After being in isolation for 18 days following his COVID-19 diagnosis, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam had an eventful first day back in the office Tuesday.
An FBI agent testified that the same group charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also had talked about "taking" Northam.
A utility contractor in Chesterfield County accidentally cut a fiber optics cable, essentially shutting down many state agency websites on the last day Virginians could register to vote in the November election.
And Virginia's coronavirus case numbers continued to head higher as many school systems debate whether and when to resume in-person instruction.
Addressing those issues and more at an afternoon news conference in Richmond that was broadcast statewide, Northam drew a strong contrast between his COVID-19 diagnosis and response and that of President Donald Trump. Northam noted that in the few days preceding the positive test results for him and his wife, Pamela, on Sept. 24, they were in close contact with 65 other individuals - often riding in the same car or plane or meeting in the same room.
Yet, he added, he, his wife and all of those contacts were wearing masks - and none of the contacts has tested positive for COVID-19.
“I truly believe that is a testament to wearing these masks,” said Northam, a physician. “Masks are scientifically proven to reduce the spread of this disease, plain and simple, so please wear them.”
He compared that to the White House's Rose Garden ceremony when Trump announced the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
"People cavalierly sat together, stood together, hugged each other ... look at the number of people who tested positive," Northam said. "We talk about science – it doesn’t get any clearer than that."
Northam and his wife were diagnosed with the virus after being exposed by an Executive Mansion employee. Northam did not experience any symptoms until eight days after being diagnosed, so he had to isolate for an additional 10 days, making Tuesday his first day back in the office. He said he only had cold-like symptoms and never had a fever, cough or shortness of breath. His wife also had mild symptoms.
"When that test comes back positive, it is frightening," Northam said. "This is a dangerous virus. It is very contagious, and it’s very stubborn. It’s too easy to think, 'Oh, well, this won’t happen to me.' But it can. That is why it’s disheartening to see people being cavalier about it.”
Northam said the FBI had notified him about his connection to the Whitmer case but that he would not be intimidated. Rather, he criticized Trump for comments on Twitter about "liberating" Virginia after Northam imposed restrictions designed to stem the spread of coronavirus.
"These threats and this rhetoric is not coming from another country, it’s coming from Washington," Northam said. "Words have meaning. That’s just one example of many. Not everything we do is agreeable to all Virginians, but when language is used such as to 'liberate Virginia' they find meaning in those words and that’s when these things happen."
Virginia's election website was back online by mid-afternoon, about eight hours after the fiber optics cable was cut. Northam said state law does not allow him to extend the voter registration deadline past today but that he would support a court order to do so. He noted that 550,000 Virginians have already voted, or nearly a quarter of the state's total turnout in the 2016 election.
As he has done in his other news conferences over the past few months, Northam continued to praise the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday he cited the state's average test positivity rate, which has now been below the key 5% threshold for 17 days.
"I’m especially proud of Virginia's numbers as we’re seeing many other states who have seen their case counts starting to rise," he added. "But now is not a time to get complacent."
Indeed, the Virginia Department of Health reported 1,256 new cases of COVID-19 statewide on Wednesday, increasing the seven-day average to 1,089 and threatening the Aug. 8 peak of 1,198.
"This is a marathon, not a sprint, and I know everyone is frustrated, but we’re not out of the woods," Northam said. "We’re in this together, and that means we must act to protect not just ourselves but each other.”
He said in response to a couple of questions that he has no plans to ease restrictions further until case levels are lower around the state.
“When people gather together and don’t wear masks and practicing social distancing, this is when the virus spreads," Northam added.
Finally, he noted that on his first day back in the office he signed several bills passed by the General Assembly during its ongoing special section, including one that makes Juneteenth a permanent state holiday.