VM – Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order for Virginians on
Monday in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — just a few days
after describing the difference between the mandate and existing state
orders as “semantics.”
The order came hours after a similar directive Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser gave earlier on Monday to coordinate
guidelines related to the virus. Later that day, Bowser issued her own
stay-at-home order for D.C. residents.
Northam also spoke with both leaders last week shortly before announcing
extended school and business closures throughout Virginia.
As of Monday, there were a combined 2,840 coronavirus cases in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. Virginia alone has 1,020 known cases with 136 hospitalizations and 25 deaths.
“This weekend, some of our beaches and recreation areas were literally
packed,” Northam said before issuing the order.
“I will remind those folks, you are being very, very selfish,” he
added later. “Because you are putting all of us, and especially our
health care providers, at risk.”
The new stay-at-home order marks the most restrictive measures that Northam has implemented since Virginia recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 7. The rules extend through June 10 — roughly 90 days after the state’s first known infection — though Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said that date could change depending on the trajectory and spread of the disease.
But for everyday Virginians, there’s not much of change between the new
directive and previous restrictions announced by the administration.
The shift is largely rhetorical. Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer,
said Northam’s administration had already implemented restrictions
similar to other states, but had not invoked the stay-at-home language
they used to describe them. “I think messages matter,” he said.
Here’s what the new executive order will — and won’t — affect for
residents across the state:
What does Virginia’s stay-at-home order actually mean?
While Northam has repeatedly asked Virginians to stay at home over the
past few weeks, the new order specifically forbids all public and private
gatherings of more than 10 people. Residents are required to stay at home
unless they’re leaving for “essential” reasons — a broadly defined
list of errands and tasks.
“To date, this has been a suggestion to Virginians,” Northam said.
“Today, it’s an order.”
Virginians can still go to work or out to shop for groceries and household
supplies, pick up school meals and receive medical care. Nonessential
retail businesses — including brick-and-mortar stores that don’t sell
food, household supplies, liquor, or medicine — will still be allowed to
remain open as long as they limit patrons to 10 or fewer, Northam said.
Restaurants are also permitted to remain open for takeout and delivery.
The 10-person restrictions do not apply to families living in the same
residence. Virginians will still be able to leave their homes if they’re
“taking care of other individuals, animals, or visiting the home of a
family member,” according to the order.
One of the biggest changes applies to colleges and universities.
Institutions of higher education are now required to cancel all in-person
classes and gatherings of 10 people or more.
The new limits were implemented days after Liberty University in Lynchburg allowed more than a thousand students to return to campus. Nearly a dozen students are now sick with COVID-19 symptoms, and one has tested positive.
Asked explicitly Wednesday if he could force Liberty to close, Northam
said “No. We just are asking them to follow the same guidelines as other
colleges and universities.”
Can I still go out for exercise?
Yes. Residents are still permitted to exercise outside, but are expected
to maintain six feet of distance from other people.
While the new executive order closes public beaches, Virginians can still
visit for “fishing or exercising.” Yarmosky said localities can use
common sense in enforcing the guidelines — breaking up gatherings on
public beaches, for instance, but allowing walkers and runners as long as
they maintain social distance.
Public parks in Virginia are still open during daylight hours. Private
campgrounds are now prohibited from allowing stays shorter than 14 days.
Golf courses and other outdoor recreation facilities can also remain open.
“I think it’s fairly straightforward,” Northam said. “One can go
to the golf course and play golf, but club houses are closed.”
What are the penalties for breaking the order, and who’s in charge of
Only parts of the executive order are enforceable, Yarmosky said. State
and local authorities can enforce the sections that restrict gatherings of
10 people or more, order colleges and universities to cancel gatherings
and classes and set limits on public beaches and campgrounds.
Violating the executive order is considered a Class 1 misdemeanor, Northam
said, which is technically punishable by up to 12 months in jail, a fine
of $2,500, or both. But he emphasized that state officials are not
planning to imprison residents for noncompliance.
“This is not a time when we’re looking to put people in jail,” he
said. State officials also will not (and cannot) penalize anyone for
leaving their homes, even for “nonessential” reasons.
“We’re saying you should stay home to the greatest extent possible,”
Northam added. “Paired with adequate social distancing, staying at home
is an important way to combat this virus. This is a community-wide effort
and I’m depending on all of you to comply.”
Does my office have to close?
No. While Northam said that businesses are encouraged to comply with the
10-person guidelines, Yarmosky clarified that the new executive order
maintains the same guidance as the governor’s previous directive.
Professional businesses, such as law firms, “must utilize telework as
much as possible” and “adhere to social distancing recommendations.”
But firms are not mandated to send all their employees home.
Will it work?
Given the absence of widespread testing, strict social isolation measures
are one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of disease, said Dr.
William Petri, an infectious disease specialist and associate director of
the microbiology department at the University of Virginia.
“It’s a way to physically separate us all from each other,” he said
in an interview on Monday. “Because right now, we can’t reliably
separate who’s infected from who’s not.”
As of Monday, 12,038 Virginians have been tested for COVID-19 — roughly 0.14 percent of the state’s population. Right now, the Virginia Department of Health — and most hospitals — limit testing to the most high-risk groups,
including health providers and nursing home residents with symptoms of the disease. But Petri said there’s now solid evidence that coronavirus can
be transmitted through asymptomatic patients or those with mild symptoms of the disease.
“They tested all the residents at Life Care Center [a nursing home in
Washington state] and found that many who had no symptoms had the virus in their samples,” Petri said. “And the levels of virus were sometimes as high in asymptomatic people than in patients with symptoms.”
Virginia, like most states, is likely missing most asymptomatic cases of
the disease. Further restrictions are a way to keep those patients from
spreading the disease to higher-risk groups and rapidly increasing the
strain on the hospital system, Petri said.
Experts now believe that the strict isolation measures in Wuhan, China —
the epicenter of the global outbreak — were effective at stopping
Officials in Seattle have also seen evidence that spread is slowing thanks
to local restrictions.
Northam’s new executive order takes a more moderate approach than either
area. It’s also less restrictive than similar directives in nearby
states, including Maryland, where campgrounds and golf courses are closed
along with all nonessential brick-and-mortar stores.
Northam said that stopping the transmission of COVID-19 in Virginia will
largely depend on whether residents comply with the new directives.
“What we are seeing now is the result of how people interacted two or
three weeks ago,” he said. “What we will see a few weeks from now will
be determined by how people behave today and in the following days.”