Virginia is officially removing the mask mandate for people who are fully vaccinated following federal guidance released Thursday afternoon. Gov. Ralph Northam also plans to end all COVID-19 gathering and capacity limits in two weeks on May 28.
Masks will continue to be required in K-12 public schools since children under the age of 12 are not yet approved for vaccinations and the 12-to-15 age group became eligible only this week.
The change in the state’s mask policy went into effect at midnight Friday, along with the already scheduled easing of restrictions on restaurants, entertainment venues and indoor social gatherings.
This includes removing the curfew on alcohol sales at restaurants, capping indoor gatherings to 100 people and 250 people outdoors, and allowing dining rooms to remain open past midnight.
The criminal misdemeanor attached to the existing mask mandate will also be lifted. Workers in essential industries — restaurants, retail, fitness, personal care and grooming — are still required to wear face coverings unless they’ve received the last required shot.
Fully vaccinated people still have to wear masks on public transit and in health care facilities, which is in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention update.
GRTC CEO Julie Timm said Friday that masks are what helped protect the company’s 550-person workforce. At least 63 GRTC employees and contractors have tested positive. As of last week, Timm said about 40% have been vaccinated.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Friday that the governor’s decision follows health metrics showing case and hospitalization counts hitting pandemic lows and vaccinations increasing after a steep decline in demand this past month.
Friday’s positivity rate, or the percentage of people testing positive for the virus, reached 3.5% for the first time since the pandemic began. The CDC now lists Virginia as 1 of 10 states classified as having moderate risk of transmission. All of its surrounding states — North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland — have high to substantial transmission levels.
“Virginians have been working hard, and we are seeing the results in our strong vaccine numbers and dramatically lowered case counts. That’s why we can safely move up the timeline for lifting mitigation measures in Virginia,” Northam said Friday in a written statement.
Last week, Northam had indicated June 15 would be the date Virginia would lift all of its restrictions. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper rid the state of its mandatory mask requirements Friday afternoon with the exceptions outlined in the CDC guidance. All capacity and gathering requirements were also lifted. The CDC advises unvaccinated people to continue wearing masks.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday that once 70% of the state’s adult population has received at least one shot, his administration will remove the requirement to wear masks indoors.
“I strongly urge any Virginian who is not yet vaccinated to do so — the vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and your community from COVID-19,” Northam said. “The message is clear: Vaccinations are how we put this pandemic in the rearview mirror and get back to being with the people we love and doing the things we have missed.”
Businesses will have the ability to require masks in their establishments and refuse service to those who don’t comply, but Yarmosky said Virginia will not be requiring a vaccine passport to show proof of receiving a dose on a statewide level.
Yarmosky emphasized that businesses have the right to ask individuals if they’ve been vaccinated — a contentious matter among employers and workers in essential industries who have struggled with the complications of being an enforcement arm, which is not a role they signed up for.
The National Federation of Independent Business applauded the changes in a statement, but state director Nicole Riley said it’s still unclear whether small businesses will have to adhere to the workplace safety regulations listed in an earlier executive order.
Restaurant owners in Richmond hurried to update social media posts and other signage to explain the change, including Penny Lane Pub downtown, which on Friday morning had created a sign telling patrons it had to follow the state’s guidelines, which required mask wearing.
“The first table in asked if they had to wear one, so we figured that was a sign of things to come,” said Penny Lane owner Terrance O’Neil.
Among the best ways to avoid confusion is for Virginians to “go out and get a shot,” Yarmosky added, prompting the administration to focus heavily the next two weeks on improving access in populations reporting lower vaccination rates.
The state of emergency — an order allowing residents to wear masks in public, which is banned by Virginia code — remains in place until June 30. Yarmosky said the Northam administration is working to ensure people have the option to wear masks if they choose to do so, whether that be through executive action or another measure.
“We want to reassure folks if you want to wear a mask, you absolutely can and you will be able to do that throughout the summer,” Yarmosky said. “It would be hard for me to imagine actively banning face coverings, given the fact that we haven’t even approved vaccinations for children under 12.”
As of Friday, 64% of the 18-plus age groups in Virginia have received at least one dose, inching toward President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of adults in the U.S. vaccinated with at least one shot by the Fourth of July. But the percentages differ among racial and ethnic groups and localities.
Of the 3.1 million people fully vaccinated in Virginia, 64% are white; 10% are Latino; and 14% are Black. An update Friday from UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, which tracks COVID trends, showed Latinos currently have the highest rate of infection statewide.
Across Richmond and Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties, the inoculation gap is even wider, with whites having more than 10 times as many vaccinations as Latinos. In nearly each locality, Black and Latino residents account for the majority of cases.
To address these disparities before the lifting of restrictions, Yarmosky said Virginia is launching a statewide day of action on Tuesday that will include mobilizing faith leaders, organizations conducting work on the ground in communities, trusted leaders and more to share information and “push all of their people in a really coordinated fashion ... with the goal of being able to lift restrictions in the weeks to come.”
“We’ve done a lot of work through our vaccination clinics and through our partners to make sure that we’re meeting people where they are,” Yarmosky continued. “That work is certainly not over and it has to continue. And it will.”
Nakeina Douglas-Glenn, director of the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute within VCU’s Wilder School, who specializes in race and social equity, said in an interview Thursday that establishing creative solutions for vaccinating communities and having answers for how the state will help unvaccinated people remain safe will be critical.
“We also have to think: We’ve given out a lot of vaccines to still mostly white people,” Douglas-Glenn said. “So the fact now that we’ve turned off this need for masks, what does that say about — and not just in Virginia; this is a national question — what does that say about our commitment to minority communities now that we’ve not necessarily vaccinated those communities at the pace that we needed to vaccinate them, but we’ve gotten far enough ahead that we can turn off these mandates?”
On the return to normalcy, Douglas-Glenn expects the state’s Health Equity Work Group — which she helps consult on equitable vaccine distribution — will continue identifying communities left behind as a significant portion of the population isn’t fully vaccinated.
Douglas-Glenn noted success will depend on policy changes and partnerships across the state to help “our most vulnerable get on the other side.”
COVID-19 vaccines are free and available to anyone regardless of immigration status or whether an individual has health insurance. Text GETVAX to 438829 or VACUNA to 822862 to find vaccines nearby.
Staff writers John Reid Blackwell and Karri Peifer contributed to this report.