RICHMOND — A 10 p.m. alcohol sales cutoff, a mandatory midnight closing of restaurants and limits on the number of people gathering are among the restrictions Gov. Ralph Northam is implementing in Hampton Roads as a result of a spike in coronavirus cases.
Northam announced Tuesday that the region — which has seen a 672% increase in its seven-day moving average of cases since June 9 — will move into a hybrid phase because people still aren’t complying with his guidelines.
Northam’s Executive Order 68 says that in addition to the increase in positive cases, Hampton Roads is seeing an increase in hospitalizations and emergency room visits for people with “COVID-like illness.”
“This is about stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Hampton Roads. It happens when too many people gather together — when too many people are non-compliant,” Northam said at a press conference. “As I’ve said before, it happens when too many people are selfish.”
The restrictions apply specifically to Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Williamsburg, Newport News, Poquoson, James City County, and York County. Officials have been watching the region closely for several weeks, saying people under 40 are largely contributing to the increase by frequenting bars and restaurants and gathering for birthday and graduation parties.
“I know people sometimes feel helpless, like there’s nothing you can do, but we do have the power to turn this around. You have that power,” Northam said. “We all know what to do — wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands, stay at home unless you need to leave, avoid crowds and follow the guidelines.”
Restaurants in Hampton Roads will have to stop selling alcohol on the premise at 10 p.m. and close at midnight starting Friday, Northam said. Restaurants can still sell alcoholic beverages for delivery or take-out after 10 p.m. as permitted by existing regulations.
Restaurants, food courts, breweries, wineries and distilleries will also have to limit the number of patrons allowed for indoor dining to 50% capacity. All public and private social gatherings will also be reduced from 250 people to 50. The limit on gatherings does not apply to religious services.
Northam expects the new restrictions will remain in place for at least two to three weeks based on the incubation period for COVID-19, which is usually six to 10 days but can be up to 14 days.
If numbers in Hampton Roads start to trend down, Northam said he will lift the guidelines “as soon as we can.”
“I want nothing more — and I think our administration wants nothing more — than to open up our economy and to have our children back in schools, but we need to do it safely and responsibly,” Northam said.
The governor’s announcement on the new restrictions comes following the recommendation of Dr. Deborah Birx, who met with Northam and health officials Tuesday morning and said bars located in areas with a positive PCR test rate of 10% or more should close and indoor dining should be limited.
But Virginia doesn’t technically have bars. A percentage of sales at all restaurants that serve liquor must be from food. Sitting or congregating at bars is already banned under the governor’s Phase 3 guidelines, but for now at least, you can order at a bar and take a drink back to your table.
The statewide positive test rate is 7.5%, with localities in Hampton Roads ranging from 6.3% to 16.9%, and only a handful of health districts are reporting rates lower than 5%, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Northam attributed some of the increase in cases around the state to an increase in testing. Several weeks ago, the state aimed to administer 10,000 tests a day, but the state now averages around 17,000 to 20,000, although the slow testing turnaround times — it sometimes takes a week or more to get results — as a result of higher demand is unacceptable, Northam said.
“Virginia has so far avoided the dramatic increases that other parts of the country are seeing. In fact, cases are largely stable in four out of the state’s five health districts,” Northam said.
The rest of the state will remain in Phase 3, which Virginians entered on July 1, but he’s implementing the restrictions in Hampton Roads because of the region’s concerning trends.
Northam said he monitors the numbers every day, and if cases start increasing in other parts of the state, he will “take action” for those areas as well.
“We’re going to do everything that we need to do to keep people safe and to keep the pandemic under control and really try to get it in our rearview mirror,” Northam said.
Baxter Simmons, owner of the Paradise Ocean Club bar and event venue in Hampton, said he wasn’t surprised by the governor’s announcement.
“I think it’s been floating around for a couple weeks,” Simmons said, “and he has tried to see how the numbers go. I just hope he’s willing to reconsider sooner rather than later if the numbers get back in line. If it spikes, I understand he has to respond to that.”
But in the meantime, he said, his catering and events business will be hard hit — not just now but for months in the future, as people become hesitant to schedule events when they may have to cancel them later.
“We’re going to cancel events,” he said. “We’ve got a wedding the week after next that we’re going to have to cancel because they have too many people. … We have weddings that have rescheduled three times. It’s taking away future revenue, because people aren’t booking events. We’re losing all of our catering, which is a significant part of our business, and there are less bookings for the next fall. It’s a significant part of our business.”
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