Richmond will not start easing COVID-19 restrictions on Friday like most of Virginia after Gov. Ralph Northam granted Mayor Levar Stoney’s request to delay the city’s entry into Phase One.
Stoney made the formal request to Northam on Thursday, breaking with surrounding localities, after obtaining state data showing that the city’s “percent positive” rate — a key metric that public health officials are monitoring — is rising, not falling. Stoney said that made Northam’s Phase One timeline ill-advised.
Rushing to lift the restrictions would hurt members of the city’s African American and Latino communities, whom the novel coronavirus has infected and killed at disproportionate rates during the pandemic, Stoney said.
“I cannot justify risking the health and safety of the residents of the great city of Richmond by moving forward with Phase One,” Stoney said. “I just can’t do that.”
Northam agreed, giving Richmond a two-week delay in entering the first phase. He granted the same exemption to Accomack County, an Eastern Shore community that sought a delay as it combats coronavirus outbreaks in poultry plants.
“As I have said previously, Virginia’s Phase One guidelines represent a floor, not a ceiling,” Northam said in a statement. “I have encouraged local leaders to request exemptions when appropriate, and I am pleased to grant the delays for both Accomack County and the city of Richmond.”
Said Stoney: “This step will make Richmond safer as we face this challenge together.”
The city’s percent positive rate has risen to roughly 20% since dipping to about 15% in late April, according to data the state provided to Stoney’s office. The rate peaked at between 25% and 30% in early April.
Most of Virginia is set to start the first phase of reopening on Friday, with restrictions being eased to the praise of some, and the worry of others who say it’s too soon. Northam previously gave officials in the hard-hit Northern Virginia region a two-week delay at their request.
Surrounding counties in region disagree
Uncertainty around Richmond’s request came as the city’s surrounding neighbors — Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties — registered their disagreement with Stoney in a joint statement to Northam.
Chesterfield Administrator Joe Casey, Hanover Administrator Rhu Harris and Henrico Manager John Vithoulkas signed a letter stating that the counties “respect the city’s decision-making process,” but said they are ready to ease restrictions on businesses beginning Friday.
“Again, we stand together as regional partners, who value the professionalism of our businesses in providing for a safe workplace,” the letter says.
Richmond’s surrounding counties told Northam that they worked with business leaders to plan the first phase, specifically citing increased access to personal protective equipment.
To each his own, Stoney said.
“They know their communities a whole lot better than I do, and I know Richmond a whole lot better than they do. … There’s no one-size-fits-all model for this.”
Business group, GOP fault move
Northam’s move to grant the Richmond request received blowback from representatives of small businesses and from GOP lawmakers.
Nicole Riley, the state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small businesses in Richmond and elsewhere, said she was disappointed by the exemption.
“We have members who were prepared, who took all the precautions necessary to ensure their employees and customers would be comfortable returning to their stores,” she said. “They’ve told us that for every week they’re closed, it becomes more and more difficult for them to survive.”
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, criticized Northam for giving individual localities exemptions, calling it inconsistent given the governor’s stated preference for regions acting in concert.
“In a matter of hours, and just hours before businesses were set to reopen, Governor Northam has once again changed his mind and allowed individual localities to remain shut down, rather than requiring the regional approach he required after initially refusing requests for the same,” Gilbert said in a statement.
“This shocking level of inconsistency inspires no confidence in the governor’s ability to lead our commonwealth in its hour of need.”
Northam previously said regions should act together and discouraged individual localities from taking a “piecemeal” approach to reopening.
Speaking Monday about Northern Virginia, a day before he granted that region an exemption, Northam said: “Uniformity across the region is critical to a successful strategy, rather than having restrictions piecemeal across towns and counties.”
In Richmond, the virus had infected 611 people and killed 18 as of Wednesday at 5 p.m., according to the most recent figures released by the state.
That toll has disproportionately affected African Americans and Latino residents.
African Americans account for 16 of the 18 deaths in the city to date. Latino residents — who account for 6% to 7% of the city’s population — account for nearly a quarter of its positive cases where ethnicity data is available, Stoney said in his letter to Northam.
“As you are aware, the unique nature of Richmond’s dense urban environment and the disparate impact this disease is having on our Black and Brown communities merits consideration for Richmond’s unique position and responsibilities to its residents,” the letter says.
Earlier this month, Northam announced a timeline for reopening, even as the state failed to meet metrics for easing restrictions it set for itself.
Phase One would, among other things, allow businesses to reopen with industry-specific restrictions and allow places of worship to open at 50% capacity. That “could be problematic,” Stoney said earlier this week.
The Board of Supervisors in Accomack County voted 5-4 on Wednesday to ask Northam, who grew up on the Eastern Shore, for the same consideration he had given Northern Virginia.
The county, which has 593 COVID-19 cases and eight deaths, according to the Virginia Department of Health, is home to two poultry plants that have been plagued by the virus.
“The data doesn’t support going into Phase One,” said board member Vanessa Kay Johnson. “If Accomack County opens up too quickly, this will not only result in needless suffering and death, but will actually set us back economically.”
The county’s rate of 1,830 cases per 100,000 people — the population of Accomack is roughly 32,000 people, according to federal data — is higher than any locality in Northern Virginia.
County Administrator Michael Mason formally made the request Thursday.
“Despite having a population that is only .39% of the state population, our number of positive cases represents 2.14% of the statewide totals,” Mason wrote to Northam. “In fact, they currently align better with localities in Northern Virginia, an area you have allowed to remain in Phase Zero until May 29, 2020.”
He added: “We also wish to help our businesses recover and prosper, but not at the expense of public health.”
Jeff Wells is eager to reopen his two Fleet Feet stores to customers in the Richmond region on Friday morning.
“We are ready, we are excited and we are nervous. It is a gumbo mix of those three feelings,” Wells said Thursday afternoon.
His two athletic shoe and apparel stores — at 5600 Patterson Ave. in Richmond and at 11651 W. Broad St. in the Promenade Shops across from Short Pump Town Center — already are booked with appointments on Friday and Saturday.
The only way to get inside the store is to make an appointment and only three appointments per hour are being scheduled at each store.
“We are starting off very conservatively to get the lay of the land and get our feet on the ground to take care of everybody,” Wells said.
Gov. Ralph Northam granted Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s request on Thursday to delay Richmond’s entry into Phase One of Virginia’s reopening, but “nonessential” retailers can operate with 10 or fewer customers in stores. If Richmond was part of Phase One, those retailers could operate at 50% capacity.
Other independent stores, national retailers and most malls — with the exception of Stony Point Fashion Park — throughout the Richmond region are reopening their doors Friday for the first time in two months.
Merchants and mall operators say they see the reopenings as “promising news” but stress they are taking stringent efforts to follow Virginia’s safety protocols for slowly reopening the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Not all of our tenants are reopening. No one is expecting that it will be bustling right away until people feel comfortable about coming back,” said Lindsay Kahn, a spokeswoman for Brookfield Properties, one of the nation’s largest mall operators, which owns roughly two-thirds of Short Pump Town Center in Henrico County and manages Chesterfield Towne Center.
“We’re trying to provide a sense of comfort and normalcy,” she said.
The two malls will reopen with social distancing signage, enhanced cleaning procedures, hand sanitizing stations throughout, modified operating hours and capacity limits among other safety measures.
“There is a huge emphasis on health and safety,” Kahn said.
Both malls will have security personnel monitoring the number of customers entering the shopping centers and to make sure the customers follow social distancing rules. “If there is a big group or people not following social distancing, our security will kindly remind them to follow them.”
Mall employees will be wearing masks, she said. And the centers will be giving some masks away.
About 35% to 40% of mall tenants at Short Pump will reopen, including Saxon Shoes, Franco’s Fine Clothiers, Schwarzschild Jewelers and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Some tenants said they are not ready to reopen, she said. Others, including stores and restaurants, will continue to offer curbside service.
Both malls as well as Regency, Virginia Center Commons and Southpark Mall will operate on a reduced scheduled — 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
At Regency, general manager Steve Bonniville said the center’s security personnel will be roaming the two-level mall to make sure large groups are not congregating. To discourage gatherings, seating in the food court has been removed, as have the soft chairs and sofas scattered throughout the mall.
“We’re looking for the shopper to come in, hit the stores and then move on. It is less about hanging out,” Bonniville said. “At some point in the future, we will get back to that, but that is not the intention now.”
About 50% of stores inside Regency and Virginia Center Commons are expected to open this weekend, he said. Stores including Journeys at Regency will reopen, as will Jimmy Jazz and Upstreamers at both centers.
Mamie’s Apothecary in Carytown reopened earlier this week, but the store is limiting the number of customers to about six at any one time, said Lisa McSherry, who owns that shop and the next-door Lex’s of Carytown.
“We can have up to 10 people [by the governor’s regulations] but we haven’t had the need to do that yet,” McSherry said about Mamie’s Apothecary. “There really hasn’t been that many people roaming the streets of Carytown yet. We’re just having some people trickle in a little bit here and there.”
Reopening Mamie’s Apothecary this week felt good, she said. “”It just gives you a tiny, tiny sense of normalcy.”
But her Lex’s of Carytown formalwear store is a different story. It shut down right in the middle of prom season, when it generates about 80% of annual sales.
The store will operate by appointment only through the summer. “To get a walk-in to buy a formal is kind of silly. Anyone who needs a formal dress will make an appointment to come in,” McSherry said.
Biggs Ltd., an upscale gift and home décor store in Stony Point Fashion Park, is waiting to reopen.
“We are going to wait and see a little bit,” store manager Jim Biggs said Thursday before Northam approved Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s request to delay Phase One of reopening in the city.
“We hope toward the end of the month for sure,” Biggs said. “We are being cautious.”
At Fleet Feet, Wells also is being cautious in reopening his two stores.
The store will begin checking temperatures of all employees before they start their shifts. Hand sanitizers and wipes are available throughout the store for employees and customers to use. Signs are posted everywhere to remind customers about social distancing. Workers will be required to wear masks. Product that is returned will be quarantined.
The stores hours are shorter than before — now operating 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. But Wells stressed by appointment only — at least for the foreseeable future.
“This is a new era,” Wells said.
The phones had been ringing often this week at the John Marshall Barbershop in downtown Richmond.
Customers have gone weeks or months without haircuts, so appointments were picking up in anticipation that pandemic restrictions on hair salons and barbershops would loosen Friday.
Then things changed quickly Thursday — and the wait goes on, at least in the city.
Hugh Campbell, a barber for more than 50 years and owner of the John Marshall Barbershop, now has to reschedule those fresh appointments. Gov. Ralph Northam granted Mayor Levar Stoney’s request to delay the city’s entry into Phase One of reopening.
“It is really frustrating,” Campbell said. “I’m going to try to explain to my buddies that maybe we will shoot for the end of the month.”
The barbershop had shut down in March and has been in its longest hiatus since 1929. Campbell said he has spent much of the past two months cleaning and refurbishing the barbershop.
“I put four coats of polish back on the floor,” he said.
Campbell said the barbershop — known for having styled the hair of U.S. presidents and other famous visitors to Richmond — was doing its best to accommodate appointment requests while adhering to social distancing rules. “Our chairs are far enough apart,” he said.
Now, with the late development Thursday, he’s in phase two of rescheduling. “I’m going to do what I can do,” he said.
Other hair salons and barbershops in the region not affected by the order also have been preparing to reopen Friday, albeit with more restrictions than usual. They include allowing fewer people in a location at one time and requiring employees and customers to wear masks.
The bottom line in the age of COVID-19: If you want to get your hair cut or styled in the counties surrounding the city, call ahead and make an appointment. Walk-in appointments are going to be hard to come by.
Despite the long hair of the day, just how many customers are going to rush back for a cut or style — even after nearly two months of restrictions — remains unknown amid ongoing concern about the coronavirus.
“We are in uncharted territory right now,” said Cheryl Cannon, owner of four My Salon Suite and Salon Plaza locations in the Richmond area.
Cannon’s salons rent spaces to about 125 cosmetologists who operate as independent proprietors.
“It has been a difficult journey in the sense that we have not been able to work,” she said. “Hair stylists are hustlers. They like to get out there and work. Their clients are like extended family to them.”
Cannon said that of her 125 renters, four have decided not to come back Friday because of various reasons (such as health issues), while five are delaying their return. The others will operate based on rules that include an appointment-only policy and no more than one person visiting a stylist at a time.
Stylists and customers will need to wear masks. Stylists have the option of providing masks for customers or requiring them to bring their own.
Great Clips, which has a large franchise operation in the Richmond area, said it is “strongly encouraging” customers to use online check-in services that allow them to put their names on the wait list and know when it is their turn.
“We’re asking that customers arrive near the salon when they have about five minutes of wait time left, and salon staff will call customers when it’s their turn to come into the salon for their service,” Great Clips Inc. CEO Steve Hockett said in a statement.
Customers will be required to wear masks in salons. “We encourage customers to bring masks or face coverings with them,” the company said.
Great Clips franchisees independently own and operate salons, and the company said salons are reopening in accordance with federal, state and local guidance related to social distancing, cleaning and other practices.
“Proper sanitization has always been an important cosmetology industry practice,” the company noted.
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Virginia’s count of COVID-19 tests to date includes results from 15,000 as-yet unreliable antibody tests, skewing the state’s testing capacity and its outlook on the spread of the virus, albeit to a small degree.
The Virginia Department of Health shared the new figures on Thursday, as it faced public criticism for muddying the state’s COVID-19 data by lumping together diagnostic and antibody tests. Many of the antibody tests on the market have not been vetted by federal regulators and do not measure the current spread of the active virus, unlike the diagnostic tests used by health care facilities.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, said Thursday via Twitter that he had not been aware until recently that the two types of tests were being combined.
“[VDH] has been reporting all tests, regardless of the type of test, since the beginning of this health crisis. When I found out recently that data from all types of tests were being combined, I immediately directed that the diagnostic tests be separated out,” Northam said.
Northam became aware Monday that the numbers were conflated and has been pushing to separate data on the different types of tests, spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said. Virginia will still report antibody tests, but starting Friday it will report different types of tests separately.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch first reported Saturday that the state was combining test data. State officials faced additional pressure on Thursday, when the national news magazine The Atlantic highlighted the practice, and disputed claims by Virginia officials that many other states were also including antibody tests in their total testing counts.
The inclusion of antibody tests highlighted the state’s ongoing testing woes. As the state begins reopening on Friday — except for Northern Virginia, the city of Richmond and Accomack County on the Eastern Shore — it has yet to meet key testing goals set by its own officials and public health experts, per a Times-Dispatch analysis.
On Monday, Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said the state decided to conflate the two types of results to improve Virginia’s testing rankings, suspecting that other states were doing the same.
Antibodies are proteins that help fight off infections, and their presence in a person’s bloodstream can signal a previous infection.
Public health experts have rejected the practice of combining the results of the diagnostic and antibody tests, which they say can skew public understanding of the spread of COVID-19.
For one, antibody tests don’t gauge how many people might currently be infectious.
The tests can also skew the state’s positive rate — the share of positive results among all tests — a key number state officials use to make decisions about restrictions. With a higher number of tests in the state’s log due to antibody tests, Virginia’s positive rate was skewed down by a percentage point, from 15% to 14%.
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, said the two types of tests should be separated for analyzing the spread of COVID-19.
“It is a totally different type of test, and it’s not clear what the validity of those tests are. It’s true that you can use [antibody] testing to understand what portion of the population may have been infected in the past, but you can’t understand that based on looking at the group of people that saw an ad and decided to get tested.”
State official agrees
State epidemiologist Lillian Peake agreed that excluding antibody tests when calculating the rate of positives is the best approach. “We use that metric to make sure we are doing enough testing to identify cases. It’s important to look just at the [diagnostic] test for that metric.”
Peake said that antibody tests are useful to gauge what share of the population has fought off COVID-19, but only as part of a controlled, statewide study of healthy people. Peake said Virginia is planning for a study to be rolled out in the summer.
Peake agreed that antibody tests are not reliable yet, so the state is not logging positive antibody tests as either confirmed or probable cases. Eventually, antibody tests will be used to classify COVID-19 cases as probable.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched a review last week of the validity of dozens of commercial antibody tests in the market after an evaluation by the National Institutes of Health found that “a concerning number” of the tests yielded poor results.
That review is ongoing. Peake said the state is working to compile a list of which specific tests different labs in the state are using, and plans to exclude tests from its count that are not approved by the FDA.
Separating the results
Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said the state is willing to separate the two types of tests, but will continue to report on antibody tests for the sake of comparisons between testing in Virginia and other states.
In a tally by Johns Hopkins University updated Wednesday, Virginia ranked 47th in cumulative tests per 100,000 people since the pandemic started.
“If we’re going to be compared to all 50 states I want it to be apples to apples,” Mercer said at the Monday briefing. “It became clear other states are including serological testing. If you’re going to be comparing us to other states, and be critical of the volume of tests we are doing, and not comparing apples to apples, I think that’s grossly unfair.”
Virginia Health Secretary Dan Carey said Monday: “Without [federal] guidance, we went for as much testing as represented in the community. Going forward, we’ll look into how to untangle those.”
Northam tweeted Thursday: “I am a doctor, and I have said all along that I will act based on science and data — and the data must be reliable and up-to-date, so we can make informed decisions based on the facts. Going forward, the [VDH] website will break out the number of diagnostic tests.”
Legislators urge change
At least two state lawmakers on Thursday joined calls for Virginia to change course on how it reports testing data.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement: “It’s incomprehensible that a doctor would allow the manipulation of testing data to occur.”
“Today’s story in The Atlantic amplifies what the Richmond Times-Dispatch had already reported: Doctor Northam and his team are committing malpractice with Virginia’s testing program. The governor recently stated that ‘Virginia is in a good place.’ The Atlantic’s report contradicts that claim and undermines any faith in what’s been communicated to Virginians about testing in the commonwealth.”
Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, tweeted: “This news reports how [Virginia’s] government officials should have done a better job of reporting accurate COVID-19 data to the public.”
The number of COVID-19 cases in Virginia climbed by more than 1,000 from Wednesday to Thursday.
The Virginia Department of Health reported 27,813 cases in the state, an increase of 1,067 from the 26,746 reported Wednesday. Nearly 1,000 people have died from the virus, according to the state Health Department, with the total number of deaths rising from 927 to 955.
Of Virginia’s 955 COVID-19 deaths, 927 are confirmed to have been caused by the coronavirus and 28 are probable. Probable cases are people who are symptomatic with a known exposure to COVID-19, but whose cases have not been confirmed with a positive test.
Roughly 1,500 people remain hospitalized by the virus, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, which represents 27 health systems and 110 hospitals. The association reported Thursday that 3,678 people have been hospitalized and discharged.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, here’s what COVID-19 data looks like in the Richmond area:
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A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit the Hanover NAACP filed in August that sought to strip Confederate names from two county schools, saying its claims were too broad and a time window for alleging damages had closed.
The suit, filed on the heels of a KKK recruitment drive near the county’s courthouse, said the names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School violate the constitutional rights of African American students, make them feel unwelcome and force them to endorse the Confederacy if they wish to participate in school sports and clubs.
In dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge Robert Payne said a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury has expired; the schools were named more than 50 years ago.
Reached by phone, Hanover NAACP President Robert Barnette said the chapter was discussing an appeal.
School Board members and a spokesman for the school division directed questions to their legal counsel.
“The School Board respects, values and cares about all students and will continue to focus on providing them with the best educational opportunities possible,” lawyer David Corrigan said.
In a 31-page ruling, Payne said that in the absence of specific, individual claims by any NAACP members, claims regarding when the schools were named are barred because of a two-year statute of limitations based on Virginia’s personal injury laws.
The School Board’s legal defense exceeded a $100,000 insurance policy it holds. Schools spokesman Chris Whitley said the division paid an additional $26,984 after the Board of Supervisors this year allocated $75,000 from a contingency fund.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the judge’s ruling is based on several technicalities and relatively new judicial expectations that encourage federal judges to dismiss cases before trial if they suspect initial claims are not credible.
Tobias said that makes it more challenging for plaintiffs who think the discovery process in litigation could reveal facts that strengthen their case.
“It used to be more flexible,” he said. “The U.S. Supreme Court has suggested in the last decade or so that courts need to be stricter.”
He said the reasoning for the tightening is intended to free up dockets and give defendants more protection against costly litigation and spurious claims.
Critics of that theory, Tobias said, argue that it prevents plaintiffs from being able to draw out documents or records that defendants are not willing to reveal otherwise.
He said it is possible that a panel of judges in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals might send the case back to Payne if they think the claims merit reconsideration.
The lawsuit was filed as nationwide efforts to remove Confederate monuments and names on buildings ramped up after the racially motivated slaying of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church in 2015.
Richmond Public Schools in 2018 changed the name of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School, replacing the name of the Confederate cavalry commander with that of former President Barack Obama.
Some community members in Hanover called on the School Board around the same time to change the names of Stonewall Jackson Middle and Lee-Davis High. The board voted 5-2 in April 2018 against renaming them after a schools survey found that about three-fourths of 13,000 respondents opposed any change.
NAACP members and their supporters have said county leaders’ initial response to the KKK rally last summer and the resistance to changing the names are representative of a culture that is dismissive of African Americans’ concerns.
“While the discrimination experienced by African American students finds it roots in an ugly history, it is alive and having a real and consequential impact today,” Barnette said in a statement Thursday.
On Thursday, county authorities announced they planned to charge a juvenile responsible for a racist social media post that appeared to show two white teens posing with a gun.
“Let’s hunt some (n------),” a message on the photo reads.
A release from the Hanover Sheriff’s Office said the matter involved two juveniles from the county; a spokesman for Hanover public schools declined to say whether they are students in the school system.