By Carol Vaughn
The third confirmed case of COVID-19 on the Eastern Shore was announced Thursday by the Eastern Shore Health District. A Northampton County woman in her 20s tested positive. She had recently traveled from another country with known community transmission.
The health district is conducting a thorough investigation of the case and any potential exposures.
Earlier this week, Gov. Ralph Northam said Virginia schools will remain closed at least through the end of this academic year to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The order applies to both public and private K-12 schools.
As of Thursday, Virginia had 460 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Thirteen people in Virginia have died, 65 have been hospitalized, and 6,189 have been tested.
“We are moving into a period of sacrifice….There is more ahead, and things are changing fast,” Northam said Monday.
Around 40,000 Virginians filed for unemployment last week, as the pandemic’s economic toll continued to rise.
“That number will, unfortunately, go up,” Northam said.
Business and Other Restrictions
Northam announced additional restrictions on businesses, which took effect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.
Restaurants may remain open, but cannot serve customers in the establishment — only takeout, curbside, or delivery options are allowed.
Recreation and entertainment businesses, such as bowling alleys, theaters, racetracks, and fitness centers, among others, were ordered to close, as were personal care businesses such as barbershops, massage parlors, spas, and beauty salons.
Non-essential retail businesses may stay open, but must have 10 or fewer customers at a time, and must increase sanitizing measures and practice social distancing — that is, people must remain at least six feet apart.
Essential businesses, including grocery stores, pharmacies, supply chain businesses, and banks, will stay open, but need to practice social distancing and take extra sanitizing measures.
“You will still be able to buy food and necessary supplies for you and your family,” Northam said.
The state’s ABC stores will remain open, but will practice social distancing and take sanitizing measures.
The following retail businesses are considered essential and may remain open during normal business hours, according to the executive order:
Grocery stores, pharmacies, and other retailers that sell food and beverage products or pharmacy products, including dollar stores, and department stores with grocery or pharmacy operations;
Medical, laboratory, and vision supply retailers;
Electronic retailers that sell or service cell phones, computers, tablets, and other communications technology;
Automotive parts, accessories, and tire retailers as well as automotive repair facilities;
Home improvement, hardware, building material, and building supply retailers;
Lawn and garden equipment retailers;
Beer, wine, and liquor stores;
Retail functions of gas stations and convenience stores;
Retail located within healthcare facilities;
Banks and other financial institutions with retail functions;
Pet stores and feed stores;
Printing and office supply stores; and
Laundromats and dry cleaners.
Guidelines for what is considered essential or non-essential are posted on the Governor of Virginia website.
Frequently asked questions about the order are posted at https://www.governor.virginia.gov/media/governorvirginiagov/governor-of-virginia/pdf/Frequently-Asked-Questions-Regarding-EO-53.pdf
Other professional businesses must use teleworking as much as possible, according to the order.
State parks are open only for day use.
Public and Private Gatherings Banned
Additionally, public or private gatherings of more than 10 are banned, including at beaches, churches, and elsewhere.
“The point is to limit the places where people gather in groups,” Northam said.
Localities have authority to enforce the restrictions. Anyone in violation of the order may be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.
The measures will remain in effect for at least 30 days, Northam said.
“We do not make these decisions lightly. Virginia is one of the country’s largest and most diverse states, but COVID-19 is serious, and we must act,” he said.
Northam asked Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. to reconsider his decision to welcome students back to the Lynchburg campus after spring break.
“We have heard too many mixed messages around the country about COVID-19, and this is yet another example,” Northam said, urging Falwell to follow the example of other Virginia colleges and universities that have closed residence halls.
Northam said states “have been left to figure out this on our own, and I am acting to protect Virginians.”
The main problem with the federal response to the crisis so far “has been misinformation and mixed messages,” Northam said, adding, “We are essentially fighting a biological war right now in this country, and I expect our president and our leaders in Washington to accept that’s the reality now and to have guidance, and also to give support to the states where we need it.”
“We haven’t received that guidance. … We have had to take the lead and do what’s in the best interest of our constituents and our citizens,” Northam said.
Attorney General Mark Herring this week joined a coalition of 16 attorneys general to urge President Trump to “fully utilize the Defense Production Act to immediately prioritize the production of masks, respirators, and other critical items needed by health care workers, first responders, and law enforcement across the United States,” according to a press release.
The federal act was passed in 1950 in response to production needs related to the Korean War.
In a letter sent to Trump Wednesday, the attorneys general urged him to use the act to dramatically increase health care capacity; the supply of personal protective equipment for first responders; and testing capacity for COVID-19.
School Districts Will Determine How to Provide Instruction
Virginia school district leaders will decide how students in their localities will be taught the remaining information for the school year now that schools are to remain closed.
“We are already working on waivers to relieve testing requirements and ensure that our students who were on track to graduate can do so,” Northam said.
Virginia Superintendent of Education James F. Lane said school districts were to be given guidelines this week for that process, including how to ascertain a student has completed a course.
“We will be offering numerous options … distance or remote learning; extending the school year next year; embedding some of that instruction into the curriculum in the next year if they don’t extend; and maybe continuing instruction now, but maybe we can’t get to every student equitably, just bringing some students back to make sure that we fill the gaps for students that were missed in the virtual space.”
The four options will be detailed for school districts.
“Each locality is going to have to make a choice,” Lane said.
Child Care a Pressing Need
Questions about child care for students out of school — and especially for children of health care and other essential workers — are pressing, according to the governor.
“We have 1.2 million children under age 12 in our Commonwealth, and half of them are in public schools or preschools,” Northam said, noting a Yale study estimated 80,000 may be children of health care workers.
“We need an urgent public/private response. Today, I am calling on our local communities, private daycare providers, community childcare partners, and public schools to rally together to provide child care for the young children and school-age children of essential personnel,” he said.
The Virginia Department of Social Services has guidelines on its website for how to provide emergency child care services while adhering to health protocols.
Every school district in Virginia has made provisions to get food to students while schools are closed, Northam said.
Northam urged families wondering where their next meal is going to come from to text FOOD or COMIDA to 877-877 to find out about feeding locations near them.
In another executive order Northam signed last week, hospitals and nursing homes were given more flexibility to add beds during the pandemic. The order lifts certificate of public need restrictions.
Northam said priority for testing will be given to medical professionals with symptoms who have had contact with or cared for someone with COVID-19, and criteria are being eased for people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities to get tested.
AG: Electronic Public Meetings Okay in Some Circumstances
Attorney General Mark Herring Friday issued an opinion saying public bodies may conduct business electronically, if the purpose of the meeting is to address the emergency, but the opinion also outlined limitations, saying “the General Assembly did not intend to permit public bodies to handle all business through electronic communication means, even during a declared emergency,” and that “public bodies should carefully consider whether taking a given action during a meeting held by electronic communication means is truly essential and should defer any and all decisions that can be deferred until it is once again possible to meet in person.”
The opinion reinforces that measures for transparency and public accountability must be followed, even during electronically held meetings — including public access, proper public notice, agendas made available to the public, roll-call votes, and recorded minutes, according to a press release.