Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam praised the Northern Virginia region's response to the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday, while he slapped more restrictions on the Hampton Roads area due to a surge in cases there.
At the same time, Northam was highly critical of the federal government's response to the crisis, especially its failure to develop a national testing plan, as many Northern Virginia residents report having to wait a week or more for test results. His comments came during a news conference in Richmond that followed a meeting earlier in the day with Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House's coronavirus response task force. It was only Northam's second news conference since June 25, although he indicated he may resume more regular briefings.
Northam noted that in Northern Virginia, the number of cases has been reduced by more than two-thirds since the region hit its peak in late May. "It’s happened because people are doing the right thing and following the guidelines," he said.
Meanwhile, in the Hampton Roads area, including Norfolk and Virginia Beach, cases have been increasing over the past month and positivity rates for COVID-19 tests are over 10%, a level considered necessary to maintain control of the virus. Northam said the area is reporting significantly higher numbers of cases among people in their 20s and younger and cited increased socialization at events such as large birthday parties and backyard barbecues.
“We need to act to turn this around," he added.
He announced increased restrictions on localities in the Hampton Roads area that will take effect at midnight Thursday:
- No alcohol can be sold or consumed in restaurants after 10 p.m.
- All restaurants must close by midnight.
- The maximum capacity for indoor dining at restaurants, wineries, breweries and food courts will be reduced to 50%. Under Phase Three of the state's reopening plan, which began July 1, those venues could operate at 100% capacity as long as social distancing guidelines were followed.
- Public gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited, including indoor and outdoor parties. The maximum size for public gatherings elsewhere in the state remains at 250 people under Phase Three.
“This effectively closes all bars,” Northam said. "You just don’t care about social distancing as much after you’ve had a couple of drinks.”
Northam said the restrictions will be in place for at least two to three weeks while his administration evaluates their effect on the region's coronavirus numbers. He warned he would not hesitate to reinstate restrictions elsewhere in the state that experience similar surges.
"All options are on the table," he added. For example, in response to a question, he noted he is watching the actions of other states that are requiring residents returning from hot spots elsewhere to quarantine for 14 days.
Northam and other members of his administration, as well as a group of stakeholders from around the state, met with Birx earlier in the day Tuesday. "She was complimentary of our work and the mitigation measures we've been taking for weeks," Northam said.
Among issues the Virginians raised with Birx was the increasing lag time for test results from private labs, Northam said. InsideNoVa reported last week that commercial labs in Northern Virginia are reporting expected wait times for COVID-19 test results of seven to 10 days.
"Can you imagine going to see your doctor, having whatever symptoms and the doctor says, 'I'm going to order a test and by the way the results will be back in 10 to 14 days?'" Northam said. "I think we all find that unacceptable."
He noted that a number of factors are contributing to the delays, including increased demand for tests, supply shortages of reagents and a backlog of orders for machines that can process tests more quickly, and criticized the Trump administration for its lack of a response.
"This started back in February and there’s been no direction, no program, nationally, and this is something that all states have had to do on their own," Northam said. "Governors have had to compete with each other, and it’s been a chaotic process and one that can be avoided with leadership."
Although he avoided citing specific groups, Northam also was critical of organizations that have been able to get test results back within a day, as is the case for the professional sports leagues that have resumed playing. "Why should that be happening and other individuals having to see their provider and having to wait 10 to 14 days?" he said.
He noted that the continued development of antigen testing that can generate results in 10 to 15 minutes will greatly help the situation, as will "pool testing," where groups of people, such as college students, can be tested at once.
He said the state leaders had a "great discussion" with Birx but cited a "disconnect" between her message and President Trump's.
"To give you an example, she advocated for wearing masks, she advocated for social distancing, for staying at home unless you need to be out, while the message from our president is to liberate Virginia and putting pressure on governors like myself to open up our states, to send our children back to schools," Northam said.
"There's a disconnect between what the health individuals are proposing and recommending and what our president is telling us," Northam said. "And that’s unfortunate. We are in the middle of a biological war, and we need, as Americans and as Virginians, we all need to be working together, not receiving mixed messages."
However, Northam also attempted to sound a positive tone, saying at least twice that "we need to let a little air out of a very tense balloon." He cited progress that is being made toward coronavirus vaccines, as well as the state's efforts to provide mortgage and rent assistance to individuals and financial help to local governments, along with a new grant program for small businesses.
"Everyone is questioning what tomorrow will bring," he said. "I’m worried that people are starting to lose hope, and that’s not a good thing. There is a path out of this. I see hopeful signs ahead."