Richmond will not start easing COVID-19 restrictions on Friday like most of Virginia after Gov. Ralph Northam granted Mayor Levar Stoney’s request to delay the city’s entry into Phase One.

Stoney made the formal request to Northam on Thursday, breaking with surrounding localities, after obtaining state data showing that the city’s “percent positive” rate — a key metric that public health officials are monitoring — is rising, not falling. Stoney said that made Northam’s Phase One timeline ill-advised.

Rushing to lift the restrictions would hurt members of the city’s African American and Latino communities, whom the novel coronavirus has infected and killed at disproportionate rates during the pandemic, Stoney said.

“I cannot justify risking the health and safety of the residents of the great city of Richmond by moving forward with Phase One,” Stoney said. “I just can’t do that.”

Northam agreed, giving Richmond a two-week delay in entering the first phase. He granted the same exemption to Accomack County, an Eastern Shore community that sought a delay as it combats coronavirus outbreaks in poultry plants.

“As I have said previously, Virginia’s Phase One guidelines represent a floor, not a ceiling,” Northam said in a statement. “I have encouraged local leaders to request exemptions when appropriate, and I am pleased to grant the delays for both Accomack County and the city of Richmond.”

Said Stoney: “This step will make Richmond safer as we face this challenge together.”

The city’s percent positive rate has risen to roughly 20% since dipping to about 15% in late April, according to data the state provided to Stoney’s office. The rate peaked at between 25% and 30% in early April.

Most of Virginia is set to start the first phase of reopening on Friday, with restrictions being eased to the praise of some, and the worry of others who say it’s too soon. Northam previously gave officials in the hard-hit Northern Virginia region a two-week delay at their request.

Surrounding counties in region disagree

Uncertainty around Richmond’s request came as the city’s surrounding neighbors — Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties — registered their disagreement with Stoney in a joint statement to Northam.

Chesterfield Administrator Joe Casey, Hanover Administrator Rhu Harris and Henrico Manager John Vithoulkas signed a letter stating that the counties “respect the city’s decision-making process,” but said they are ready to ease restrictions on businesses beginning Friday.

“Again, we stand together as regional partners, who value the professionalism of our businesses in providing for a safe workplace,” the letter says.

Richmond’s surrounding counties told Northam that they worked with business leaders to plan the first phase, specifically citing increased access to personal protective equipment.

To each his own, Stoney said.

“They know their communities a whole lot better than I do, and I know Richmond a whole lot better than they do. … There’s no one-size-fits-all model for this.”

Business group, GOP fault move

Northam’s move to grant the Richmond request received blowback from representatives of small businesses and from GOP lawmakers.

Nicole Riley, the state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small businesses in Richmond and elsewhere, said she was disappointed by the exemption.

“We have members who were prepared, who took all the precautions necessary to ensure their employees and customers would be comfortable returning to their stores,” she said. “They’ve told us that for every week they’re closed, it becomes more and more difficult for them to survive.”

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, criticized Northam for giving individual localities exemptions, calling it inconsistent given the governor’s stated preference for regions acting in concert.

“In a matter of hours, and just hours before businesses were set to reopen, Governor Northam has once again changed his mind and allowed individual localities to remain shut down, rather than requiring the regional approach he required after initially refusing requests for the same,” Gilbert said in a statement.

“This shocking level of inconsistency inspires no confidence in the governor’s ability to lead our commonwealth in its hour of need.”

Northam previously said regions should act together and discouraged individual localities from taking a “piecemeal” approach to reopening.

Speaking Monday about Northern Virginia, a day before he granted that region an exemption, Northam said: “Uniformity across the region is critical to a successful strategy, rather than having restrictions piecemeal across towns and counties.”

Richmond statistics

In Richmond, the virus had infected 611 people and killed 18 as of Wednesday at 5 p.m., according to the most recent figures released by the state.

That toll has disproportionately affected African Americans and Latino residents.

African Americans account for 16 of the 18 deaths in the city to date. Latino residents — who account for 6% to 7% of the city’s population — account for nearly a quarter of its positive cases where ethnicity data is available, Stoney said in his letter to Northam.

“As you are aware, the unique nature of Richmond’s dense urban environment and the disparate impact this disease is having on our Black and Brown communities merits consideration for Richmond’s unique position and responsibilities to its residents,” the letter says.

Earlier this month, Northam announced a timeline for reopening, even as the state failed to meet metrics for easing restrictions it set for itself.

Phase One would, among other things, allow businesses to reopen with industry-specific restrictions and allow places of worship to open at 50% capacity. That “could be problematic,” Stoney said earlier this week.

Accomack County

The Board of Supervisors in Accomack County voted 5-4 on Wednesday to ask Northam, who grew up on the Eastern Shore, for the same consideration he had given Northern Virginia.

The county, which has 593 COVID-19 cases and eight deaths, according to the Virginia Department of Health, is home to two poultry plants that have been plagued by the virus.

“The data doesn’t support going into Phase One,” said board member Vanessa Kay Johnson. “If Accomack County opens up too quickly, this will not only result in needless suffering and death, but will actually set us back economically.”

The county’s rate of 1,830 cases per 100,000 people — the population of Accomack is roughly 32,000 people, according to federal data — is higher than any locality in Northern Virginia.

County Administrator Michael Mason formally made the request Thursday.

“Despite having a population that is only .39% of the state population, our number of positive cases represents 2.14% of the statewide totals,” Mason wrote to Northam. “In fact, they currently align better with localities in Northern Virginia, an area you have allowed to remain in Phase Zero until May 29, 2020.”

He added: “We also wish to help our businesses recover and prosper, but not at the expense of public health.”

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

State Government Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers Virginia politics and policy. He previously covered education. A northern New York native and Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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