Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday batted down a suggestion from President Donald Trump that the nation’s economy could be “open by Easter.” Hours later, the Richmond area reported its first two coronavirus deaths, pushing Virginia’s statewide toll to at least nine.

“While it would be nice to say that this will be behind us in two weeks, that’s really not what the data tells us,” Northam said in a briefing with reporters. “The data tells us that this will be with us for at least two to three months and perhaps even longer.”

Trump said Tuesday during a Fox News virtual town hall that his administration is exploring ways to adjust measures that have led businesses to close or lay off workers, in an effort to “have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”

Decisions on restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus have largely been made by state governors and vary widely across the country, from shelter in place orders to requests that people avoid social gatherings.

Trump’s statements come as health officials in Virginia and elsewhere escalate admonitions to stay home and warn that the new normal of shuttered schools and businesses won’t be a quick fix against the coronavirus.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Virginia climbed to 290, up 36 from Monday, the Virginia Department of Health reported in its once-daily update.

Northam said it’s important that the public not receive “mixed messages” from officials.

“It’s fair to say that we all want our lives to return to normal as fast as possible, but I think we have to use science, we have to use data,” Northam said, adding that Virginia is looking at other countries and states to understand the spread of COVID-19.

The roads around Richmond were noticeably less congested Tuesday as people anxious about the coronavirus stayed home. Some were able to work at home. Thousands have lost jobs as a result of mandatory shutdowns.

Nearly 4,500 Virginians had been tested for the virus and 45 had been hospitalized, the VDH reported at midday Tuesday.

It wasn’t clear whether the VDH’s numbers included the 10 residents of Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Henrico County who have tested positive. Two have died, officials said Tuesday. Four others have been hospitalized.

Health officials last week explained that there’s a lag in the reporting of statewide infection numbers, and said figures on the VDH website might not be the same as numbers reported by individual localities or local health districts.

The state has a 5 p.m. cutoff for tabulating daily numbers, so the numbers reported on the website at noon each day are 19 hours old.

The deaths of the two Canterbury Rehab residents were the first COVID-19 fatalities in the Richmond area. Prior to Tuesday, Virginia had recorded seven virus-related deaths: five in the Peninsula Health District, which serves Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg, James City County and York County; one from the Fairfax County Health Department; and one in Virginia Beach.

Richmond gatherings

Despite a state-ordered crackdown on gatherings, revelers determined to enjoy Richmond’s nascent spring have descended on the James River as companies and schools have closed down.

“If folks are at Texas Beach with a bunch of PBRs, then obviously we’re going to provide some guidance that they should disperse,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said Tuesday, referencing a popular river hangout spot and a brand of beer. “That’s going to be happening throughout the city.”

Stoney threatened to shutter the city’s parks if people didn’t stop flocking together in violation of Northam’s executive order banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

Police will warn violators initially, said Police Chief William Smith, but they could issue summonses. Officials said they did not want to resort to park or river access closures but would take the step if large groups continued to congregate.

“We’re not seeking to be punitive,” Stoney said. “We’re seeking to protect the lives of all Richmonders, and every resident has a role to play.”

Also on Tuesday, the region’s public transit company, GRTC, escalated protective measures, banning children under age 18 from riding the bus alone unless they are headed to a job and wearing a work uniform or have their employee badge.

The company last week eliminated fares in an effort to limit contact between passengers and drivers. Passengers now enter through the rear door unless they require the boarding ramp and are asked to sit one per row unless families are riding together. Violators of these policies will be subject to removal from the bus.

“Immediately after suspending fares, our ridership jumped by several thousand trips a day. Some were kids out of school with energy to burn and some were people wanting to enjoy the beautiful spring weather,” CEO Julie Timm said in a statement. “But some were budget-conscious people looking for employment, making trips to the grocery store, or going to the doctor. While overall daily ridership is still well-below normal levels, we need to take additional measures for those who desperately need our service during this crisis.”

VCU clinical trials

VCU Health said Tuesday that it was working on a potential treatment for moderate and severe cases of the virus.

Researchers with Virginia Commonwealth University received approval from the National Institutes of Health to enroll patients in two global clinical trials testing an antiviral drug called remdesivir, which was previously tested on people with Ebola and showed promise in animal trials for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which are caused by other coronaviruses, according to the NIH.

VCU is one of a handful of institutions in the U.S. to make these clinical trials available for patients, according to a news release from the university.

Trial patients with moderate cases could undergo five or 10-day remdesivir treatments, or no treatment; patients with severe cases are randomly assigned to five or 10-day remdesivir treatments.

ABC stores

The state’s liquor monopoly will reduce operating hours at 364 stores, in addition to the 24 stores on the Peninsula that already are operating under limited hours because of the COVID-19 virus.

Currently, state ABC stores operate from 10 a.m. to as late as 10 p.m., but they will operate from noon to 7 p.m. seven days a week, beginning on Friday.

In a statement on Tuesday, ABC said the reduced operating hours would give the authority more time to restock shelves, more flexibility in staffing and the opportunity to “thoroughly disinfect store surfaces to protect employees and customers.”

csuarez@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6178

Staff writers Mel Leonor, Mark Robinson, Bridget Balch, Michael Martz and Sabrina Moreno contributed to this report.

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