By Stefanie Jackson – Gov. Ralph Northam announced today he will tighten coronavirus-related restrictions in Hampton Roads due to its increased rate of positive cases of COVID-19, but other Virginia regions, including the Eastern Shore, will remain in Phase III of the state’s reopening plan.
Starting Friday, July 31, in Hampton Roads, no bars may serve alcohol after 10 p.m., and no restaurants may be open after midnight.
“We all know that alcohol changes your judgment. You just don’t care as much about social distancing after a couple of drinks. That’s when the virus gets spread, and that’s why we are taking this action,” Northam said.
Also in Hampton Roads, restaurants may not use more than 50% of their indoor seating capacity, and gatherings will be limited to 50 people or fewer.
Eastern Shore citizens will be unaffected except for those who may travel to the Hampton Roads area.
The restrictions will apply to the Virginia cities of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Newport News, Chesapeake, Hampton, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Poquoson, Williamsburg, and York and James City counties.
The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests is down statewide, from 7.7% last week to 7.3% this week.
The positivity rate has dropped to 5.7% in Northern Virginia, 5% in the northwest region, and 6.8% in central Virginia. The southwest region has remained “relatively stable” at 7.1%.
However, the COVID-19 positivity rate in Hampton Roads is 10.8%.
In Hampton Roads cities, the COVID-19 positivity rate ranges from 9.9% to 18.6%.
The COVID-19 situation in Virginia got the attention of Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, who met with Northam earlier today.
Among her concerns were the demand for COVID-19 tests and the wait times for test results as the coronavirus continues to spread through southern states.
Birx recommended pooled testing, which tests a group of samples together, allowing more people to be tested using fewer testing supplies and resources.
A negative result means all the samples were negative; a positive result means at least one person tested positive and each person in the group must be tested individually.
“If we can, through pooling, double and triple testing availability, then you decrease turnaround times by 3x (three times),” Birx said.
Northam approved of pooled testing and developing an “on-the-spot” test that could give results in 15 to 20 minutes.
Waiting 10 to 14 days for COVID-19 test results is “unacceptable,” Northam said.
More than 1.15 million COVID-19 tests have been administered in Virginia to date.
Virginia has had about 87,000 cases of COVID-19, and more than 2,000 related deaths, numbers representing “real people and real lives” affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Northam said.
Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver reported 922 new cases of COVID-19 and 20,138 additional COVID-19 tests completed as of July 27.
COVID-19 cases aren’t trending down everywhere, but there is “hopeful news,” Northam said.
Virginia “has so far avoided the dramatic increases that other parts of the country are seeing,” and the number of COVID-19 cases remains relatively stable in four of the state’s five health districts, he said.
For example, COVID-19 cases in Northern Virginia – where about 3 million of the state’s approximately 8.5 million people live – dropped by two-thirds since the coronavirus pandemic was at its peak in May.
Nursing homes, which accounted for one-third of Virginia COVID-19 cases, have about 1% of cases now.
Nearly 3,000 Virginia nursing home residents have recovered from COVID-19, about 12,000 COVID-19 patients have been discharged from Virginia hospitals, and a vaccine is on the way, Northam said.
He offered counsel to those who may be losing hope: “Be not afraid, do not let yourself grow weary. We’re going to get through this together.”