Gov. Ralph Northam urged Virginians on Wednesday to hunker down and minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 as the state and country experience surges of the virus.
Northam’s words of caution come days after his administration issued stricter statewide public restrictions for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.
Over the past week, Virginia has averaged more than 1,700 new cases per day and the state’s positivity rate — the share of positive cases among everyone tested — has now exceeded the 7% mark.
“The most rapid and concerning spread remains in the Southwest region, but all of our regions are seeing increases. I do not intend for things to get worse before taking action,” Northam said.
Elsewhere in the country, COVID-19 cases and deaths have surged in recent weeks — ahead of anticipated spikes stemming from the holiday season. In New York City, the nation’s largest school system announced Wednesday that it would close its schools due to surges of the virus in the city.
The Northam administration issued its stricter guidelines Friday afternoon, surprising residents and businesses across the state. At a news conference a week earlier, the governor had not signaled further statewide mandates and had wished reporters a happy Thanksgiving, promising to not appear again before the cameras until after the holiday.
Asked Wednesday about his decision to tighten public restrictions, Northam cited worrying statewide trends and images elsewhere in the country of mobile morgues outside hospitals.
“I actually asked for a meeting on Friday morning to go over the data, statewide positivity rates, incident rates,” Northam said. “And listening to that data Friday morning … I’ll tell you, what really affected me is seeing mobile morgues outside of hospitals, because there’s no place to put the dead. We don’t need that to happen in Virginia.”
The new restrictions ban gatherings of more than 25 people and the selling of alcohol for on-premises consumption past 10 p.m. The tighter rules went into effect Monday, and there’s currently no end date.
(The administration said Friday evening that the restriction applies to gatherings such as parties and celebrations and that it does not apply to religious services, employment settings, restaurant capacity, retail stores or school classrooms.)
Northam referred to the 25 person limit as a “ceiling,” reminding Virginians that much of the spread right now is stemming from small social gatherings.
“This isn’t a floor; it is a ceiling. I strongly discourage Virginians from having social events with that many people, especially indoors. It’s just too dangerous,” Northam said. “I know this is really hard with Thanksgiving coming up.”
Northam said that virtual gatherings are the safest avenue for socializing right now. If that’s not possible, he urged gathering outdoors.
“We think of Thanksgiving as a time of family and of love, and maybe some football. But this year, staying home is an act of love to protect the people you care about,” he said.
Asked about the potential for stricter restrictions, including travel bans, Northam said that “all options are on the table.”
Northam, however, dismissed the idea of closing schools across Virginia again, saying that the state has left that decision up to districts.
“What may be good for one area of Virginia may not be good for another,” he said. “I’m going to continue letting school districts and localities make those decisions.”
Northam on Wednesday also signed the state’s budget, which includes utility and evictions relief for people experiencing economic hardship due to the pandemic.
Northam praised the progress on COVID-19 vaccines announced by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna, which revealed that trials of their vaccines had yielded success rates around 95%.
“It means a light at the end of this tunnel. And I think we can all agree that this has been a long tunnel,” Northam said. “As a doctor, I have to caution everyone that light is a few months away still. These vaccines will take time to distribute. Until then, we all need to keep taking precautions.”