Virginians should not leave their homes for anything other than food, medical care, outdoor exercise, essential work or a few other exceptions, Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday as he issued a new stay-at-home order to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
He also ordered a crackdown on crowds at public beaches and parks, where — as the weather turned nice over the weekend — hundreds gathered in Hampton Roads.
The executive order formalizes what Northam has been asking Virginians to do for weeks as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increases in the state. What had been a “suggestion” is now an “order,” the governor said.
“Do not go out unless you need to go out,” he said at a press conference in Richmond. “This is very different from wanting to go out. Don’t go to the store just for one thing.”
He added: “It is clear more people need to hear this basic message: Stay home.”
Northam said Virginia’s beaches will be closed to any activity except for exercising or fishing. The governor said he spoke Monday morning with mayors from Hampton Roads about the crowds that gathered on beaches and elsewhere over the weekend.
“They realized there were people in Hampton Roads who were not complying with our guidelines,” Northam said. “We agreed that this was the most efficient step to take.”
The new order goes into effect immediately and is valid through June 10 unless rescinded before then. Restaurants are still allowed to offer takeout and delivery, and essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and banks will remain open. People will also still be allowed to volunteer with charitable or social service organizations such as food drives.
The governor’s order last week mandating entertainment and recreational businesses such as gyms and movie theaters close is still in effect, and Northam reiterated that other non-essential businesses must continue to follow the 10-patrons-or-less rule or close. Daycares can remain open but should prioritize taking in children of essential workers such as healthcare employees, Northam’s chief of staff Clark Mercer said.
This weekend, Virginia passed 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. Health officials predict cases will continue to rise in the coming weeks, and capacity at hospitals — both for bed space and medical supplies — will dwindle. Hospitals in Virginia have about 18,500 licensed beds, 2,000 of which are for ICU patients, Northam said. He said capacity will be an issue if people don’t comply with the order to stay home.
“What we will see a few weeks from now will be determined by how people behave today and in the following days,” he said.
The governor said he is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to find spaces to build temporary makeshift hospitals, and should be identifying those in the next few days. And on Friday night, President Donald Trump’s administration approved Northam’s request for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the costs of deploying the Virginia National Guard.
On Friday, when asked why he hadn’t ordered a shelter in place, Northam said the differences between what states have done to keep people home — some have called it a “lockdown” or “shutdown” — are mainly semantics.
The governors of neighboring Maryland and North Carolina have issued similar stay-at-home orders. North Carolina’s went into effect at 5 p.m. Monday, and Maryland’s at 8 p.m. Monday.
Northam said Monday that Virginia isn’t looking to put people in jail, but that anyone gathering in groups larger than 10 could be charged with a class 1 misdemeanor, which carries up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Mercer said local police are being encouraged to first give warnings and order groups of more than 10 people to disband, then arrest and charge people if they refuse to cooperate.
Beach and takeout crowds
The penalty also applies to people who are on the beach for reasons other than exercising or fishing, something that was a clear issue over the weekend in Hampton Roads.
Chris Ward ran along Chic’s Beach on Sunday evening and said he saw groups of 40 and 50 college- and high school-aged students on the beach.
He estimated there were “well over a thousand people” between 5:30 and 6 p.m.
“It looked like a summer day,” he said.
Others said they saw Ocean View beaches crowded. Tim and Katie Anderson said they saw parking lots near the beaches full of cars.
“It seems like a good portion of the nation has not gotten the word on what this means,” said Tim Anderson.
But it wasn’t just parks and beaches that were crowded. At Route 58 Delicatessen in Virginia Beach on Saturday, scores of diners lined up in tight proximity to get half-off Reuben sandwiches advertised at the shop that weekend. Route 58 had asked diners to receive food in their cars.
“We thought this was gonna be maybe 250-item day,” owner Jeff Goldberg said. “But people started showing up at 10:45 instead of noon. It got out of hand really fast.”
After police arrived asking people to clear traffic, more than a hundred people got out of their cars to wait for food; photographs show them on the sidewalk standing close enough to touch. Health department officials arrived to encourage appropriate social distancing.
The Virginia Beach Department of Public Health confirmed that it got a higher number of complaints about restaurants this weekend than prior weekends.
When it gets complaints, the department sends out someone to investigate and typically gives warnings and focuses on education, said Tamara Hartless, an environmental health supervisor. She said it’s not always the business that’s the problem; sometimes it’s the patrons.
So far, Hartless said, the department has not had to revoke any licenses.
Unlike Maryland’s stay-at-home order, Virginia’s order doesn’t explicitly include restrictions on traveling outside of the state and riding public transportation, but Northam said anyone traveling from an area with a high number of confirmed COVID-19 cases should self-quarantine for 14 days.
Northam’s order also bans in-person teaching at colleges and universities, although most have already closed campus temporarily. All reservations for overnight stays of less than 14 nights at privately-owned campgrounds are also banned starting Wednesday at 11:59 p.m.
Northam said he understands that this will be a difficult time for Virginians.
“We need everyone to take this seriously and act responsibly, and we will get through this together,” he said.