RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday announced substantial new statewide restrictions on gatherings and certain businesses in an effort to slow rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
The state’s cap on gatherings will be reduced from 250 people to 25, the state’s mask requirement will be applied to younger children, the number of spectators allowed at athletic events will be reduced, and alcohol sales will be prohibited at dining and drinking establishments after 10 p.m., the Democratic governor’s office said in a news release. Those and other new restrictions will take effect Sunday at midnight.
“COVID-19 is surging across the country, and while cases are not rising in Virginia as rapidly as in some other states, I do not intend to wait until they are. We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse,” Northam, who is a physician, said in the release.
The gathering ban will apply to events such as weddings, but won’t impact schools or restaurant capacity, said Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky. Restaurants were already subject to capacity limits due to requirements that patrons remain socially distanced.
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Under the new rules, all restaurants, breweries, wineries and other such establishments must close by midnight, and the on-site sale and consumption of alcohol is prohibited after 10 p.m. Virginia code does not distinguish between restaurants and bars.
Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, said the alcohol curfew would be tough on many restaurants
“These last-minute changes and notices are just devastating the industry,” he said.
The measures announced Friday will also strengthen the state’s ability to enforce compliance with measures such as mask-wearing and distancing in grocery stores, big-box retailers and other businesses deemed “essential.” Previously, those types of businesses were exempt from health department enforcement.
Nicole Riley, the Virginia state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said essential retail stores have been doing all they can to follow the rules.
“We hope that the threat of criminal charges will be handled in a judicious way by authorities so that those who have acted in good faith aren’t unfairly penalized,” she said in a statement.
The mask requirement, which previously applied only to children 10 and older, now applies to children 5 and older, the governor’s release said.
The changes will also impact athletics.
Recreational, youth and high school sports will be limited to 25 spectators per field or 30% of venue’s occupancy load, whichever is smaller, Yarmosky said. The limit does not include participants.
College athletics, where the limits apply to both participants and spectators, will be limited to 250 people or 30% of the venue’s occupancy load, whichever is smaller, she said. College sports venues previously were allowed to have 1,000 people.
The new rules say religious services can surpass 25 people if a lengthy list of public health measures are followed, including cleaning and distancing.
The changes come as the coronavirus is surging across the U.S. at what experts say is an alarming pace. Newly confirmed infections per day in the U.S. are shattering records at nearly every turn, hitting more than 153,000 on Thursday and pushing the running total in the U.S. to about 10.5 million, with about a quarter-million deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Some school districts around the country are moving to halt in-person instruction, and other governors have tightened restrictions on gatherings and businesses.
Collectively, Virginia is faring better than many other states. There were 233 new cases per 100,000 people in Virginia over the past two weeks, which ranks 43rd in the country for new cases per capita, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project.
But over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by just over 392, an increase of 34%, according to AP’s analysis. One in every 787 people in Virginia tested positive in the past week.
Northam’s news release said all five health regions are experiencing increases in new COVID-19 cases, positive tests and hospitalizations. Case counts have been increasing with particular intensity in southwest Virginia, where cases were sparse early in the pandemic.
Virginia has reported a total of more than 199,000 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,700 confirmed and probable deaths. Those numbers could be higher due to unreported cases.
Northam ordered most non-essential businesses to close and issued a statewide stay-at-home order in March. He began easing statewide restrictions in May.
“Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives,” Northam said Friday. “I’m tired, and I know you are tired, too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work.”