recently, about 100 National Guard members have supported sample collection and N95 mask fitting in localities around the state.
Altogether, he said they've delivered more than 730 sample collection kits, assisted with distributing about 50,000 pounds of food across communities, and done much more.
They're currently deployed in central Virginia and will be in the Eastern Shore this coming weekend.
He encouraged any local governments in need of assistance to reach out to their local emergency managers, who can coordinate National Guard response.
Williams also called for Virginians to keep National Guard members and their families in mind, as most on-duty personnel also have full-time jobs and cannot currently return to their families due to a need for isolation.
You can learn more about how the National Guard has been preparing for the work here.
Coordination from health agencies and hospitals
Gov. Northam also thanked hospitals across Virginia for their work throughout the pandemic and for their assistance to provide resources where needed.
He specifically noted an announcement from the VHHA on Wednesday about their partnership with the health department to provide a range of needed resources to long-term care facilities.
Donations by the Health Equity Group
Northam also thanked the Health Equity Group for their work providing donations to send out COVID-19 care kits in Harrisonburg.
Those care kits were distributed on Wednesday, providing face masks, hand sanitizer, and flyers in five languages with information on COVID-19 prevention to hundreds of city residents in Harrisonburg's culturally diverse neighborhoods.
Nurse Appreciation Week
May 6 marks the start of Nurse Appreciation Week, and Gov. Northam took time during his briefing to thank Virginia's nurses, saying he's grateful to every nurse in Virginia for everything they do and that he knows, from his experience as a doctor, that no medical facility could function without nurses.
The delay in Virginia's May 6 numbers
Dr. Norm Oliver, the state health commissioner, normally provides an updates on Virginia's latest case statistics just after Northam's remarks in his briefings and before reporter questions.
However, on Wednesday, as the numbers on the state website remained not updated since Tuesday, Dr. Oliver acknowledged the ongoing technical error with the site and said that his team was working very hard to get the data up as quickly as possible.
He said they expect to have the latest numbers posted later in the day.
The situation at Bon Air
Regarding the situation at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, which saw an outbreak that gave Virginia a large number of the juvenile offenders in America that have tested positive for COVID-19, Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said 27 of 29 patients have been returned to their rooms, recovered from the virus.
He said no others have tested positive since the 29 cases reported last month, and that they have significantly reduced the population at the juvenile detention center.
The status of testing with private labs
Last week, the governor announced that Virginia had secured contracts with three private labs to ramp up testing capacity in Virginia.
However, Dr. Karen Remley, who is leading Virginia's testing task force, said on Wednesday that the labs are not processing tests for Virginia, but instead sending test kits to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, which then determines when they should be used instead of kits from the state lab, based on where testing is the most needed in the state.
Dr. Remley said the contracts give Virginia additional flexibility on test kits to provide more resources to hard-hit areas.
Testing in under-served areas
Dr. Oliver said Virginia has been deploying the National Guard to help provide testing in Virginia's most under-served areas, like rural localities and communities of color, working with VDEM to guide resources to where they're most needed.
He said the health department is also looking at having home health nurses have the capacity to test their patients.
While Virginia is currently running about six to seven thousand tests a day, the goal remains to get to around 10,000 tests a day, and get to a point where "everyone who needs a test will be able to get a test."
How is the governor doing?
When a reporter asked Gov. Northam how he and his staff are doing, he went back to a response he's relied heavily upon throughout COVID-19 briefings, discussing his time as a doctor in the U.S. Army. He talked about his time working in a triage unit during Operation Desert Storm, saying each day blended into another as they treated patient after patient, but said it did end, just as this situation will end.
He thanked his staff for all the work they're doing, saying none of them would be able to say when their last day off was because they're dedicated to making sure Virginians can get through this together.
The situation on the Eastern Shore
Dr. Norm Oliver said the majority of cases on the Eastern Shore are in two poultry plants, but described the situation as if the facilities were cruise ships – saying each day, hundreds of people carrying the virus disembark, bringing it beyond the plants into their communities.
He highlighted steps the plants have taken in accordance with CDC guidelines, like installing plexiglass shields between workers on a line, arranging hotel space for workers instead of returning home, where they could spread the virus in densely quartered hosing, and increased sanitation efforts.
He also said community-based testing with the National Guard this weekend should help increase their response.
Testing at long-term care centers
Dr. Remley explained that it's up to individual long-term care centers to determine how they want to carry out testing, and that they need to reach out to their local health departments if assistance is needed.
She said they're also required to communicate the situation with staff and with the loved ones of people at the facilities.
How much federal funding is Virginia getting?
Virginia's commerce secretary said Virginia, like all states, is getting a vast amount of funding through the CARES Act, which set up about 50 different funding streams, with some of the most money in the PPP program through the Small Business Administration, which remains open for its newest round of assistance payments.
He said that about $3.1 billion has been allocated for local governments across Virginia, with specific guidelines on how it can be used.
That guidance is being reviewed by Northam's cabinet and will be provided to local governments when they receive allocations of the money.
But before it goes to local governments, the state government has to certify that the localities will follow the federal guidelines on its use, which includes money toward testing and contact tracing, among other uses.
Will Virginia code that blocks facility identification be changed?
Dr. Oliver has previously explained in briefings that the Virginia Department of Health cannot report the specific facilities where outbreak have been identified, involving long-term care centers or otherwise, because Virginia's state code defines facilities and businesses as "persons" and requires the health department to protect the anonymity of all "persons."
There's no way for that to change unless legislators were to change the state code.
A reporter asked is the governor would support a move by lawmakers to do just that after several legislators from both parties have said they'd like to change it in a special session.
Gov. Northam passed the main part of the question, which was about the constitutionality of that part of Virginia code, to another cabinet member, who explained the attorney general's interpretation of the code, and then, when retaking the podium, moved onto the next question before addressing whether he would support lawmakers changing that part of the code.
Ramping up the contact tracing workforce
Gov. Northam and his cabinet have said that they're in the process of ramping up the state;s workforce to provide more contact tracing across Virginia to keep communities safe and detect possible cases and exposures to the virus early.
Dr. Oliver has said they're planning to hire 1,000 new workers for contact tracing, but has also said it's unclear exactly how many are currently employed.
He explained on Wednesday that that is because Virginia's 129 individual health departments manage their own contact tracing workforces and ramp them up or down depending on need on given days.
While he estimates hundreds are currently employed, he said they need about 1,300 to meet the guidelines they're trying to meet to be able to trace exposure in every Virginia community, and said that the health department is handling the new hiring process to be able to know when that number has been met.
He said the whole point of contact tracing is "boxing in the spread" of the coronavirus and that one of their focuses will be on rural and diverse areas.
Dr. Oliver plans to keep the public posted on the hiring process at future briefings.
Outbreak at Dillwyn Correctional Center
Secretary Moran said that the Department of Corrections, which initially only tested symptomatic offenders and officers at correctional facilities, will be testing every person at the Dillwyn Correctional Center with point prevalence testing at the end of this week.
He said that kind of early detection will help ensure the health and safety of inmates and correctional officers.
What about D.C. and Maryland?
Gov. Northam has said throughout the pandemic that he's been working closely with Governor Hogan in Maryland and Mayor Bowser in Washington, D.C. to keep planning consistent.
On Wednesday, he said that all the areas now have different situations they're facing, requiring different guidelines, but that they continue communicating on how to move forward together with flexibility.
At this point, D.C. is not set to reopen as soon as Northam's plan for May 15 for Virginia.
Northam's message to protesters
Once again, during the briefing, protesters gathered outside the Virginia Capitol, calling on the governor to reopen the state immediately.
The governor said his message to them is to consider the Virginia National Guard members discussed earlier in his briefing, to consider the doctors and nurses fighting the pandemic, and to consider the teachers keeping children educated.
He said they can focus their efforts on thanking those people.
Teacher Appreciation Week
With Teacher Appreciation Week ongoing, Northam said he can't say enough about all that teachers are doing across the commonwealth and encouraged everyone to reach out to teachers and thank them this week.
The governor ended Wednesday's briefing by noting that on Friday, he and his staff will provide significantly more detail on the "Forward Virginia" blueprint for reopening the commonwealth, including specifics on Phase 1, business guidelines, and how to keep consumers comfortable when they enter businesses.
Previous updates from Gov. Northam's May 1 briefing
The testing timeline in Virginia
Governor Northam started Friday's briefing by recapping the commonwealth's timeline for COVID-19 leading up to May.
The governor highlighted that when Virginia's first positive COVID-19 case was confirmed on March 7, less than eight weeks ago, there was a real fear that hospitals could be overwhelmed in Virginia, as had been seen in places like Italy and New York.
Northam said the state struggled to obtain supplies for testing and PPE at the start of the pandemic, but implemented restrictions, including the Stay at Home order and business closures, to help prevent that situation from happening.
He said the commonwealth waited to see if those restrictions would work, "and it has worked."
Highlighting the fact that hospitals have not been overwhelmed, with plenty of ventilator and ICU capacity available, Northam said while the case count continues climbing, so does testing.
Testing, Northam said, is the key to moving forward carefully, and he presented a slideshow on where Virginia stands as far as testing.
Showing graphs on Virginia's cumulative testing and daily cases reported, he pointed out the steady rise in cumulative cases and the increase in daily cases, saying that the daily cases will need to begin declining for future steps.
A graph showing hospitalization numbers alongside cumulative cases made the governor's point that capacity is available in hospitals, which he said was part of the state decision to resume elective procedures.
Also key to increasing testing, the governor said, is a steady supply of PPE. To help make that possible, Northam said the state is opening up three new facilities to decontaminate mass quantities of masks and other PPE to allow more supplies to be reused.
Testing: A multi-step process
Dr. Karen Remley, the former Virginia Department of Health commissioner who's been leading Virginia's testing task force, took part of Friday's briefing to outline the testing process.
Dr. Remley called it a 5-step process, with the 5 steps being: sick patient, clinician, specimen collection, lab test, test result
Each of those steps, she said, is a place Virginia can improve the process.
First, Dr. Remley said the key is getting patients who are experiencing symptoms to get themselves tested, which she said can still be a challenge. She said patients who are experiencing possible symptoms can go to the Virginia Department of Health website and find an online map that shows all testing locations in the state with a search by zip code.
As far as collecting the test itself, she said Virginia is implementing the CDC's newest guidance on testing, which allows doctors to let individuals perform their own nasal swab test, using less PPE and allowing testing in many more locations.
For lab tests, Dr. Remley said Virginia's state lab has increased testing capacity by at least 3,000 tests a day with new contracts with private labs in Virginia and North Carolina.
Touching back on the blueprint outlined by Gov. Northam last week for reopening, she said Virginia is now in Phase 2 of testing, which calls for around 5,000 tests to be administered a day.
Phase 3 calls for 7,500 tests a day, Phase 4 calls for 10,000 tests a day, and Phase 5 calls for 2,000 tests a day with a steady rate of testing once most cases have already been identified.
Dr. Remley said the state has gotten increased supplies necessary to ramp up testing, and is doing so, focusing on the people who meet the CDC's priorities for testing, including hospitalized patients, healthcare workers, and high risk populations.
As far as next steps, she said the health department is working with more private labs to do up to 5,000 more tests a week and that local health districts are establishing more drive-thru and mobile testing sites to get more people tested.
She heavily encouraged people to keep following all social distancing guidelines but to go out and get tested if you have symptoms.
Phase 1 and what's next
Gov. Northam said the big picture of all the data presented is that Virginia is making progress and that the measures taken have worked to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent any surges that would overwhelm hospitals.
He said PPE supplies are now steady, hospital capacity is available, and Virginia is increasing testing.
But what comes next?
Virginia has not entered Phase 1 of Northam's blueprint for reopening, and won't until we see a 14-day trend of declining daily case totals.
But the governor emphasized multiple times in Friday's briefing that where Virginia currently stands is what many states are calling their "Phase 1."
Virginia has resumed elective procedures and reopened dentist offices to non-emergency appointments. Beaches and parks have remained open for the purpose of exercise throughout the pandemic.
Each of those are steps other states are counting as parts of their "Phase 1."
As far as exactly what Virginia's Phase 1 will look like, when it can be implemented, and what it will mean for businesses, Northam said announcements on that will be made at his briefing scheduled for Monday.
Virginia's businesses and what's been able to stay open
Northam's Chief of Staff Clark Mercer answered a reporter question on Virginia's businesses, providing some insight into Virginia's decision to only close select non-essential businesses throughout the pandemic.
Touching on Northam's point that Virginia is already at what "Phase 1" is for some other states, he said Virginia never closed many non-essential stores, like toy stores, for instance, and only required the closure of businesses where social distancing isn't possible, like hair and nail salons and wineries.
Mercer said that was because they did not want, as a government, to define which businesses could sell the same type of product, effectively forcing people away from local toy stores into big box stores that also sell toys, to continue his toy store example.
Mercer said the key has been for all the non-essential stores allowed to remain open to keep following guidelines on social distancing and abide by the state's limit on gatherings of 10.
How can testing increase?
The governor, acknowledging studies showing that Virginia's per-capita testing was among the lowest in the country, said that the commonwealth focused on high-risk populations to start with, but is moving to a new strategy as they ask doctors to not turn away patients and have anyone who meets the CDC criteria for testing tested.
Northam said the goal is to make it as easy as possible for a sick person to get a test in a setting they trust. To do that, his administration is developing guidance for doctors to provide more tests in outpatient settings.
Why did the numbers on Friday show an increase of 15,000 tests?
The latest Virginia Department of Health numbers released on Friday morning appeared to show around 15,000 tests administered from Thursday to Friday, which would have been a huge increase over previous highs of about 5,000 tests a day.
That increase, according to state health commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver, was largely due to a change in methodology.
While testing did increase on Friday to around 5,800, the spike in testing numbers appeared because the VDH numbers now display the total number of tests administered overall, whereas they had previous reported the number of people tested.
According to Dr. Oliver, previously, it was not uncommon for a sick patient to get tested, get tested again in the hospital, and potentially get tested again going to a skilled nursing facility, and that would all display as one test on Virginia's system. Now, the system will indicate every single test, rather than just the total number of people tested.
The rationale behind the change, according to Northam's staff, is because every test administered uses testing supplies, reagents, and PPE that is critical to the state response.
They estimated about ten percent of people positive for COVID-19 received more than one test, causing the increase in Friday numbers.
It also is one explanation for why Virginia's testing numbers had been so low, compared to surrounding states.
The situation at long-term care facilities
Two weeks ago, Gov. Northam established a nursing home task force to set up COVID-19 testing at any facilities in the state with at least two confirmed cases. The testing, known as point-prevalence, has involved testing every single resident and staff member on the same day to determine the scope of outbreaks.
It's been performed in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Health, UVA Medical Center, VCU Health, the Virginia state lab, and the National Guard, which helps run tests when needed.
Now, Northam says any long-term care facility in the state can reach out to their local health district to request point-prevalence testing at any point, thanks to the efforts of the nursing home task force.
The governor reminded people that the National Guard is in areas to help perform tests, and reminded Virginians that seeing their vehicles should be no cause for alarm.
The governor reminded Virginians that it's not too late to respond to the U.S. Census, saying it's critical to count every single person living in Virginia. He urged anyone who has not yet filled it out to do so online or through the mail.
Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Gov. Northam said at this time, it's a reminder that many people of Asian descent have faced increased bigotry and harassment simply because the coronavirus originated in China, and reminded people that that is unacceptable.
Foster Care Month
May is also Foster Care Month, so Gov. Northam thanked foster parents for all they've done to welcome children into their lives and the social workers who support them.
Money granted for schools
Northam announced that the Virginia Department of Education has allocated $238.6 million in federal funding through the CARES Act, with 90% going directly to local school districts and 10% to statewide efforts.
What's the timeline on reopening schools?
Gov. Northam said so long as Virginians keep doing what they're doing, he's confident that K-12 schools will be able to begin again in August and September, as usual.
He said there's been no discussion on a start date for year-round schools who have been looking at July.
What's the timeline on reopening businesses?
When asked about a previous projection that Virginia may be able to enter Phase 1 and start reopening non-essential businesses on May 8, Northam said the plan for reopening businesses remains under consideration with the state's COVID-19 Business Task Force and will be fleshed out in his Monday briefing.
He said the task force is working on a blueprint and criteria to determine exactly what Phase 1 will look like
He thanked people for their patience as his administration considers a lot of data to make the decisions, and said he understands that consumers want to be reassured that entering a business is safe for them.
What is Virginia's contact tracing capability?
Dr. Norm Oliver was asked about Virginia's workforce on tracing the contacts of positive cases after Virginia did not have data to report to NPR when they reported on numbers for contact tracing nationwide.
He said the Virginia Department of Health does not have a central roster of the people doing contact tracing because it's handled by local health districts.
Citing an example of one district that increased their normal number of people working on contact tracing from 5 to 20, he estimated the number for Virginia as a whole is "in the hundreds" and said they're working to increase it to about 1,500.
Will Virginia identify specific facilities with outbreaks?
The governor was asked, for at least the third time in a briefing, if Virginia will be able to report the specific facilities where outbreak have been identified, especially involving long-term care centers.
For at least the third time, Dr. Norm Oliver explained that it's not a decision the Virginia Department of Health or the governor can make, because Virginia's state code defines facilities and businesses as "persons" and requires the health department to protect the anonymity of all "persons," effectively meaning that they can't identify facilities with outbreaks unless the facility agrees.
There's no way for that to change, Dr. Norm Oliver highlighted once again, unless legislators were to change the state code.
Cases in Virginia doubling
Gov. Northam said while Virginia has still seen the total number of cases doubling, it's happening with less frequency. At the start, Virginia saw its cases double around every 2 to 3 days. Now, that's around 9 to 12 days as the curve slowly begins to flatten.
Dr. Remley said part of the increase in Virginia's cases is due to an increase in testing, but that cases are increasing as well.
What about reopening Virginia by region?
Gov. Northam said in a prior briefing that he was open to the idea of reopening parts of Virginia on varying schedules, depending on the status of cases in each region.
However, on Friday, he said feedback on that idea from the state's business task force has been mixed.
He highlighted a concern from one business in southwest Virginia, where few cases have been reported, that reopening their business while similar businesses elsewhere in the state remained closed could result in people traveling from hot spots to them, ultimately causing a spike of cases in their area that would then force them to close again.
Northam said feedback from the business task force is being considered and once again pointed to Monday as the day he'll announce guidance for businesses looking toward Phase 1.
Gov. Northam said the Virginia Employment Commission has been inundated with applications, seeing more in a week than they had in the previous three years.
As many Virginians report not getting their unemployment benefits and a nearly impossible system to navigate, with a phone line that almost never gets you to a person and instead hangs up on you, Northam said VEC workers are "doing all they can" to handle the surge of claims.
Moving into the future
Gov. Northam reminded everyone to keep washing their hands, social distancing, and taking care of their friends, family members, and neighbors.
The governor said his administration will continue to reach out to businesses over the coming days and continue to assess data to establish new guidelines for Phase 1 of reopening.
Updates from Gov. Northam's April 29 briefing
The situation at meat processing plants in Virginia
Governor Ralph Northam began Wednesday's briefing by addressing the ongoing situation regarding outbreaks at meat processing facilities across Virginia.
Just hours before the briefing, WHSV confirmed that multiple employees at New Market Poultry have tested positive for COVID-19. Earlier this week, Cargill confirmed to WHSV that an employee of their Dayton plant had died of COVID-19 and outlined the procedures they say they're following.
With President Trump using the Defense Production Act to deem meat processing facilities critical, requiring them to stay open throughout the pandemic in order to prevent supply chain disruptions for meat, Gov. Northam said his number one concern is workers.
The governor reiterated his announcements from Monday in which he said that the CDC had deployed teams to Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware to assess the situation at meat processing plants and ensure that they're following the guidelines established by the CDC on Sunday.
Highlighting the fact that many of Virginia's poultry and other meat processing facility workers are people of color working with low incomes, Northam took time to discuss some of the bills passed by the General Assembly that he said would benefit those workers, including a law to allow undocumented immigrants to gain driving privileges, among others.
Northam said he fully understands the importance of the facilities to Virginia's food chain and the agriculture industry and thanked farmers, truck drivers, and all members of the agriculture supply chain in Virginia.
But he said that supply chain depends on having workers who are healthy and safe.
He said it's imperative to protect the health and well-being of any workers declared essential and said he spoke to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ask them about policies being put into place on a federal level to support the president's executive order by supporting the health of workers.
Northam said he directed Virginia's Department of Labor to make sure Virginia's meat processing facilities are following the new CDC guidelines and OSHA guidance as well.
As the CDC and Virginia officials assess the situation directly at facilities, the governor said more should be known in the coming days.
He said his administration is developing plans to make sure all meat processing facility employees can get tested and receive access to adequate medical care.
Elective procedures can resume this Friday
Gov. Northam also announced in Wednesday's briefing that Order of Public Health Emergency Two, which he signed about five weeks ago to temporarily ban all elective procedures at Virginia hospitals, will be allowed to expire at midnight Thursday night.
That effectively means that, on Friday, medical facilities across the commonwealth will be able to resume all elective procedures.
It allows dentist offices to reopen for all appointments, rather than just emergencies, and veterinarian offices to fully reopen as well.
The governor said he appreciates the cooperation of health care providers and facilities throughout the ban on procedures.
He reiterated that his administration took the step to prepare for the possibility of a surge in cases back in March, as the state was seeing rises in cases and there were legitimate worries that hospitals could be overwhelmed by a surge in cases like had been seen in Italy and New York.
At many of the governor's first regularly scheduled COVID-19 briefings, plans for potential surplus medical care facilities to handle cases if hospitals ran out of capacity were discussed.
But Gov. Northam said Virginia's efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 have shown success, which he said is why hospitals have not been overwhelmed.
At this time, medical facilities across Virginia have not run out of personal protective equipment, with regularly replenished supplies, and many facilities have adapted by implementing new cleaning procedures to allow them to reuse more of the equipment.
"We took the right actions," Northam said, and slowed the spread of the virus, effectively preventing the scenarios that had been feared.
Now, with plenty of capacity at medical facilities, he said that they are ready to reopen for elective procedures and said dentist offices are ready to reopen safely.
The governor encouraged all Virginians to reach out to their healthcare providers now.
Dentist offices reopening
The Virginia Dental Association issued new guidelines on Tuesday to help guide dentists through safe ways to reopen amid the pandemic.
Dr. Reynolds, representing the association, spoke at Northam's Wednesday briefing in-depth about the plans for dentists specifically.
She said some, though not all, offices will resume regular operations with the start of May, but with new protocols in place to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Those protocols will include adjusted appointment times and schedules to allow time for cleaning, minimized patient counts in waiting areas, staff all wearing masks and PPE, screening patients for symptoms, and minimizing the use of air and water in cleanings to reduce aerosols, which are how COVID-19 spreads.
Dr. Reynolds said dentists are "excited and prepared" to get back to work fully and encouraged all Virginians to call their dentists now to figure out treatment plans.
The response from hospitals
Starting on Friday, hospitals across Virginia will resume elective surgeries, from knee replacements to some cancer treatments.
Gov. Northam said if medical facilities see COVID-19 cases rise again, they will be ready to take swift action as needed.
Dr. Mike McDermott, the chairman of the VHHA's board of directors, spoke on how hospitals have responded, expressing gratitude to the governor for taking needed steps and for hospital staff unifying to respond.
He highlighted the VHHA's statistics showing more than 5,000 hospital beds available across Virginia and abundance of ventilator supplies, as well as the adequate supply of PPE at almost all Virginia hospitals.
With enough beds, PPE, and supplies, he said hospitals are ready to resume elective procedures.
As they do so, he said a coalition has been formed of hospital administrators and healthcare experts to establish a framework on how to guide the process of resuming procedures safely.
As they restart a wider variety of procedures while continuing to try to slow the risk of COVID-19, he said medical facilities will collaborate to track testing and PPE supplies as they work to slow the spread of the disease, working together, ready to adjust their approach as needed to address the COVID-19 crisis while also meeting Virginians' health needs.
While he said the financial impact to medical centers across Virginia from the elective procedure ban has been at least $200 million, he said the important factor has been the health and safety of people and not money.
Response from veterinarians
Gov. Northam thanked veterinarians for their full cooperation throughout the crisis and thanked them on behalf of his family's dogs as well.
He said vets can offer full services as of Friday, so long as they continue to follow Virginia's guidelines and practices on the safety of patients.
Student loan announcement
While the federal CARES Act allowed many people to have payments on select federal loans delayed, it did not help many people with other kinds of student loans.
Northam said that another 200,000 Virginians with privately held student loans are now eligible for at least 90 days' forbearance of their payments and to have late payment fees waived.
Loans eligible for the new forbearance option include commercially-owned Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) loans, Perkins loans, or privately held student loans.
Testing resource challenges
As Republican state lawmakers in recent days have issued public letters to Gov. Northam asking why Virginia's per-capita testing has been so low, at less than 1% of the state population tested, Northam acknowledged on Wednesday that the state had very limited testing capacity to start with, like almost all states across the country.
Due to the scenario faced at the start of the crisis, the Virginia Department of Health chose to focus the available testing on the highest priority patients, including people with severe cases, people exposed to directly confirmed cases, and health care workers.
That move was to preserve PPE at medical facilities rather than have it used on tests for more patients who may test negative.
But now, with more capacity of tests, PPE, and medical facilities available, more people can be tested, including high risk groups like people entering long-term care facilities and meat processing facility employees.
Gov. Northam said that Virginia received a shipment on Tuesday of 200,000 more test swabs from FEMA to help boost testing now.
So, with tests preserved at the start of the pandemic for high priority patients and a lot of people not tested at the start, including hundreds who have received clinical diagnoses for the virus without lab testing, doctors say it's likely that more positive tests will be coming in the near days and weeks for Virginia.
But, even with the rise in cases, hospitalization numbers have stabilized, because we can now test more people and not just those with the worst symptoms.
That's a big part of why elective procedures are being allowed to resume.
Dr. Remley, who is heading up Gov. Northam's testing task force, says they're working to create a database of all the tests available in the state, including tests at Virginia's state lab, as well as at private and public hospitals and private labs, to maximize the use of available tests at all facilities.
In response to reports of some private labs having unused testing capacity, she said all of Virginia's hospitals are no longer relying on the Virginia state lab or private labs, but are instead using their own labs or other partner hospital labs.
The tests at the private labs will be included in the new database, those many of those labs, she said, require direct payment and don't accept insurance, which has caused some of the discrepancy.
Dr. Remley said more on the database will be discussed Friday.
More specific data soon available
Dr. Norm Oliver, Virginia's state health commissioner, said as of today, the Department of Health has approved the release of Virginia's latest COVID-19 numbers to be broken down not just by health district and locality, but by zip code.
Dr. Oliver said transforming their data syetm will take some time, so the new system should be available in the next few days.
What about the possibility of reopening businesses on a regional level?
At Monday's briefing, Gov. Northam said he was open to the prospect of phasing business reopenings in Virginia on a regional level, starting with areas with fewer cases.
On Wednesday, when asked about it, Northam said he and the state's COVID-19 Business Task Force are still working through a plan to find a way to potentially open businesses regionally.
He said the key is looking at data on the ability of regions to test and their PPE available, as business leaders collaborate to discuss how to open back up public areas.
The governor said his administration took aggressive steps back in March as numbers began to rise, including closing schools for the rest of the academic year, which he said was the hardest decision made so far.
The concern, Northam said, wasn't necessarily about students themselves, since children have far better health outcomes than older adults, but that they live at homes with others who are at high risk and could have contracted the virus at school, not had symptoms, and then spread it to family members, causing the feared surge in cases.
If we continue following current guidelines though, Northam said he expects children should be back in school by August and September for the fall.
Looking for a trend of case declines to reopen
Governor Ralph Northam was asked about whether the 14-day decline of daily new cases that the state is looking for is a straight 14 days with every day having a lower new total (which could easily be broken by a surge one day due to a delay in case reporting in one region) or if it's about an overall trend.
Northam said his administration is looking for an overall trend, so that a one-day rise out of an overall 14-day decline wouldn't skew results and prevent reopening.
However, he said the most recent numbers don't yet show a flattening, so his earlier hopeful projection that maybe Phase 1 could start on May 8 seems highly unlikely.
He also acknowledged that as more tests are processed through Virginia's blueprint, numbers will go up even more, and as turnaround times for improve, the same will happen.
But Northam said the health department is looking into ways to take those number adjustments into account while focusing on the overall trend rather than just the raw increase in number.
He also said currently, the state's positive rate appears much higher than some other states because tests were focused so long on high risk areas like nursing homes. But as more people can be tested, that rate should go down.
Previous updates from Gov. Northam's April 27 briefing
Developments on the PPE pipeline
Governor Northam announced that the Virginia state government received a delivery of 800,000 gloves and 300,000 surgical masks on Monday from Northfield Medical Manufacturing, which is a Virginia company the state government negotiated a contract with earlier in the crisis.
The governor said 14,000 test swabs for COVID-19 testing were also provided on Monday from FEMA.
Additionally, he highlighted the Virginia Department of Corrections, which has manufactured 470,000 masks throughout the crisis to distribute across the state.
The governor said there's been a 41% increase in testing statewide over the last week, with the commonwealth reaching about 4,000 tests administered a day over the last two days, which meets a key criteria of the governor's blueprint announced on Friday.
He said the Department of Health is prioritizing testing in public housing, prisons, and long-term care facilities to try and focus on people in some of the most vulnerable populations.
Concerns for meat processing plants
Gov. Northam took a significant part of Monday's briefing to address rising concern about the spread of COVID-19 in meat processing plants across Virginia.
Similar facilities nationwide have seen outbreaks, but in Virginia, not much information has been shared with workers or the public.
Early this month, workers at Pilgrim's Pride in Timberville protested what they said were unsafe conditions amid the pandemic, and protests on behalf of poultry workers were continuing on April 27 too.
The governor acknowledged Virginia's many poultry processing plants, which are primarily focused in the Shenandoah Valley and the Eastern Shore.
He said facilities along the Eastern Shore have recorded a rising number of coronavirus cases in recent days, as have facilities in Delaware and Maryland.
The governor acknowledged that many meat processing facilities are in rural areas that may have excellent access to health care, but said one of the main concerns is how quickly health care facilities in their areas may be overwhelmed by outbreaks.
With the close quarters of the work in such facilities making social distancing and isolation extremely difficult, Northam said he and the governors of Maryland and Delaware wrote a joint letter to the White House with their concerns about poultry workers.
In response, the governor said the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is deploying teams to each state to work with local health departments to assess the overall situation at poultry and other meat processing facilities.
The CDC also released new guidance for meat processing facilities on Sunday, establishing ways for the businesses to follow necessary steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Northam said he and is staff spoke with corporate leadership of meat processing facilities across Virginia this past weekend to ensure they take need steps to fight the spread.
With more than 120 federally inspected meat processing facilities across the commonwealth, including many in the Shenandoah Valley, Northam said that his administration is working on ways to ensure that all workers can be screened, provided care if sick, and protected if other workers are showing symptoms.
Statement from the Virginia Poultry Federation:
Poultry plants across Virginia are taking significant and unprecedented steps to protect workers from the COVID-19 pandemic. Protecting the workforce is a high priority, and poultry plants are following CDC guidelines for essential food production facilities and working closely with regional health department districts.
The Department of Homeland Security lists the food and agriculture sector, including the poultry industry, as a critical infrastructure workforce. The Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration have issued guidance for prevention and control of COVID-19 for meat and poultry processing plants.
Following are some examples of measures plants are taking:
• Increasing cleaning, sanitation and fogging frequencies and intensities for equipment and common areas at processing facilities
• Increased frequency of hand washing/sanitation for employees
• Requiring the use of face masks or face shields
• Practicing social distancing not only in common areas, such as break rooms and cafeterias, but also on production lines where possible
• Where social distancing is not possible on production lines, companies are installing plastic dividers between workstations and cleaning or replacing the dividers between shifts
• Heightened employee screening for any signs of illness, including non-contact temperature checks before entering the plant
• Educating employees about the virus and ways to avoid catching it
• Each company policy is different, but companies are offering paid sick leave, bonus pay, making paid time off policies more flexible, and other ways to show appreciation for workers
In addition to all the measures we are taking in poultry operations, it is critical that everyone practice social distancing and protective measures while not at work. VPF appreciates efforts of localities to ensure compliance with the Governor’s prohibition on social gatherings in violation of the stay at home order. This is a critical component of maintaining heathy workplaces and stopping the spread of COVID-19.
VPF thanks the hardworking people employed in the poultry industry for their dedication to producing essential food during this challenging time.
The need for children to keep getting vaccines
The governor said as the pandemic continues, it's important to remember who many epidemics in the U.S. and worldwide have been avoided because of vaccines that have been developed for other diseases that have killed millions in history.
With Monday marking the start of National Infant Vaccination Week, Northam encouraged all parents to keep up with their children's vaccination schedules and not avoid going to the doctor because of COVID-19.
He said it's essential to keep up vaccinations on their needed schedules to prevent dangerous diseases for children, saying that the last thing Virginia wants to see is an outbreak of a communicable disease, like measles, on top of COVID-19.
Studies have shown a decline in immunizations throughout the coronavirus pandemics, as many parents have avoided seeing their pediatrician.
But Northam said that vaccinations are critical and called on all parents to call their pediatricians and discuss their options.
The toll on mental health
Gov. Northam said it's key to remember that in addition to the physical effects of the coronavirus, the pandemic has taken a toll on mental health for many people as well, including substance abuse, depression, and more.
He said research has shown that some of the people at risk of feeling the most stress in a crisis include children, teens, health care workers, and those with existing substance abuse disorders.
Northam said those people need more help now more than ever, as well as people on the front lines of the crisis, dealing trauma on a daily basis.
Saying that treatment needs to continue for those who need it, Northam announced that the state received a $2 million federal grant, from which funds will be distributed to the community service boards across Virginia to help providers continue providing telehealth for behavioral health needs.
Business and infrastructure funding
Virginia received $14.6 million for a new program to support business needs, with a focus on resilience and recovery. Those funds will be for local businesses across the state.
He also announced that the Commonwealth Transportation Board is allocating more than $100 million received from the CARES Act to offset revenue losses for transportation projects at local levels.
According to the CTB, those stimulus funds "enable local governments, small urban, and rural transit agencies throughout the Commonwealth to offset the substantial revenue losses, as well as sustain essential mobility functions related to the prevention, preparation, and response to the COVID-19 pandemic."
From the CARES Act, Virginia got a total of $456 million for transit assistance, including $47.2 million for discretionary allocation to small urban transit agencies and $52.5 million for for discretionary allocation to rural transit agencies, the Virginia Breeze intercity bus service, and the Appalachian Development Public Transportation Program.
The federal CARES Act funding does not require a state or local match, and is nearly three times the amount of federal transit funding appropriated to Virginia transit agencies in FY 2020.
With local elections in May delayed by two weeks, Northam encouraged all registered voters in Virginia to vote absentee by mail.
He outlined Virginia's deadlines, reminding voters that the last day to request a mail-in absentee ballot is Tuesday, May 12. You just need to contact your local registrar's office.
That absentee ballot then needs to be returned by Election Day on May 19.
Response to the ruling on a Lynchburg gun range
On Monday morning, a judge in Lynchburg ruled that an indoor gun range can continue operations, despite the inclusion of gun ranges in Gov. Northam's executive order that closed non-essential businesses in Virginia.
Asked about that ruling, Northam said that his administration's decisions on business closures have been "to promote and provide health" by limiting the spread in businesses where people would be in relatively close quarters.
He said they singled out no particular businesses. The governor emphasized that his goal is to get the health crisis behind the state so that Virginia can move on to addressing the economic crisis and getting businesses of all types back open.
Asked about his statement that he bases his decisions on the science regarding COVID-19, when so much data on the virus differs right now, Gov. Northam reiterated that COVID-19 is a "novel coronavirus."
It's new, and research on it is still constantly developing, so there are a lot of unknowns about it, he said.
He went back to Virginia's timeline, pointing out that Virginia's first confirmed case was on March 7 and how much has developed since then.
Specifically noting that we don't know yet if COVID-19 may be a seasonal virus, that there is no treatment, and there is no vaccine, he said those are critical reasons to follow the science as it evolves and research continues.
What is the plan for Phase 1?
Last Friday, Gov. Northam outlined a blueprint for Virginia to be able to get to Phase 1 of reopening the state. On Monday, he was asked if there's a specific plan for Phase 1 yet.
The governor said it's being developed "as we speak" and that his Monday afternoon meeting with the COVID-19 Business Task Force would be a critical part of that, discussing plans with business leaders from different industries around the state.
He said his team is looking at data every day on the amount of PPE available, testing increases, and bed capacity to be able to get Virginia into Phase 1.
Contact your health care provider
Northam ended Monday's briefing with a plea for Virginians to contact their health care providers.
He said it's "very, very important that we all take care of our health care needs and those of our family."
As businesses work to develop plans on how to reopen safely, he told Virginians that no group is working harder right now than health care providers and hospitals, saying doctor's offices and hospitals are safe and that "it's okay" for anyone in need of healthcare to go to those locations.
Especially with elective procedures resuming this Friday, he encouraged everyone to get in touch with their providers to discuss their health and any needed visits.
Relevant updates from Gov. Northam's April 24 briefing
The General Assembly's re-convened session
The governor praised state lawmakers for a variety of actions they took in their re-convened session earlier this week, including their delay of raising the minimum wage due to the pandemic and giving the Department of Corrections the authority to release some low-risk inmates.
May elections postponed
But the governor acknowledged that they did not pass his recommendation to delay local elections in May until November.
While the governor alone cannot move local May elections to November, he said he would invoke the Virginia governor's statutory authority to postpone the May local elections by two weeks, from May 5 to May 19 to provide additional time for restrictions to begin to ease amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
That was done through Executive Order Fifty-Nine.
“Virginians should never have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their health,” said Governor Northam. “I am grateful to the House of Delegates for taking action to move our upcoming elections, but unfortunately the Senate failed to make the same commonsense decision. While we strongly encourage every Virginian who can vote by mail to do so, we will also take every necessary step to conduct these elections in a way that ensures in-person voting is done safely and responsibly.”
Since local elections will go on in May, though a little later, the governor strongly encouraged absentee voting and said that elections officials will work to establish strong guidelines on health and safety at poling places.
The General Assembly's recently passed law to allow no-excuse absentee voting hasn't yet taken effect — so the Department of Elections advises people requesting an absentee ballot to choose the reason of having a disability or an illness.
Voters can request online that an absentee ballot be mailed to them at elections.virginia.gov/voterinfo or by downloading and printing a request form at elections.virginia.gov/forms and then returning the completed and signed form to their local General Registrar’s office by mail, fax, or scanned attachment to an email. Contact information for General Registrar offices is on the form. Forms are also available in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Korean.
Voters completing a paper application may use reason 2A, “my disability or illness” to complete their form. Voters completing an online application to request an absentee ballot will need to follow the prompts and select “I have a reason or condition that prevents me from going to the polls on Election Day.” You will then have the option to choose “my disability or illness” as the reason for your request.
“Elections are a critical function of our government,” said Attorney General Mark Herring. “We will do everything in our power to maintain the integrity of our democratic process while ensuring the safety of all Virginians.”
The June primary elections remain postponed to June 23 rather than June 9.
With nearly 500,000 people filing for unemployment benefits in Virginia since March 15, the governor highlighted that the state launched its pandemic unemployment assistance program this past weekend to allow self-employed and gig workers, as well as other workers who were previously not eligible for unemployment assistance, to apply for unemployment assistance.
The governor thanked the Virginia Employment Commission for their work, though he said he is aware that many people have been frustrated by website problems and wait times.
He said the VEC has worked with Microsoft and Virginia Interactive to update their sites and launch an online portal for people to better access the system.
Northam said Virginia has the 10th lowest claims per participant in the labor force in the country.
Elective surgery ban and DMV closures
Gov. Northam reiterated the announcements he made on Thursday, extending Virginia's ban on elective surgeries by one week and extending the closure of public DMV offices by two weeks.
Elective surgeries will be able to resume on May 1 and DMV offices will be able to reopen on May 11, per the new guidelines.
Northam's 'Forward Virginia Blueprint'
While Gov. Northam said the commonwealth is working to find a way to ease restrictions, he said we're not there yet. But the governor and his administration have developed an outline to determine when the state can ease restrictions.
It's being called the "Forward Virginia Blueprint," and was displayed through a slideshow at Friday's press conference. You can find all of those slides here.
The governor said Virginia is taking aggressive action and is hard at work delivering results on the pandemic.
“We will move forward, but in a way that prioritizes public health and builds public confidence,” said Governor Northam. “Businesses know that customers will return only when they feel that it is safe to do so. Our blueprint for the path forward is data-driven and provides clear guidance, so Virginians will know what to expect and understand how we will decide to when to lift certain public health restrictions.”
"We are all in this together," Northam emphasized, as he has before.
According to at least one model, the governor said it's possible that Virginia may have seen its peak in cases as of Friday.
But he and his staff said that everyone must continue to work to keep the case count low.
Where Virginia is now
Daily cases in Virginia are still rising, but the growth rate is slowing. Hospitalization rates have also remained flat for several days, with plenty of hospital beds available and medical facilities in Virginia not expected to surpass capacity.
Northam said the good news is that more than 1,600 Virginians have been treated successfully and recovered from COVID-19.
He also said the state's pipeline of PPE supplies is flowing and that the state has ordered three decontamination systems to clean as much equipment as possible.
But Northam said the key is that we "need to keep doing what we're doing" for now.
The criteria to reopen
According to the governor's plan, which is based on the guidelines established by the CDC and announced by the White House, Virginia needs to see a decline in daily cases for 14 days and also see adequate testing available statewide before the commonwealth can move into Phase 1 of reopening.
He said the major thing needed is to vastly increase testing, and that will be the key to moving forward.
Dr. Karen Remley, the former Virginia Department of Health commissioner, who's been leading Virginia's testing task force, spoke on a plan for "Testing Virginia.
According to Dr. Remley, Virginia has seen about 4,000 new COVID-19 tests reported a day in the past two days, which is a significant step up from an average of about 2,600 tests a day before that.
Dr. Remley said the increase is because the state has expanded testing criteria to include not just priority one people – medical workers and patients showing symptoms and with exposure – but also high-risk people.
That's Step 2 of testing.
Next is Step 3, which calls for about 7,500 tests a day to get a better sense of how many cases Virginia really has. Getting to Step 3 requires more comprehensive testing from the state lab, private labs, and hospitals across Virginia with their own testing systems, like UVA, Virginia Tech, and VCU.
Then comes Step 4, which calls for around 10,000 tests a day, including tests for asymptomatic people to get a real sense of how many people have been infected in Virginia. That testing step could potentially include recently developed antibody tests.
Finally comes Step 5, which would bring another reduced testing amount, with around 2,600 tests a day again, at which point most cases have ideally already been identified.
Downward trends needed for Phase 1
According to Gov. Northam, the key to moving into Phase 1 of reopening Virginia, based on the results of the increased testing per Dr. Remley's testing plan, requires a downward trend of positive tests over 14 days, a downward trend of hospitalizations over 14 days, increased testing and tracing, and enough hospital capacity for all needs in Virginia.
Having adequate PPE supplies
In Northam's blueprint, the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) is listed as one of the critical steps to be able to ramp up testing, expand the medical workforce, and ensure the safety of healthcare staff.
Northam said the state's PPE pipeline is improving and hospitals are managing their supplies, but cautioned that easing restrictions safely would require an ongoing stable supply chain across all health care sectors that can be replenished.
The governor said Virginia has ordered 17.4 million N95 masks, 8.3 million surgical masks, 17.1 million gloves, 1.7 million gowns, and 1 million face shields, in part through a contract signed jointly with Maryland and the District of Columbia for 5 million N95 masks.
Governor Northam announced that a second shipment from Northfield Medical Manufacturing was scheduled to arrive on Friday with 3 million nitrile exam gloves, 100,000 N95 masks, 500,000 3-ply procedure masks, and 40,000 isolation gowns.
Northam said hospitalizations and ICU admissions are stable for the most part in Virginia, even as case counts rise, but said he extended the ban on elective surgeries to help make sure that remains the case.
Stable and open hospital capacity is another key guideline for Virginia to be able to start easing restrictions.
The governor said the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps bolstering local health departments and health care facilities will help meet that goal as well.
Once all those criteria are met, Phase 1 can begin, with some businesses reopening.
Phase 1 will still include social distancing measures, teleworking, recommended face coverings, and safety restrictions for the businesses that have opened back up, as well as limits on travel and public gatherings.
The governor said he is meeting with a new business task force, including owners of barber shops, campgrounds, manufacturers, entertainment venues, vineyards, and more, to discuss the "right way to ease restrictions" and consider methods that would actually be practical for workers.
Northam said he'll use their input, combined with feedback from government officials, to develop comprehensive guidance for businesses.
Once Phase 1 arrives, he says the state will have established rules for businesses to have everyone on the same page of when it's safe to operate.
The Commonwealth is developing two sets of guidance: one with broad based recommendations for all businesses, and another with industry specific recommendations for public-facing businesses like restaurants and non-essential retail. The guidance will be provided to businesses in early May.
As Phase 1 begins, officials will develop plans for Phases 2 and 3.
Overall guidelines on the future
Gov. Northam emphasized once again that any restrictions must be eased in a safe manner, grounded in data, and that it can't be done "like flipping on a light switch."
Northam said the most important part of efforts moving forward is people looking out for the health of others and not just themselves — Wearing face masks and social distancing help protect others even if you don't know that you may have the virus.
His overall stance is that Virginia needs to get the health crisis behind us before reopening the economy.
How do we increase testing to the needed point?
State health officials said Virginia will be able to get to the called-for 10,000 tests a day for reopening the state by working with hospitals like UVA, VCU, and Virginia Tech, as well as with private labs to increase testing capacity across the state.
Health leaders said the clinical community has done what they've been asked to do, increasing telehealth measures and collaborating with each other to get every medical professional trained on testing procedures.
Can parts of the state open up sooner than others?
Gov. Northam was asked if parts of Virginia that have fewer cases than others – like Highland County vs. Fairfax County, for instance – could open sooner.
Northam said that he is trying to be as consistent as possible in the name of Virginia as a commonwealth, since the virus "knows no borders."
When will Phase 1 happen?
While the actual dates of Virginia's road to recovery depend on the testing data day by day, Gov. Northam said he hopes that we can move into Phase 1 as soon as May 8, when Executive Order 53 is set to end and lift restrictions on non-essential businesses.
But he said the data shows it's not happening any sooner than that.
Response to Virginia GOP letter
When asked about a letter from the Virginia GOP calling on him to end Executive Order 53 and lift business restrictions earlier, Gov. Northam said that his plan is in accordance with CDC guidelines passed down to states by President Trump, and that he will continue to focus on trusting and following the CDC's recommendations.
Relevant updates from Gov. Northam's April 20 briefing
The governor started Monday's briefing by emphasizing that the ability to run a large number of tests is key to any plan to ease restrictions on businesses or gatherings.
He ran through a timeline of how testing has gone throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, starting with the beginning, in which Virginia, like all states had to rely on CDC tests and ship them to Atlanta to receive any confirmation of results. Following that, the state lab developed the ability to perform in-house testing, and after that, as capacity increased on the state lab level, hospitals, private labs, and universities developed their own tests and well and steadily scaled up capacity.
That included tests developed by UVA and VCU.
Governor Northam said that, thanks to the efforts of all those facilities developing in-house testing, initial backlogs of tests have largely been reduced.
The governor said the state lab can now perform 300 tests a day, and, with equipment sent from Altria this week, will be able to run 400 tests a day by next week.
That only represents part of the tests being run each day across the commonwealth, though, with so many tests performed at health care systems and private labs that have been boosting their own testing capacity.
But, with Virginia, like all states, competing for testing supplies from federal stockpiles and corporations, the governor said the process has faced delays.
Until shortages of key supplies needed for testing, like the swabs used for tests and container to safely store tests, are addressed, the governor said capacity will face problems.
Testing work group
To help the state face the problems affecting testing, Gov. Northam said he had established a new testing work group, headed by Dr. Lillian Peake, the state epidemiologist, and Dr. Karen Remley, the former Virginia Department of Health commissioner.
Northam said the testing work group would focus on expanding test sites and testing criteria to get more tests utilized across the state.
According to Dr. Remley, their group will try to move Virginia's testing plan into a new phase, coordinating with doctors, private labs, and others to make sure everyone is aware of their role in a statewide plan for testing.
Dr. Remley said coordinating those efforts will help open up more testing for more people and help better manage supplies on a statewide level.
As of Monday, testing criteria in Virginia focused on patients hospitalized with symptoms, emergency responders, people exposed to known cases, and also people who are being admitted to long-term care centers.
State health officials said in Monday's briefing that the key strategy is not just on increasing the number of tests a day, but focusing increased testing capacity in a helpful way to address patients in the most need of them.
Governor Northam said the initial lack of testing supplies, especially near the beginning of outbreaks in Virginia, resulted in a lot of clinical diagnoses – doctors determining that a patient had COVID-19 based on symptoms without performing a test.
The governor said a large part of that was because of the original testing plan, which could take a week to 9 days for test returns to come back, so doctors would make quicker decisions for their patients.
Now, according to Dr. Norm Oliver, the state health commissioner, the Virginia Department of Health will be sending a clinician's letter encouraging every doctor who made a clinical COVID-19 diagnosis to test those patients to receive verifiable results.
When can we ease restrictions?
Governor Northam said he knows the biggest question on many people's minds is when we'll be able to open businesses back up and ease restrictions on gatherings.
But he said the commonwealth has been following CDC guidance that was put out through the White House's 3-phase guidelines for reopening America.
Those guidelines state that states need to have 14 days of declining new case totals before phase 1 can be implemented, and Virginia is not at that point yet.
Dr. Remley, helping lead the new state testing group, said getting to the point where we can have accurate numbers to reflect that decline will depend on testing and coordination, as their group works to make sure everyone knows how they fit into the statewide plan for testing.
Although Virginia has seen lower totals in new cases reported over the past three days, the commonwealth has still seen increases of about 500 cases a day. Northam said the 3-day statistic could be misleading, and that he and state health officials are waiting to see the peak in the curve for Virginia cases, which is projected for late this week, according to UVA modeling.
When asked about the discrepancy between Executive Order 53 running until May 8, appearing to mean that non-essential businesses can reopen then, but the Stay-at-Home order requiring people to only leave home for essential reasons running until June 10, the governor said his administration is working to develop plans to make guidance on reopening non-essential busineses clearer.
He said when they have that, they will make it as clear as concise as possible.
The governor said he and his team have made every decision so far in this pandemic based on science and data.
To reflect that and let people see more of the data that they see every day, he said the Virginia Department of Health, starting today, will start sharing more in-depth data on their COVID-19 dashboard.
Statistics breaking down cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities will be provided by each locality and each health district, along with demographic information by district.
Until today, hospitalization and fatality numbers have not been available by locality.
What about rapid testing?
New tests have been under development across the nation and the world to test people for antibodies to determine if they contracted COVID-19. The tests, in theory, should provide much quicker results than current testing and should be able to determine if someone has had the virus in the past.
However, according to Dr. Remley, Virginia is awaiting federal validation, which has not yet been provided for any of the commercially available antibody testings, before using any on a widespread scale.
Several universities and private labs, like Granger Diagnostics, have been working on developing their own tests in Virginia, but none have yet been approved and made widely available.
Food processing plants
In response to a question about workers concerned about their safety at food processing plants, Dr. Norm Oliver said that many similar facilities across the country have been sites of outbreaks and confirmed that several in Virginia have been as well.
However, as previously noted by Dr. Oliver, information on which facilities in Virginia have had outbreaks can only be provided if the facilities agree to the sharing of their information.
In our area, even with multiple confirmed outbreaks, most affected facilities have not identified themselves or agreed to the health department identifying them.
According to Dr. Oliver, local health departments have been working with plant managers at affected food processing facilities to provide personal protective equipment, provide testing, and trace the contacts of anyone with confirmed cases.
He said they're also providing suggestions and finding ways to contain the spread at those facilities, hoping to make sure workers are as safe as possible.
What does Gov. Northam have to say to 'ReOpen Virginia' protesters?
As the Republican Party of Virginia doubled down in an official statement on Monday backing President Trump's tweet to "liberate Virginia," the governor said he wants to remind Virginians of a message Vice President Mike Pence told governors in their Monday call: "one team, one mission."
The governor said that his administration has been following the White House guidelines on waiting for a 14-day downward trend in cases, so then seeing tweets from the president calling to "liberate" the state sends mixed messages.
Northam said he is just as anxious as anybody else to see restrictions eased and that he "doesn't really need protesters to remind" him that the economy needs business to open back up.
He described looking out the windows of the governor's mansion during a protest last week and seeing groups of children inches apart on blankets and about 50 adults gathering without wearing masks.
"We're all trying to get through this together," Northam said, adding that, based on his experience as a doctor, he finds the most frustrating thing to be that protesters are putting themselves at risk, all of us at risk, and putting health care providers and their families at risk.
"This is not the time to play politics," Northam said, saying it's instead a time to work together to get through the situation.
Relevant updates from Gov. Northam's April 17 briefing
President Trump's guidelines to 'Reopen America' and increasing cases
Gov. Northam started out Friday's press briefing by addressing the guidelines the Trump administration has released for governors to gradually reopen businesses in their states.
The governor said Virginia's approach has been consistent with those guidelines, which call for a phased approach to reopening based on science and data.
According to Northam, the first phase of the CDC guidelines requires 14 days of declining cases. However, in Virginia, new cases are continuing to increase. Our projected peak of cases, according to UVA modeling, will not be until late April or early May.
That means that Virginia cannot yet enter Phase 1 of the new guidelines.
But Northam said that his administration is planning for when the day comes of a downward trend in the commonwealth by establishing new guidelines and finding new ways to focus efforts on screening, testing, and tracking for the virus.
The governor emphasized that more resources are needed for that. He said Virginia has received $1.6 billion in federal stimulus funds to be used for statewide response and to aid local governments.
He also said the state is getting money from FEMA to assist first responders to help Virginia get to that downward trend.
For those who say that cases are continuing to go up and social distancing may not be needed, the governor pointed out that social distancing is meant to slow the spread, not eliminate it entirely, and that it is working to do that.
Northam said that actions by Virginians to follow social distancing guidelines and the Stay at Home order are keeping cases at a level that is manageable by hospitals, which models show would see surges beyond their capacity if people did not follow the guidelines.
But for hospitals to be able to continue meeting their manageable caseloads, the governor said workers at those locations need more personal protective equipment to keep up their response.
Gov. Northam said Virginia has received its first shipment of PPE through a contract with Northfield, providing thousands of new supplies that he said are being distributed to medical centers around the commonwealth.
Northam said more shipments are expected in coming weeks.
He said supply chains on a national level remain an issue, but that Virginia is diversifying its sources on national and international levels to get more supplies for Virginians.
The governor praised medical facilities for finding new ways to reuse equipment, like UV decontamination implemented by UVA Health.
Gov. Northam signs Executive Order 57
The governor announced that he had signed Executive Order 57 on Friday as a way to help hospitals and long-term care facilities respond to the ongoing pandemic.
The order eases licensing restrictions on nurse practitioners and doctors licensed in states other than Virginia to allow them to respond in Virginia.
“While we are seeing promising signs in our ongoing fight against COVID-19, we must continue to prepare for all scenarios, and that includes making sure we have to the necessary staff to confront a potential medical surge,” said Governor Northam. “This pandemic is placing extraordinary demands on our doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners, and these policies will enable us to expand our health care workforce so more trained medical professionals can step in and help.”
The order adds physician offices and other health care facilities to the section in Executive Order Fifty-Two allowing hospitals, nursing facilities, and dialysis facilities to have out-of-state licensees provide in-state care.
It allows Virginia-licensed nurse practitioners with two or more years of clinical experience to practice without a collaborative agreement. It provides additional flexibility to hospitals in the supervision of interns, residents, and fellows, and allows hospitals to use fourth year medical students in the provision of care.
Executive Order 57 also allows for expanded use of telehealth. Physicians with licenses from another state who have current Virginia patients may continue to treat their patients via telehealth, which will help ensure Virginians who live in border communities to not have to travel out-of-state for care.
The response to long-term care centers
Gov. Northam said that his administration has waived a number of regulatory rules around staffing so that long-term care centers across Virginia can recruit staff and volunteers quickly.
The governor said Virginia's Medical Reserve Corps is being mobilized to long-term care centers to help respond to outbreaks, like at Accordius Health in Harrisonburg, which Dr. Norm Oliver, Virginia's health commissioner, specifically mentioned in his part of Northam's Friday briefing on the rise of cases in the past day.
State health administrators said the National Guard is also being utilized to help train staff at long-term care centers on proper practices for using personal protective equipment.
They also announced that Virginia's expanded testing criteria, which should be announced publicly on Friday or Monday, will include people about to be admitted to congregate settings, like long-term care centers, and not just people who are already rsidents there.
Northam said any facility with an outbreak should be able to test every resident and employee, with help from several of the state's medical systems, including UVA, VCU, and the state lab.
Reduction of population in jails
The governor also discussed moves his administration has made to lower the population at jails across Virginia. You can learn more about those reductions here.
Northam acknowledged the recent statewide numbers of 410,000 total claims for unemployment in Virginia over the past month, and said those numbers don't even include the number of newly eligible workers under the CARES Act, including self-employed and gig workers.
He said the Virginia Employment Commission has received payroll records for about 80% of all people who have applied for unemployment benefits, and that an online portal will go live Friday night for people to submit that documentation if theirs has not yet been received.
The governor also said the VEC will be able to provide backpay for anyone who's faced delays receiving unemployment insurance benefits due to issues with the system and massive response overwhelming it.
Fifty new employees have been hired at the VEC headquarters, and they've set up at least two more call centers across the state to handle the large volume of calls.
A private call center is also being established to start running next week.
Responding to President Trump
A reporter asked the governor about his response to a series of tweets from President Trump calling for people to "LIBERATE" several states from COVID-19 restrictions, including Virginia.
Northam said he and his team are busy fighting a biological war and that he doesn't have time to involve himself in a Twitter war.
The governor said earlier in the press conference that he wants to get back to a place where all Virginia businesses can be open again, but that we have to get there using science and data available. Otherwise, he said, the sacrifices being made by health care professionals and first responders would be for nothing if we ignored the data, reopened too early, and caused another surge of cases.
That projection, based on UVA's modeling that the governor's team uses for Virginia planning, has been mentioned in each of the governor's briefings this week. Essentially, the model shows that Virginia hits a peak of coronavirus cases in late April or early May, but also shows if restrictions on social distancing and gatherings were to be lifted suddenly and early, Virginia would see a second surge of cases that would not peak until August. You can learn more about the Virginia modeling here.
Why aren't numbers available on outbreaks?
A reporter asked the governor to explain why, as with Accordius Health in our area and other facilities with outbreaks in other areas, the Virginia Department of Health continues to treat facilities like people and will not release any detailed information, like the number of confirmed cases at facilities.
Dr. Oliver said it's a statuary requirement of Virginia code the department cannot release information on a facility without the facility's permission.
When asked if he could override that part of the Virginia code, Gov. Northam said that is something that legislators would have to do.
What about more recovery data
The state of Maryland has established an online registry where people can report if they have recovered from COVID-19 while self-quarantining with a confirmed case or with symptoms and a clinical diagnosis without a positive test result.
Dr. Oliver said academic institutions in Virginia, including UVA, Virginia Tech, and more are establishing their own version of a registry like that to help Virginia's numbers.
Response to protesters
Asked for a response to the protesters who called to "reopen Virginia" in a rally on Capitol Square on Thursday, the governor said they were putting themselves at risk, but more importantly, "putting all of us at risk."
The governor called for all Virginians to unite to "be a part of the solution." While acknowledging that everyone has the right to protest, he said joining together as a team could help Virginia face the crisis together.
Relevant updates from Gov. Northam's April 13 briefing
The latest modeling
Northam said that he and his staff have been watching national models throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to make key decisions like closing schools for the rest of the school year, issuing a Stay at Home order, and closing non-essential businesses.
Those models included the University of Washington and CHIME models, which have been heavily relied upon.
The governor noted how those models change on a daily basis and said that Virginia leadership wanted to take into account Virginia-specific data, including data on how Virginians have responded to the coronavirus.
In response, researchers with the University of Virginia have developed a specific model for the commonwealth.
It will change each day based on behavior in Virginia, but the modeling has been designed as of April 13 and was demonstrated to many reporters just before the governor's 2 p.m. briefing.
The new UVA model shows that social distancing measures are working to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Northam said, and also show that Virginia hospitals have sufficient capacity to handle the expected surge in patients.
However, the model also shows that if the Stay at Home order and other restrictions are lifted too soon, cases across Virginia would surge and threaten the available capacity at medical facilities.
Specifically, the models suggest another wave of illness in mid-July or August if we don’t slowly ease back into normal life.
"And we can't afford that," Northam said.
He reiterated that modeling data shows that the key is for "us to keep doing what we're doing" and stopping any time soon would put Virginians in danger.
As K-12 schools remain closed throughout Virginia until the end of the school year, teachers and school division leaders have been working hard to adapt to the situation to keep providing educational opportunities for their students.
Gov. Northam said they're all doing their best to address inequities in education to ensure all students are able to keep learning, but to help them, the state is making additional education resources available.
That includes expanding "Virtual Virginia," which is a statewide online learning system, to allow every public school teacher in Virginia to host line classes through June 30.
For students who don't have internet access, Virtual Virginia content can be loaded onto devices and used offline as well.
In addition, Northam highlighted the new 'VA TV Classroom' program, through which four public media TV stations have partnered with the Virginia Dept. of Education to provide education over the air.
The department also convened a task force on continuity of education to develop guidance on how to ensure that there are no gaps between who gets an education as the pandemic wears on.
Long-term care facilities
The governor said, along with budget amendments he approved by the state constitutional deadline over the weekend, was an amendment to increase rates given to long-term care facilities by $20 per Medicaid recipient per day to assist the facilities' responses to COVID-19.
The governor also said that they are looking into using Virginia's reserve corps of volunteers to help provide more staffing at nursing homes and long-term care centers facing staffing shortages, as many across the country have in the face of coronavirus.
According to the task force established last Friday on long-term care facilities across Virginia, there have been at least 554 COVID-19 cases and 34 deaths identified across the state.
Data on the number of identified outbreaks, including if they were in these especially vulnerable facilities, is now available on the Virginia Department of Health website.
Dr. Laurie Forlano, the deputy commissioner for public health at the Virginia Department of Health who's been heading the task force, said that, over the weekend, when a new outbreak was identified at one long-term care center, which she did not identify, the health district reported it immediately and worked hand-in-hand with the task force to respond to the situation. She said UVA offered testing kits and increased testing capacity to test residents at the center.
She said they will continue to work with their local partners across the state to sustain that kind of response in the future.
While Dr. Forlano did not identify the specific facility or health district, the Central Shenandoah Health District reported a new outbreak in a long-term care facility this past weekend. They have declined to identify the facility to WHSV or other media outlets.
When asked about a statement by President Donald Trump on hospitals doing well amid the crisis, Gov. Northam said we're nowhere near where we want to be in supplies. While Virginia hospitals remain prepared in terms of bed capacity, when looking at modeling on surge data, he said they're facing challenges on staffing, PPE, and ventilator supplies, like many hospitals across the country, and that those challenges need to be addressed in terms of reality.
Relevant updates from Gov. Northam's April 10 briefing
Task force to respond to outbreaks at nursing homes
The governor announced in his briefing that he has appointed Dr. Laurie Forlano, currently the deputy commissioner for public health at the Virginia Department of Health, to head up a task force on responding to outbreaks at nursing homes and long-term care centers across Virginia.
The move was especially prompted by the situation at Canterbury Rehabilitation and Health Care in Henrico County, where dozens of people have died in recent weeks.
Northam said Dr. Forlano will head up a coalition of public health officials that will work to make sure all facilities have access to testing, PPE, and the cleaning supplies they need to respond to the pandemic.
Dr. Forlano said as staff at all these facilities are dedicated to protecting the people that live there, she and the task force will ensure long-term care facilities are prioritized and get the funding they need, as well as needed information.
The task force will also track data specific to long-term care facilities in Virginia.
For instance, on Friday, Dr. Forlano said the state has identified 45 outbreaks at long-term care facilities in the state, which makes up about 55% of all outbreaks identified in the state.
They've also identified 525 cases among those facilities.
Proposed amendment to make inmates eligible for release
The governor also announced on Friday that he is proposing a state budget amendment to give the Virginia Department of Corrections the authority to release inmates who have one year or less remaining in their sentences.
That's because most correctional facilities across Virginia face serious overcrowding
The authority granted to the department would allow them to release inmates who don't pose a threat to the safety of themselves or anyone else and also meet good behavior standards.
Under the amendment, the Dept. of Corrections would handle re-entry planning for about 2,000 inmates who meet the standard of having a year or less in their sentence.
The department, which has never before had the authority to release inmates, would need to plan for inmates to have somewhere to go upon their release and have necessary medications for at least three months.
The authority would last for the duration of Gov. Northam's executive orders, which are currently set until June 10.
However, for it to happen, the General Assembly will need to approve the amendment at their special session on April 22.
According to Governor Northam, more than 191,000 payments went out through the Virginia Employment Commission over the past week.
Next week, through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, Virginia's unemployment insurance will offer payments boosted by about $600 a week to everyone who qualifies.
Through the CARES Act, people who previously did not qualify, like gig workers, can also now apply through the VEC and get benefits.
You can learn more about the coming unemployment insurance changes here.
What about hope?
Governor Northam was asked why, while President Donald Trump says "he's a glass half full kind of guy" and hopes to reopen the country soon, he instead provides somber updates.
Northam said while he wants everyone to get life back to normal as soon as possible, "we have to face reality."
The governor, who was a doctor before taking office, said his leadership style comes from his time in the medical field, so he's "a big believer in telling people the truth."
He said he looks at the data every day, looks at admissions to Virginia hospitals, looks at the number of patients now on ventilators, and bases public health decisions on the data and the recommendations of his staff.
"My job as your governor is to keep Virginians safe," Northam said.
He used an analogy of doctors making a treatment plan with a cancer patient, letting them know guidelines to follow and medicines to take. In a situation like that, we know that stopping the plan early just because it seems to be working is not the right course of action, because the cancer returns.
The governor said ending the Stay at Home order or social distancing guidelines because models appear to project peaks earlier would be largely the same, and people need to keep staying home and staying safe to get through this.
"This is a biologic war that we're fighting," the governor said, and Virginians all need to follow the guidelines set based on data.
The governor said we have to get through the health crisis before he sees a path to fully address the economic crisis.
Relevant updates from Gov. Northam's April 8 briefing
Gov. Northam announced in his Wednesday briefing that, due to the effects of COVID-19 and potential impacts to voters and election workers, he is using his authority as governor to postpone the June 9 primary elections to June 23.
The authority granted to the Virginia governor gives them the ability to postpone primary elections by up to two weeks, so Northam is using the extent of that power.
As of right now, Virginia's state of emergency and 'Stay at Home' order each last through June 10, one day after the previously set date for the primary elections, which include a Republican primary for U.S. Senate and several primaries for regional House of Representatives races,
“As other states have shown, conducting an election in the middle of this global pandemic would bring unprecedented challenges and potential risk to voters and those who work at polling places across the Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “Making these decisions now will help election officials prepare and implement the necessary changes. This is about protecting the health and safety of Virginians during this pandemic and ensuring our citizens can make their voices heard in a safe, fair, and uniform manner. I urge the General Assembly to do their part and take action to move our upcoming elections.”
The Virginia GOP and local-level Republican parties had advised all members of the party to apply to vote absentee while implying in some statements that the June 9 date for Gov. Northam's executive order had been purposefully tied to the primary date, though the day also has elections for House of Representatives primaries.
The primary elections, in our area, will determine Virginia's Republican nominee to run for U.S. Senate against Sen. Mark Warner. Virginia's presidential primary, which only included Democratic candidates because the state Republican Party chose to choose a presidential nominee at convention instead, happened on Super Tuesday at the beginning of March. Other areas of Virginia will have primaries for House of Representatives races, including Democrat and Republican nominees.
Northam is also recommending that Virginia's local elections in May be delayed to November, when they would be held along with national elections on Nov. 3. However, that change can only be made by the General Assembly, so the governor said legislators will need to consider the recommendation when they re-convene for a special session on April 22.
The governor's full recommendation proposes a plan for one ballot in November that includes both national elections and the local elections that would have been held in May. All voters qualified for November voting would be able to vote, including voters who weren't registered in time for May elections, giving people more time to register if they couldn't due to COVID-19.
Local officials whose terms are currently set to end on June 30 will continue in their roles if that plan is approved until their successors are elected on Nov. 3 and qualified to serve.
Northam said his recommendations and his order on the primary were made after discussing the changes with Virginia's congressional delegation, as well as leaders in the state House and Senate.
New Virginia ABC license and fee changes
Northam said in Wednesday's briefing that he has directed the Virginia ABC to defer all fees for licenses and permits that are up for renewal through June as a way to assist restaurants and Virginia businesses.
Many restaurants that have been forced to close due to COVID-19 still have active Virginia ABC licenses for serving alcohol, and Northam said the change would help more than 6,000 businesses that would otherwise have to pay fees for licenses they can't use right now.
But for those restaurants still open and offering takeout, Northam announced other ABC change as well.
Restaurants and facilities with mixed beverage licenses through the state board will be allowed to serve mixed beverages for takeout as of midnight Thursday morning, effectively allowing locations that serve takeout to include mixed drinks with someone's takeout order.
UVA Health working on modeling for surge in Virginia
When asked about the status of a model Gov. Northam mentioned on Monday that UVA Health researchers are working on to develop projections with Virginia-specific data for a peak in cases, the governor said researchers are continuing to collect data to put that model together as quickly as possible, but it is still in progress.
Relevant updates from Gov. Northam's April 6 briefing
Guidance on face coverings
Northam discussed the latest CDC guidance on face covering recommendations, reminding Virginians that they are an effective way to reduce spread of the virus from people who may have the disease without showing symptoms and knowing. Masks make it less likely that droplets from a sneeze or talking will get out to potentially infect others.
The governor encouraged people to go online and find instructions for how to make masks, adding that there are guidelines online even for people who can't sew, mentioning that securing a bandanna with a rubber band is an easy option.
He also added, though, that people should not assume that wearing a face covering means that they can do anything, and they should remember that social distancing remains critical.
Northam demonstrated the proper way to wear a mask, covering both your mouth and nose, using his own mask, which was one of the series of masks produced by the Virginia Department of Corrections.
When asked why he and none of the state cabinet officials present at the briefing were wearing face masks, Northam said they are following guidance not wearing masks inside the building, but are wearing them when outside in the public, as encouraged for everyone.
Gov. Northam emphasized that police will not be enforcing Virginia's state law against wearing masks throughout the pandemic.
State health officials said the Virginia state lab — the Department of General Services’ (DGS) Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) — is working with the CDC, private labs, and Virginia health systems to analyze genetic data on COVID-19 cases.
The lab is using next-generation sequencing to genetically decode some Virginia samples that contain the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, according to a press release issued after the briefing.
Looking at that genetic fingerprint can help public health officials track how the virus is changing and how it spreads.
“Advances in genetic sequencing allow us to track and analyze COVID-19 better than previous outbreaks,” said Governor Northam. “This innovative technology, combined with the work of our public health laboratory and epidemiologists around the Commonwealth, will help us understand the virus, how it spreads, and how it may change. And that will give us more tools to fight it.”
Gov. Northam responded to a question about recent models, including one from the University of Washington that projected an earlier peak in cases at April 20, by saying that models from different sources change day by day, so they're considering data from a range of sources for their guidance.
The governor again mentioned that they are working with partners at UVA to develop a Virginia-specific modeling system for state-level projections.
He also said he had just had an hour-and-a-half meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and governors from across the country before the press briefing, where they discussed the latest projections and guidelines.
Northam said the message from the Vice President was for governors to continue what they're doing, encouraging social distancing, hand washing, and staying at home to defeat the pandemic together as a nation.
Gov. Northam said some of the latest data from the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association shows that the coronavirus was introduced in Virginia in multiple communities around the same time, rather than beginning from a single source in the state.
He said the kind of data being collected and analyzed by the Virginia Department of Health will help people understand how the virus has been spreading and determine the best tools to fight that spread.
Public health officials for the state reiterated a point made in past briefings – that they, like officials in all states, have not been able to get the volume of materials needed to provide for widespread testing.
However, Northam said Sentara announced on Monday that there are beginning to roll out in-house testing to make process quicker, rather than sending tests off to the state lab or to commercial labs elsewhere.
When asked about why the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association dashboard shows such a large number of test results still pending for hospitalized patients, state officials said it's a result of the lack of widespread rapid turnaround testing.
In-house testing, like what is being offered at UVA Health, VCU, and increasingly at Sentara, can help address all the patients sick at hospitals who don't yet know if they have COVID-19.
It means finding out results quicker, which means less PPE required for medical workers and, generally, more resources freed up for patients who do have the virus.
The Virginia Department of Health says the state lab is working through the backlog of tests there and that more private, commercial labs in Virginia are now offering testing, which can be used to divert some of the testing load from the state.
When asked about the introduction of new tests with turnaround times of 15 to 30 minutes, officials said the problem hospitals still face is the shortage of the reagents needed to run those tests — so that remains a critical barrier to quick testing on a widespread level.
What about recovery numbers?
Dr. Norm Oliver, Virginia's state health commissioner, was asked about why the Virginia Department of Health does not include recovery numbers on their state website tally of cases, which tracks positive cases, total tests, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Dr. Oliver said that the data on recoveries is not reported to the state health department, so it's not data they have available to provide.
Only test results, hospitalizations, and fatalities are reported.
In addition, Dr. Oliver said the hospitalization numbers are based on discharge info reported by hospital claims, which results in the number being a cumulative number from throughout the crisis — not the number of people hospitalized at any given moment.
On the other hand, the VHHA numbers are based on a current census from hospitals, which provides a separate data set from the VDH information.
Sending supplies to hot spots?
Gov. Northam, when asked if we will be sending supplies, like ventilators, to New York or other hot spots, as some states have done, said Virginia is working with other state governors and federal leadership to track inventory needed.
However, he said that Virginia has a responsibility to prepare for a surge in patients in our hospitals.
Asked about why construction and road work continues throughout much of Virginia, Northam said construction companies have all been advised by state officials to adhere to social distancing and Executive Order 53, which ban gatherings of more than 10 and requires sanitation procedures to be in place for any non-essential business to continue operating.
Essentially, construction companies and firms are supposed to limit large gatherings and provide for proper social distancing of at least six feet between workers, if possible, while providing appropriate sanitation and cleaning.
The governor said he hasn't heard any complaints about firms not following those guidelines. However, WHSV has heard complaints from many people about construction firms throughout the area not following those guidelines.
As with any business not following Executive Orders 53 or 55, people can report non-compliant businesses and firms to their local law enforcement agency's non-emergency number and/or the Office of the Attorney General.
Gov. Northam was asked if he will consider issuing an executive order to change the state protocols and allow more people to be paroled or released, or if he would issue pardons to help limit exposure in correctional facilities.
At this point, 19 inmates and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in Virginia correctional facilities.
Northam said state facilities must continue to follow their established protocol and release people according to guidelines, as many prisons and jails already have, including Middle River Regional Jail.
The decisions on releases aren't made by the facilities under those guidelines, but by local commonwealth's attorneys, in partnership with others.
Northam said he does not plan to release an executive order on the subject, and Secretary Brian Moran mentioned the Supreme Court's past ruling against former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, which established that governors cannot issue blanket orders granting clemency to a large number of people but have to consider cases on an individual basis.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.