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Northam aims for May 15 reopening of Virginia businesses

Mike Still • May 4, 2020 at 11:00 PM

 RICHMOND — Virginia could see the start of reopening businesses by May 15, if COVID-19 new case numbers decline enough.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday described what a first-phase easing of his emergency orders from March and April would be like, even though he extended Executive Order 53 from this Friday to May 14.

If the COVID-19 pandemic shows enough improvement, the reopening — Phase I of Northam’s “Forward Virginia Blueprint” — will see shifts from Northam’s earlier stay-at-home emergency order to a “safer-at-home” stance. Social gatherings of more than 10 people would still be prohibited and social distancing still encouraged.

Teleworking for state employees would continue, Northam said, and people would still be advised to wear face coverings in public. Businesses and religious activity in churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship would see restrictions eased.

For businesses, Northam said, guidelines for reopening would include physical distancing inside, enhanced cleaning and disinfection procedures and enhanced workplace safety for employees.

“Here’s the bottom line,” Northam said. “You’ll be able to get a haircut, but you’ll have to get an appointment.”

Restaurants would have to ensure that customers eating in will have safe distance between themselves, Northam said.

Depending on whether COVID-19 cases began to rise or fall, Northam said, Phase I could last two to four weeks or more before a Phase II relaxation. That would keep a stay-at-home recommendation for vulnerable populations but allow social gathering of up to 50 people and more easing of business restrictions.

Social distancing, teleworking and recommended face coverings would still be part of Phase II, which could last another two to four weeks or more before a Phase III longer-term easing. That would depend on whether COVID-19 cases showed no rebound over time.

“This virus is still here and will be here until we get a vaccine,” Northam said. Getting to Phase I depends on several factors, he said, including enough testing to monitor the disease’s spread, ensuring adequate hospital bed space in case the disease spread increases, adequate personal protective equipment in case of a COVID-19 flare-up and a drop in the death rate.

Delaying the executive order expiration until May 15 will give state health officials enough time to see if lockdown measures have worked.

“I’m not here to punish people,” Northam said. “I’m standing here representing 8.5 million Virginians, doing what’s in their best interests to keep them safe, to get this health crisis behind us and to get this economy up and running again.”

Asked if workers with underlying health issues concerned about returning to work during the pandemic will be able to get unemployment benefits or regulatory protection, state Chief Workforce Development Advisor Megan Healy said the state Employment Commission is still waiting for guidance from the federal Department of Labor.

Asked about a recent lawsuit by a Chincoteague church against Northam’s emergency orders, governor’s counsel Rita Davis said the church’s motion for a federal restraining order was denied by the federal Eastern District of Virginia court. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest with the church’s appeal to the federal Fourth Circuit, she added.

“While the administration applauds and encourages the Department of Justice for standing up for Virginia’s civil liberties,” Davis said, “we believe the governor’s authority was prudent, necessary and constitutional, and we look forward to the Fourth Circuit affirming that.”

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