Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced new restrictions Thursday amid soaring numbers of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Some gatherings will be restricted to 10 people, down from the 25-person cap instituted Nov. 15. Northam also asked Virginians not to stay out after midnight, but the “curfew” will not be enforced.
Like in previous caps on gatherings, the 10-person limit does not apply to religious services, schools, offices, retail businesses, restaurants, farmers’ markets, indoor shooting ranges, racetracks, amusement parks, zoos, performance venues or gyms. Only in a few specific cases – like a group booking for a restaurant or a group fitness class – the 10-person cap will be applicable to a business.
The new restrictions do not apply to participants in athletic activities, although the number of spectators is limited to 25 per field indoors and two spectators per participant outdoors. There are no new restrictions on sports from the governor’s office.
During the 45-minute press conference Thursday, Northam asked Virginians to wear masks whenever around others – whether indoors or outdoors – and to stay home when possible.
The new limit on the size of some gatherings is one of two substantial changes to restrictions that already exist in Virginia. Executive Order 72, which goes into effect Monday, Dec. 14, also includes an expansion of the requirement – with many exemptions – for individuals to wear face coverings while in close proximity to others in public. The executive order expires Jan. 31 unless the governor rescinds the order before then.
The requirement for wearing masks now applies to both indoor and outdoor public settings, where “at least 6 feet of physical distance from other individuals who are not family members” is not feasible. The new document also requires employees in businesses that serve customers to wear masks, even if they do not come in direct contact with customers. While Northam asked everyone to wear a mask at their place of employment, he added, “enforcement wise, we’re not going to go into private places of business.”
The seven categories of exceptions to the mask requirement remain in place, including most broadly a provision stating, “Any person who declines to wear a face covering because of a medical condition shall not be required to produce or carry medical documentation verifying the stated condition nor shall the person be required to identify the precise underlying medical condition.”
Also included in the text of the document is a “modified stay-at-home order” that requests – with no threat of enforcement – Virginians stay at home from midnight to 5 a.m. The text of the order’s request includes numerous exceptions that cover almost any reason a person would leave their residence.
Although he promised that enforcement of existing restrictions, especially in businesses where people gather -- like restaurants and retail stores -- will be “stepped up,” he repeatedly dodged questions from reporters asking whether the “curfew” would be enforced. The text of the executive order itself has no provision for enforcing the so-called “modified stay-at-home order.”
Reporters asked Northam several times why the “curfew” was included in the order if it would not be enforced. Northam eventually said the provision was about “messaging” and “saving lives,” pointing to instances of spread of the virus among attendees of large parties or crowded bars.
Unlike in neighboring Maryland, where state police and local law enforcement agencies are tasked with enforcing restrictions instituted by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Northam’s latest executive order – like those before it -- does not empower law enforcement officials to enforce any COVID-related restrictions. Instead, the Virginia Department of Health, along with other industry-specific regulatory agencies like the Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, are tasked with enforcement.
The health department has not initiated legal action against any business or individual in the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, which includes Fauquier County along with four other counties, a health department representative confirmed Thursday. No businesses have been told to close because of violations and no formal notices of potential violations have been sent to businesses within the health district, which has a total population of about 181,000.
Whether or not – or to what extent – local school divisions offer in-person learning is still entirely at the discretion of each school board, Northam emphasized repeatedly during the press conference. “This does not change anything about schools or colleges or universities,” he said.
Additionally, while Northam claimed that religious gatherings are a major contributor to community transmission of the virus – “Quite frankly, we know that a lot of the spread is coming from this” – he said emphatically that no enforcement actions have taken place or will take place against places of worship.
When a reporter asked if the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking New York’s restrictions on the size of some religious gatherings informed that decision, Northam answered, “I think you just answered that question.”