RICHMOND, VA — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam plans to announce a new policy next week on the wearing of masks in public to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, the governor said Friday at a news conference in Richmond.
Northam said he received a letter from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney on Thursday referencing the general lack of consistency of residents wearing face masks while out in public. "I applaud the mayor for wanting to do what’s safe in our city of Richmond," Northam said.
While certain protective measures are strongly recommended by the Virginia Department of Health, wearing face masks in public has been largely voluntary. "Facial protection is one of the ways that we stop the spread of this virus," Northam said. "We are working through the policy over the next couple of days and I will make an announcement Tuesday regarding that."
Any policy requiring the wearing of facial protection will raise "equity issues," the governor noted. "We want to make sure everybody has access to a mask. We also want to talk about how we enforce that, especially for individuals who are going into places of business because that’s one of the most vulnerable places," he said.
Repeating what he has said at previous coronavirus news conferences, Northam explained that simple steps such as washing hands, social distancing and facial coverings can help stop the spread of this virus. "We know these guidelines will be part of our new normal as we continue to move forward," he said.
Northam also highlighted how the state is ramping up testing for the coronavirus. More than 4,300 tests for the coronavirus were conducted this week at community events in Woodbridge, Manassas and Leesburg, he noted. The state is planning 44 community testing events across the state next week that are expected to include 17,500 tests.
For the Memorial Day holiday weekend, Northam said residents who live in the areas of the state that have not moved yet into phase one of the coronavirus transition plan should avoid traveling.
Residents of Northern Virginia, Accomack County and the city of Richmond "should avoid traveling to places outside the regions. “They are still under the stay-at-home order, so we would encourage them to abide by those guidelines," he said.
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The governor also suggested that Northern Virginia, Richmond and Accomack County may remain on different schedules from the other parts of the state throughout the reopening process. When the rest of the state moves into phase two, these areas may be only entering phase one, he said.
Northam also noted that he has received requests from towns and parts of counties about moving into phase one separately from their surrounding regions. "Can a part of this county or a town move forward more quickly and the answer to that is, We’re not allowing that," the governor said.
As for Memorial Day itself, Northam reminded Virginians of the meaning behind the holiday. “I want to take this time to recognize all members of the military who have given their lives to defend the nation," he said. "Since WWII nearly 13,000 Virginians have died in the line of duty. As we head into the weekend and on Monday, I ask all of you to remember and reflect on those sacrifices and remember the loved ones left behind.”
For people hoping to enjoy the holiday weekend, Northam said the state still needs everyone to be smart and safe. "Don’t gather in large groups, don’t crowd parks or natural areas, remember to maintain social distancing, and please wear face covering while you are out in public," he said.
On Friday, the Virginia Department of Health confirmed 813 additional cases of the new coronavirus and 37 new deaths. The latest cumulative totals are 34,950 cases, 1,136 deaths and 4,145 hospitalizations.
The Northern Virginia region accounted for 481 new cases, or 59 percent of Virginia's 813 new cases as of Friday. That includes 154 new cases in Fairfax County, 132 in Prince William County, 107 in Loudoun County, 32 in Arlington County, 30 in Alexandria, 21 in Manassas, five in Manassas Park, and no new cases in Fairfax City and Falls Church.
The percentage of tests coming up positive went up slightly Friday. The statewide 7-day positivity rate for only polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests is 14.7 percent, compared to 14.4 percent Thursday. The positivity rate is 13.2 percent when including PCR and antibody tests, the same as the rate reported Thursday.
At Friday's news conference, Northam also said the VDH is launching a program called COVID Check, a new telehealth and online risk assessment tool. The public can visit the website and answer questions about their symptoms. The tool will then give recommendations on what to do next such as seeing a doctor, self-isolating, getting tested, or seeking emergency care. The website also identifies nearby coronavirus testing locations for residents.
Patch editor Gillian Smith assisted in the reporting of this story.