Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday afternoon announced new COVID-19 restrictions for the state, limiting certain gatherings to 25 people indoors and outdoors ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
The Northam administration will also ban the serving of alcohol after 10 p.m. statewide, echoing a measure put in place in the state’s eastern region to limit bar-like activities. Northam said in a video announcement that restaurants will close at midnight.
The restrictions go into effect Sunday night at midnight, heading into Monday morning.
Some specifics were unclear Friday afternoon and evening. Questions that initially were unanswered sowed confusion from businesses to colleges.
The Associated Press, citing Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky, reported that the new restrictions on gatherings will apply to events such as weddings but will not affect schools or restaurant capacity.
Around 7 p.m. Friday, Yarmosky tweeted: “It’s important to note that the 25 person gathering ban, as always, applies to gatherings. That means parties, celebrations, or group hangouts — it does not apply to religious services, employment settings, retail stores, or school classrooms.”
Yarmosky later confirmed to the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the restrictions do not apply to restaurant capacity. She also said the new rules do not currently have an end date.
The 25-person limit on all public and private in-person gatherings will drop from the current cap of 250 people.
The state also will ramp up enforcement of mask-wearing and social distancing inside essential retail businesses, much like it does currently inside restaurants, threatening to penalize business owners for not enforcing the safety guidelines.
All Virginians ages 5 and over will have to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces. The current mask mandate, in effect since May 29, covers children ages 10 and older.
The Northam administration’s announcement comes as Virginia sees its cases tick up alongside other states. The state’s positivity rate — the share of positive tests among everyone tested — passed 6% this week. The World Health Organization suggests states should remain below 5% as an indicator that enough people are being tested to catch outbreaks, and that the virus is somewhat contained.
“Virginia is not an island, and while our cases are not rising as rapidly as some states, I do not intend to wait until they are. We are acting now so that things do not get worse,” Northam said.
The announcement left many questions unanswered for businesses small and large as well as for others, such as college and high school sports teams.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s basketball program has been preparing to have 1,000 spectators at games.
VCU Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin said in a statement Friday afternoon: “We are looking into this new guidance and will provide clarity when we have it.”
This isn’t the first time Northam’s administration has issued unclear changes to Virginia’s phased opening or updates to COVID-19 restrictions.
New rules confuse restaurants
On Friday afternoon and evening — before it was known that restaurant capacity was not affected — Richmond-area restaurant owners again were grappling with confusion. Initial state guidelines were vague, and media outlets had conflicting reports about whether restaurants were included in the 25-person gathering limit — and if so, in what way.
“I’m so confused. I don’t know what’s going on,” said Joe Sparatta, chef and co-owner of Southbound restaurant and owner of Heritage. “Is it 25 on the patio and another 25 inside? Or 25 total?”
Sparatta was hopeful that the reports it did not affect restaurant capacity were true.
“We were barely hanging on,” he said. “And this is the death blow [if we have to restrict guests to 25].”
Other restaurant owners lamented that state restaurants must stop serving — and diners consuming — alcohol by 10 p.m. Imbibers must also remain seated while drinking, according to the Northam administration’s news release, and all restaurants must close to the public by midnight.
“Even if it’s the safest thing to do, I’ll probably still drop an f-bomb or 10,” said Lisa Ann Peters, who owns South Richmond’s The Locker Room and The Pitts BBQ.
“We have taken every precaution, followed every best practice measure, protected our staff and guests, but that appears to be insufficient,” said Brian Moore, who owns Chez Max in Henrico County.
“Talking to my clientele, they know COVID-19 is real but accept the risks, not letting fear run their lives. If you are concerned or afraid of exposure, then you stay home.”
In May, Northam’s office said on a Friday afternoon which types of businesses could reopen in Virginia’s Phase One. In that instance, 27 pages of specific requirements for businesses were uploaded to the state’s website, only to be removed roughly two hours later and not uploaded again until the next day.
Phase Three of reopening in July was outlined weeks in advance, but hours before Phase Three began, the governor issued an early evening change keeping the bar areas of restaurants closed.
In announcing the new restrictions Friday afternoon, Northam said: “Everyone is tired of this pandemic. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But these mitigation measures work — we saw that earlier this year. I’m confident that we can get our numbers back down, but it takes all of us working together to do the right thing.”
Northam said in a video accompanying the news release that “we must act as one” and “your behavior makes a difference.”
He said the virus is spreading in indoor places like restaurants where people take off their masks and “at small social gatherings like dinner parties.”
“And it’s spreading when people ignore the science and don’t think they need to wear a mask inside. Careless behavior by one person puts everyone they come into contact with at risk.”
Northam said all “essential retail businesses,” including grocery stores and pharmacies, must abide by statewide guidelines for physical distancing, wearing face coverings and enhanced cleaning, and that violations are punishable as Class 1 misdemeanors through the Virginia Department of Health.
A Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
Small businesses concerned
Nicole Riley, Virginia executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the Friday afternoon announcement gives small businesses little time to comprehend and comply with the new rules by Sunday night.
“While we understand the Governor’s concerns about the recent uptick in positive cases throughout the Commonwealth, we worry that this late announcement on a Friday afternoon puts many small businesses in a difficult position to not only understand the new restrictions, but prepare, and comply by midnight Sunday,” she said in a statement.
“It will be devastating to hard-hit restaurants and event venues that are already struggling to stay afloat and now they must cope with additional reductions in operating hours and possibly the number of customers. It could mean permanent closures.”
Riley said businesses like small grocers and pharmacies are trying to follow health rules and keep customers and workers safe.
She said she hopes “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.”
Interpreting the rules
John W. “Billy” Haun, executive director of the Virginia High School League, said in a statement that the governor’s new restrictions apply to fans at games and not participants.
“We want to make it very clear that the Governor’s order for reduction in public and private gatherings to 25 individuals applies to ‘spectators’ and not participants at those events. Nothing in the order prevents VHSL member schools from holding contests.”
Busch Gardens says it believes the new order does not affect theme parks.
Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who plans to seek the Republican nomination for governor, criticized Northam in a statement, noting that the governor made the announcement without holding a news conference to take questions and before making public his updated executive orders.
“This is exactly the kind of ham-handed announcement we’ve come to expect from this administration,” Cox said in a statement. “Governor Northam seems to change his mind more than a kid in the candy aisle.”
Staff writers Abby Church and Wayne Epps contributed to this report.