Virginia will lift its COVID-19 restrictions on June 15 if case numbers continue to decline and vaccination numbers continue to rise, Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday.
"This is good news, and it’s thanks to Virginians who have done the right thing for so long,” Northam said during a news conference in Richmond. He said that while the state would lift capacity restrictions and social-distancing requirements on that date, the mask-wearing mandate may still be in effect.
Lifting the 6-foot social-distancing requirement will mean that venues such as movie theaters and restaurants can plan to operate at full capacity after June 15, said Clark Mercer, Northam's chief of staff.
"There's always a caveat if health metrics take a dive, we'll have to address that," Mercer added.
The state's mask mandate is tied to the state of emergency declared by Northam last year. That state of emergency currently ends June 30, so Mercer said the mask issue would be addressed before then. Wearing masks is illegal under Virginia, unless allowed during a state of emergency.
Northam previously announced the relaxation of many restrictions, effective May 15. Those include increasing capacity at indoor and outdoor venues, increasing the number of people allowed at social gatherings and allowing restaurants to resume alcohol sales after midnight.
In making the announcement Thursday regarding the end of restrictions in June, Northam cited the state's declining COVID-19 case and hospitalization numbers. The average number of new cases statewide is below 1,000 a day for the first time since early October, and hospitalizations for treatment of the virus are also at their lowest levels since the early days of the pandemic in March 2020. In addition, the state's average diagnostic test positivity rate is down to 4.4%, also at its lowest level.
“That's a big deal after a hard year, and we should all celebrate that,” Northam said.
Northam also noted that about 46% of Virginians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination and nearly a third are fully vaccinated. Almost 80% of Virginians aged 65 and older have received at least one dose, he added.
"The data give us a very clear message: The vaccines are working," Northam added. "They’re helping reduce the spread of this disease. Fewer people are getting sick. Fewer people are going into the hospital, and fewer people are dying. ... More people are getting to do things they enjoy once again.”
Northam noted that all Virginians aged 16 and older are now eligible to receive a vaccine, and many locations around the state are offering walk-up vaccinations, without pre-registration and without appointments.
“The bottom line is when you get vaccinated you protect yourself, you protect your family and everyone around you,” he said.
He noted that COVID-19 is unpredictable. "It can put anyone in the hospital, including young people. It can cause long-lasting debilitating side effects.”
Northam himself contracted COVID early last fall, and he said that seven months later he still has not regained his sense of taste or smell.
“Many long-lasting side effects are much worse," he added. "I’ve had COVID and I’ve had the vaccine. Between the two, it’s an easy choice – I’ll take the vaccine any day.”
Northam and Dr. Danny Avula, the state's vaccine coordinator, also talked about efforts to increase the availability of vaccines. Avula said the state is gearing up to launch mobile vaccination clinics using contracted vendors and money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The mobile units will primarily target rural and underserved communities, with the ability to administer anywhere from 50 to 250 doses a day and to be on the road for up to 14 days.
Northam also noted that the Pfizer vaccine is expected to be approved for adolescents aged 12 to 15 within the next few weeks. He said the Virginia Department of Health is working with school divisions and superintendents to ensure as many students as possible are vaccinated.
“Everyone is making plans for the future and how to reopen as safely as possible," he added.