Virginia should ban ordering at some bars to slow coronavirus spread, says White House advisor Deborah Birx

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Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the federal government’s top health officials and a leader on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said Tuesday in Richmond that Virginia should ban ordering at bars in localities with high positivity rates, and social distancing should be more strictly enforced in restaurants to mitigate the spread of the virus.

After privately meeting with Gov. Ralph Northam at a roundtable with health officials and community leaders, Birx spoke with reporters, saying she’d passed the same message on to governors in four other states over the past week. She also stressed the importance of wearing a mask when going out and not gathering in social groups.

“What were seeing across the south right now is both rural infections as well as small metros and major metros simultaneously affected,” she said. “We can see the virus moving north.”

She recommended areas with positivity rates of higher than 10% close bars and further enforce social distancing. The statewide positivity rate — the number of tests that come back positive — is 7.5%, with localities in Hampton Roads ranging from 6.3% to 16.9%, with only a handful of health districts reporting positivity rates lower than 5%, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Birx recommended the state close bars, but Virginia doesn’t technically have bars. A percentage of sales at all restaurants that serve liquor must be from food. Sitting or congregating at bars is already banned under the governor’s Phase 3 guidelines, but for now at least, you can order at a bar and take a drink back to your table.

Birx’s visit comes as Virginia has seen a steady rise in coronavirus cases since mid-June, with Monday’s case count being the highest since the end of May at 1,505. The state health department reported 922 positive cases Tuesday.

Birx and Northam are particularly concerned about the Hampton Roads region, where cases and hospitalizations began spiking in early July, especially in the younger age groups. In Hampton yesterday, Northam called the region a coronavirus “hot spot” and said he was considering restricting the number of people allowed to gather from 250 to 50.

Birx specifically called out Chesapeake and Portsmouth and called the region the “vacation land of Virginia” when speaking about the increased positivity rates there. Chesapeake’s rate was at 13.2% Tuesday, and Portsmouth’s was at 16.9%.

“It’s on that basis that we brought those recommendations to the governor,” she said, adding the governor would decide how to apply her recommendations either on a regional basis or statewide. Northam is scheduled to give updates on the coronavirus pandemic and possibly issue more strict restrictions specifically for the Hampton Roads region at 2 p.m. today.

Two weeks ago, a report produced for the White House Coronavirus Task Force showed 18 states were in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week, The Center for Public Integrity reported. Virginia was not one of the 18 states listed, although the report said the Hampton Roads region was considered in the “red zone.”

“What always worries me is that there’s people that have gone to the Virginia Beach area or the Portsmouth area or the Hampton area and unknowingly bring that virus back,” Birx said.

Birx was in Kentucky on Sunday and Tennessee on Monday — two states she said were at risk of seeing a large escalation in cases — recommending that the governors shutter bars and limit indoor dining, The Lexington Herald Leader and The Tennessean reported.

This is a breaking news story. Check back at pilotonline.com throughout the day for updates.

Marie Albiges, 757-247-4962, malbiges@dailypress.com

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