Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday ordered all schools closed for the rest of the academic year, along with additional closings and restrictions for businesses and gatherings of more than 10 people, in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
The shutdown of schools, public and private, and the closing of recreational and entertainment businesses such as theaters and gyms comes as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Virginia climbed to 254, an increase of 35 from Sunday, with seven deaths.
Among the confirmed cases is a Richmond police officer, the first known case for a city employee.
“These numbers, unfortunately, will continue to rise,” Northam said at a briefing Monday afternoon, adding that Virginia is moving into “a period of sacrifice” that could last months.
With restaurants and many other businesses already closing down, the number of unemployed Virginians also has soared. About 40,000 Virginia residents applied for unemployment benefits last week, Northam said.
“Our priority is to save lives,” Northam said. “We have a health crisis, and we have an economic crisis. But the sooner we can get this health crisis under control, the sooner our economy will recover.”
Additional business restrictions ordered
The restrictions on businesses go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.
Essential businesses, including grocery stores, pharmacies, medical facilities, manufacturing plants and distribution centers, as well as transportation hubs like airports and bus depots, will remain open.
“You will still be able to buy food and necessary supplies for you and your families,” Northam said.
His order closed all businesses that center on recreation and entertainment, like movie theaters, fitness centers and bowling alleys, while allowing other businesses to remain open under some restrictions.
All businesses deemed nonessential by the state will be allowed to remain open as long as they follow sanitation guidelines and keep the number of patrons in their business under 10.
Restaurants, while considered essential, will be allowed to stay open only for carry-out and delivery. Included in that category are breweries, wineries and bars.
The order is less strict than what was announced Monday by officials in Maryland, where all nonessential businesses were ordered closed. Nevertheless, it represents the most stringent guidance from Virginia officials in the state’s fight to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Northam described the state’s approach as “very aggressive” and said he would continue to look at the data and re-evaluate the state’s restrictions.
Monday’s order will remain in place for at least 30 days.
At the same time, Northam said that “social distancing is the only path forward,” and acknowledged the impact of restrictions on Virginia businesses.
“Many businesses are closed already because their owners have done the responsible thing,” Northam said. “I thank them for the tremendous sacrifice they have made. There is more ahead and things are changing fast.”
Northam also addressed gatherings at state and local parks, which swelled during a spell of warmer weather last week.
Parks will remain open, but Northam urged the public to maintain social distancing guidelines limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 people in a concentrated area. He said local law enforcement officials were encouraged to issue reminders wherever gatherings grew past the limit.
“We’re not out there to penalize people. We certainly are not out there to put people in jails,” Northam said. “But, we are working with our localities, and for example, if a person from the sheriff’s department sees a congregation on the beach of 10 or more, they will be reminded that is not accepted.”
254 cases in 40 Va. localities
The Virginia Department of Health reported on its website Monday that 254 people in Virginia have tested positive for COVID-19.
That’s an increase of 35 cases, or 16%, from the 219 reported at noon on Sunday, and an increase of 102, or 67%, from the 152 reported on Saturday. A week ago, on Monday, March 16, state health officials reported there were 51 cases in Virginia.
There have been seven deaths. The latest was a Virginia Beach man in his 70s who died Monday from acute respiratory failure after testing positive for COVID-19, one of 18 cases in the state’s largest city.
The man had underlying health conditions, according to a news release from the state Health Department.
The man is the first COVID-19-related death reported by the Virginia Beach Health Department, which is conducting a “contact investigation” and is trying to identify the source of transmission.
Dr. Demetria Lindsay, health director for Virginia Beach, said that several recent cases there “may represent the first indications of potential community transmission, the extent of which would be determined by the outcome of the investigation.”
There are coronavirus cases in 40 Virginia cities and counties, and 3,697 people have been tested in the state, according to the VDH numbers.
In Richmond and the three closest counties there are 30 cases: 11 in Henrico, nine in Chesterfield, eight in Richmond and two in Hanover.
On Thursday, state health officials said there’s a lag in the reporting of statewide numbers, and figures on the VDH website might not be the same as numbers reported by individual localities or local health districts.
The state has a 5 p.m. cutoff for tabulating daily numbers, so the numbers reported on the website at noon each day are 19 hours old.
Richmond police officer tests positive
A Richmond police officer is the first known case of a city employee testing positive for COVID-19, according to a statement from the city on Monday.
The officer, a woman in her 40s, is now at home in isolation and in stable condition, the statement said.
She had traveled to New York before the onset of her illness, according to the city, and a colleague who had been in close contact with the officer is also self-quarantined.
The police department and city’s health district are investigating if she had any potential close contact with residents during the performance of her duties.
“My first concern is for her and her family and the extended family of her co-workers,” Police Chief William Smith said. “We have taken precautions to limit exposure to our staff and to the community we serve. It is extremely important that we all continue to do our part in controlling the spread of the virus through the recommended protocols.”
Three local malls close
Three Richmond-area malls have closed temporarily to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Stony Point Fashion Park is closed until April 6, the mall said on its website. The South Richmond mall suspended its hours after it closed at 7 p.m. Monday, noting it took the steps in the interest of public health.
Dillard’s, one of Stony Point’s anchor tenants, has chosen to remain open, the mall said.
Regency mall and Virginia Center Commons have temporarily closed with plans to reopen March 30, those malls said on their websites.
Short Pump Town Center and Chesterfield Towne Center continue to operate between noon and 7 p.m. daily, except for Sunday, when hours vary.
Henrico lab begins testing
A Henrico laboratory has developed a way to test nearly 10 times the number of potential COVID-19 kits as prior testing sites and shorten the turnaround time for those results, according to GENETWORx lab director Sarah Jacobs-Helber.
“By helping identify cases faster, that will help with containment and the spread of the virus,” she said.
The laboratory in the Innsbrook Corporate Center began shipping the virus test kits Monday.
It follows the same kit developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could typically test about 100 samples per day with results taking between five to seven business days.
But the Henrico laboratory has an instrument capable of testing between 800 and 1,000 samples per day, Jacobs-Helber said. Results can be provided within 24 hours.
In a statement Monday, the laboratory said it could test up to 150,000 samples in April, which is more than the nearly 100,000 people tested in the United States to date.
The lab, which until recently focused on genetic and pharmacological testing, has been developing its testing capability since February, when only the CDC was confirming cases. Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration put out guidelines opening the testing to commercial labs.
“We want to do our part in contributing our expertise to help in the nation’s battle against the coronavirus,” said William Miller, CEO of GENETWORx and a 20-year veteran of the molecular diagnostic laboratory testing industry, in a statement.
Jacobs-Helber said they had to validate that their test was just as accurate and sensitive as the CDC’s.
The lab will not only accept samples from Virginia hospitals and private doctors, but also those from New York. It is certified in all states, so that number could grow.
“At a time when a lot of people are staying home, the people on my team are here doing important work,” Jacobs-Helber said.
In a show of political unity, Northam released a joint statement Monday night with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser to call on the federal government to “provide additional financial support to help our jurisdictions maintain the health and safety of the region and the federal workers who serve the American people.”
Northam’s cautious approach to managing the crisis has drawn public criticism, especially in comparison with Hogan’s more forceful approach in ordering restrictions on business and schools in Maryland to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
In their joint statement, the leaders cited their “unique responsibility to keep the federal government operating” in a region that is home to more than 360,000 federal employees in the three jurisdictions.
“No other region in the country bears this responsibility,” they said.
Northam, Hogan and Bowser also emphasized that they “are working closely together to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
“Together, we are promoting social distancing and encouraging all of our residents to stay at home and avoid crowds and gatherings,” they said. “In each of our jurisdictions, we will be enforcing crowd control measures and social distancing standards.”
Bishop tests negative
Bishop Barry C. Knestout, the head of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, was told on Monday by his health care provider that he doesn’t have the coronavirus.
The bishop entered self-quarantine on Wednesday based on a doctor’s recommendation after experiencing coldlike symptoms.
“I want to thank the health care professionals and our first responders for their courage and sacrifice as they place themselves in harm’s way to care for our communities throughout the diocese,” Knestout said in a statement Monday.
“I am also very grateful to all of you who have kept me in your prayers or who have sent me well wishes and notes of encouragement.”