Last Updated June 18, 2020 at 11:50 a.m.

Universities To Reopen Under State Plan

Universities across Virginia will be reopening to in person instruction, Governor Ralph Northam announced at a briefing. Universities will have to submit comprehensive plans to the State Council Of Higher Education For Virginia, follow the Forward Virginia plan and guidance from health officials as well.

During the briefing, Peter Blake, who is the director of the council, said that the distance learning required during the COVID-19 pandemic was threatening to widen learning gaps between white and nonwhite people.

"The digital divide is real and contributes to to these learning gaps," said Blake, who added that expanding access to broadband and technology was "mission critical."

Most Of Virginia To Start Phase 2 Friday

Gov. Ralph Northam said most of Virginia will begin a second phase of reopening Friday. 

In a brief outline of Phase 2, the governor said it will include more flexibility for restaurants, gyms, outdoor entertainment venues, sports and gatherings of up to 50 people. 

The easing of more restrictions is a response to a declining percentage of confirmed coronavirus cases, Northam said Tuesday during a news briefing.  

Richmond and Northern Virginia will remain in Phase 1, because they started it later than the rest of the state. 

As part of the second phase, restaurants can resume indoor seating at half capacity and gyms can have indoor workouts at 30% capacity. Museums, zoos, botanical gardens and swimming pools can also reopen with restrictions. 

The state still recommends teleworking, Northam said. 

Northam Announces Face Covering Requirement For Indoor Public Spaces

Starting this Friday, Governor Northam announced that Virginians will be required to wear a face covering when inside public places.

Adults and children ages 10 and up will be required to wear a face covering when inside businesses, state or local government offices or on public transportation.

They will not be required to wear one if they are eating, drinking or exercising.

The other exceptions are for people who have trouble breathing, who are unable to remove the mask without help or those with health conditions that prohibit them from wearing a face covering.

Speaking at a press briefing on Tuesday, Northam said, “I am taking this step because science increasingly shows us that the virus spreads less easily when everyone is wearing face coverings.”

Northam began the briefing by addressing criticism that he received for not wearing a mask in public while on a visit to Virginia Beach over the weekend.  

He said that he had planned to speak with Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer and members of the press and was not prepared to interact with the public.  

He took “full responsibility," and said that he left his mask in the car.

“People held me accountable, and I appreciate that,” he said. “In the future, when I’m out in the public, I will be better prepared.”

The governor said that the face covering requirement is not a criminal matter, and any enforcement will be done by the Virginia Department of Health.

“I’m not looking for people to get in trouble by not wearing a mask,” he said. “But, I am looking for people to please do the right thing.”

Northam Outlines "The New Normal"  

As Virginians continue to reopen beaches and businesses, they should follow four steps to stay safe, Gov. Ralph Northam said at a Friday press conference. Handwashing, staying six feet apart, wearing a mask in public and monitoring symptoms with a new online symptom checker are important to keep COVID-19 under control, according to the governor.

"Wearing a mask could literally save someone else's life," Northam said. 

The symptom checker is on the Virginia Department of Health website, and it's made by Buoy Health. It is not a substitute for medical advice.

Gov. Northam also touted a pair of encouraging statistics: the percentage of people tested who have COVID-19 continues to drop and the number of people tested continues to rise.  

"Both of these are good things," Gov. Northam added.

Virginia To Expand Contract Tracing To Contain Virus  

Gov. Ralph Northam said the commonwealth will use $58 million in emergency federal aid to expand contact tracing in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Identifying people who have contracted COVID-19, tracking down their contacts and then quarantining them will be critical as states reopen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Northam said the Virginia Department of Health will hire 1,000 contact tracers and 200 communicable disease investigators as part of the effort.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to keep people from getting sick,” Northam said during a Wednesday news conference.

The funding will come through the federal CARES Act, which Congress passed in March.

State Health Commissioner Norm Oliver said the contact tracing process will start with communicable disease investigators interviewing people who may have contracted the coronavirus. Staff will then locate other residents who were in close contact with the affected individuals.

Tracers will encourage the contacts to self-quarantine for at least 14 days after their exposure in case they also contract COVID-19.

“And then we manage that and we track that,” Oliver said. “We talk to them and have communication to continue to see how they progress over the period of the time in which they’re under quarantine.”

Virginia Beach Oceanfront To Open To Recreation Friday

The Virginia Beach oceanfront and First Landing State Park will be open for recreational activity by the end of the week. Mayor Bobby Dyer joined Gov. Ralph Northam at a press briefing today to discuss the planned reopening.

Some activities are still prohibited, including group sports, use of alcohol, speakers, tents and groups of umbrellas. In addition, parking garages and lots will operate at half capacity.

"Let me be clear," Northam said. "The rules must be followed. If people swarm these beaches and ignore social distancing rules or the regulations the city has put into place, I will not hesitate to reinstate Phase 1 restrictions or even the close the beach outright if necessary."

The governor also said that a team of "beach ambassadors" would monitor compliance with regulations, and that officials would increase cleaning of areas around the oceanfront.

Other beaches in Virginia will still remain closed for everything but fishing and exercise. (MORE...)

Phase 1 Begins For Most Of Commonwealth

After a last minute request to delay incremental reopening in the city of Richmond and Accomack County, Virginia is mostly operating under Phase 1 of the state's reopening plan today. Gov. Ralph Northam approved the requests Thursday evening. 

Northam noted in his Friday press conference that he welcomed the request from local authorities and was happy to grant it. 

He took time to discuss the fact that Virginia had previously counted antibody testing numbers with viral testing numbers in the overall tally of COVID-19 tests, positive cases and deaths in the state. Northam said he learned about that fact on Monday and immediately requested that the state health department count those measures separately. Even with the antibody tests removed, Northam said, the overall declining trend in testing remains. Antibody testing represented approximately 9% of Virginia testing since February, according to Northam. 

When asked by a reporter if he would support a locality moving ahead with Phase 2 or 3 ahead of the rest of the state, Northam said he would listen to the local leaders and consider all requests. 

Leaders in Virginia Beach, including Mayor Bobby Dyer, have said they are eager to reach a reopening plan for beaches as Memorial Day weekend approaches. Northam said he's been working closely with Hampton Roads officials and expected to have more details to share in his May 18 briefing.

Northam: "...We Are Not Out Of The Woods Yet."

Governor Northam took stock of efforts to fight COVID-19 at a Friday press conference, striking a cautiously optimistic note. He recounted the past eight weeks of businesses closing or shifting to telework and concern about whether the disease would overwhelm the health care system and deplete the stock of personal protective equipment. 

"We stayed six feet apart, and we waited to see if it worked," he said. "And it has worked. These actions have flattened that curve as we have often talked about. Our hospitals have not been overwhelmed. Hospitals have continued to have the ICU beds and the ventilators that they so desperately needed.”

On the day he spoke, the public health order restricting elective procedures and non-emergency dental care expired.

"We have slowed the spread, but we are not out of the woods yet," Northam added. "We must continue to move forward carefully. Testing is key to that."

According to the governor, the COVID-19 hospitalization rate has remained largely flat and well under the available supply of hospital beds in Virginia. He added that within the week, the state should have new cleaning systems in three locations across the state which will allow workers to clean 240,000 masks per day.

Dr. Reynolds, president of the Virginia Dental Association's board of directors, said dentists will follow a host of new guidelines from the American and Virginia Dental Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Virginia Department of Health.

“We have worked tirelessly over the last month and a half with the governor’s office to address issues,” Reynolds said, noting that new protocols are in place changing the way dental offices operate, including reducing or eliminating patients in waiting rooms and thorough procedure room cleanings between patients.

Eastern Shore Meat Processing A Point Of Concern

At a press conference, Gov. Ralph Northam noted outbreaks of COVID-19 at some Eastern Shore poultry processing plants. He said the workers -- thousands spread across only a few plants -- work and live in very close quarters. That makes social distancing and quarantining difficult. 

These poultry plants, along with those in the Shenandoah Valley, are an essential part of the meat supply on the east coast, Northam said. Virginia is working with state leaders in Maryland and Delaware to coordinate the response to the spread of the coronavirus in the meat packing industry. 

"We will ensure that workers are screened, provided care if they are sick, and measures are taken to protect our workers not showing symptoms," he said. 

There are 120 federally inspected meat processing plants Virginia, according to Northam. 

Northam also announced a $2 million grant from the federal government that will go towards helping Virginians with substance abuse and mental health problems. The money comes from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Northam said the money will be distributed through the 40 community service boards in Virginia and the state's hospital and health care association. 

Northam: "Testing Is The Key"

Gov. Ralph Northam announced he was forming a work group to expand testing for the coronavirus in Virginia. The governor said that a big question on the minds of Virginians was when restrictions could be eased.

“We have to do it in a safe manner," he said, "and testing is the key to those next steps.”

The testing work group will focus on increasing testing volume, test sites and addressing bottlenecks. The state epidemiologist, Dr. Lilian Peake, and Dr. Karen Remley, who was the state's health commissioner, will lead the group.

Gov. Northam said that in order to begin relaxing COVID-19 restrictions, the state should have a downward trend of cases for 14 days, according to guidelines from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We have not met that criteria," Northam said Friday. "We are still seeing more cases each day, not fewer. So we are not there yet. In fact, we saw 600 new cases today, an increase of about 8%."

Gov. Northam said the guidelines themselves were "consistent with everything we in Virginia have been doing and we will continue to do – a phased approach based on science and data."  

Previously, Gov. Northam announced he'd signed Executive Order 57, allowing hospitals, nursing facilities and dialysis facilities to have out-of-state licensees who provide care. The order also relaxes restrictions on nurse practitioners, interns, residents and fellows and expands the use of telehealth.

An earlier executive order shuttering restaurants, bars, theaters, and limiting public gatherings to less than 10 people, was set to expire April 23. It has been extended to May 8. Northam said that the social distancing prescribed by the order is working to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the commonwealth. If it’s ended prematurely, Virginia could see a spike this summer in the spread of the disease. The stay-at-home order remains in effect through June 10.

Virginia Has Enough Medical Supplies For Few Months

Virginia has enough medical supplies to handle the coronavirus outbreak for the next few months if current trends continue, according to state officials and scientists from the University of Virginia.

A UVA model shows that social distancing across the commonwealth is limiting the spread of the virus, avoiding worst-case projections.

If social distancing measures continue until June 10 before they are “halfway lifted,” the state can prevent hospitals from exceeding capacity until around August. Lifting measures too soon without implementing other protections could lead to a second wave of cases.

“I think the average Virginian really needs to listen to the guidance of the state officials and try to do what they’re asking because it’s working,” said Chris Barrett, executive director of UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, which created the model.

Secretary of Health Dan Carey added in a briefing about the model that state officials are discussing ways to prevent overwhelming hospitals while also easing broader restrictions on social distancing.

“We definitely need to have additional strategies,” Carey said.

Read more here

Non-Violent Offenders Could Be Released Due To COVID-19

At a press briefing, Governor Northam announced an amendment to the state budget that would give the Virginia Department of Corrections the authority to release offenders who have one year or less left in their sentences.

This announcement follows similar ones by other states that are dealing with the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails. Most recently, California announced that it would let out 3,500 non-violent inmates in the next 60 days.

Northam said, “The DOC, at their discretion, will release prisoners who do not pose a threat to society or the safety of others.”

The General Assembly will vote on the amendment when it returns for a reconvened session on April 22.

In the meantime, Northam said the DOC will plan on how these individuals would be safely released.

“Reentry planning typically happens over the course of months. We’re asking our DOC to do that in a matter of weeks,” he said. “Reentry planning includes ensuring (that) the released person has somewhere to go and has the medications they need for three months.”

Northam Postpones Primaries

Virginia's primary elections will now take place June 23, instead of June 9 as was previously planned. 

Governor Ralph Northam announced the change at his Wednesday press briefing in Richmond. He has also requested that the General Assembly move the elections scheduled for May 5 to November 3, 2020. The purpose of the move is to continue to keep social distancing guidelines. The governor's current stay-at-home order extends through June 10. 

"As other states have shown, conducting an election in the middle of this global pandemic would bring unprecedented challenges and potential risk to voters and those who work at polling places across the Commonwealth," he said. 

Northam will need support from the General Assembly to move the May general election. 

Ballots already cast by Virginians will be discarded, and there will be one ballot in November, should the General Assembly approve the move. Officials whose terms are set to expire June 30 will continue in their office until November, when their replacements are elected. 

Northam also announced Wednesday that as of midnight Thursday, Virginia restaurants will be able to sell pre-mixed alcoholic beverages through carry-out or curbside pickup. 

Wear A Mask, But Continue Social Distancing, Gov. Says

Governor Ralph Northam joined federal health officials in encouraging people to wear masks when leaving home. Northam said that non-medical masks shield the wearer from droplets carrying the coronavirus.

However, he stressed that social distancing must continue even when wearing a cloth mask because it does not provide the protection that a medical mask would.

Dr. Richard Wenzel from Virginia Commonwealth University Health said large droplets can spray beyond six feet. VCU issued guidelines about wearing and cleaning masks.

Masks worn to public places should be washed frequently with soap and water.

Virginia To Receive Shipments Of Personal Protective Equipment

State officials said Virginia has agreed to a $27 million contract with the Virginia-based logistics company Northfield for more personal protective equipment. 

The state has been dealing with a shortage of N95 masks, gowns and gloves. Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said the state had no choice but to look for more equipment on the private market. 

"We've been able to identify what we believe to be a very reliable supply chain," Moran said during a press conference alongside Gov. Ralph Northam. "A substantial purchase has been made."

Northfield is having the equipment shipped from Asia. Moran said the state will receive a shipment by the weekend. He added he expects additional shipments of personal protective equipment. Northam said Virginia is hoping to stockpile enough of the equipment for a potential surge of cases in the next few weeks. 

The governor also announced that Virginia's Department of General Services' Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services is now one of the first public health labs in the country using genetic technology to better understand COVID-19 in order to strengthen response efforts. 

The lab is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to piece together the genetic makeup of the virus found in patients. A database with the new information has helped the state determine the virus was introduced into several communities across the state at the same time.  

Sentara Begins In-House Testing For Virus

Sentara Healthcare has begun processing coronavirus tests at a newly-created laboratory in Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. The hospital system says the new capability will expand testing and shorten test result wait times. 

"The goal is to incrementally achieve the capacity to complete 1,000 tests per day within a few weeks and return test results in 24 to 48 hours," the hospital said in a news release. 

The hospital had been sending nasal swabs and spit samples either to commercial labs or the state's laboratory in Richmond, which have seen an influx of tests. Sentara has previously said that wait times for people's test results increased to 10 days or longer because of a backlog of tests ready for analysis. 

Gov. Northam said the state also continues working to develop a testing process that will have a 15 to 30 minute turnaround. 

"We're not there yet," Northam said. "Virginia, like other states, has not been able to get the volume of testing materials that we need to do widespread testing." 

Governor Announces Emergency Homeless Funding

More than a thousand homeless people across the state will receive aid to find emergency temporary housing, Governor Ralph Northam announced. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide part of the $2.5 million in funding to be used for hotel and motel vouchers, case management, food, cleaning supplies and medical transportation for about 1,500 Virginians who don't have homes or who are in shelters that require them to leave daily.

“As we battle this unprecedented public health crisis, we must make sure no one is left behind,” Northam said. “I have issued a statewide Stay at Home order, but we know there are many Virginians with no home to stay in. With this funding, we will ensure people experiencing homelessness have access to immediate housing options and help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The governor's office released a statement that Virginia's current system for homeless people "relies largely on the use of congregate shelters, which can lack adequate space for social distancing." The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development is working on developing options for 10% of the 3,890 Virginians in shelters to allow space for social distancing and safe quarantining if necessary.

More Supplies Needed

As state officials look toward the surge in COVID-19 cases hitting the Commonwealth, they say they don't have enough personal protective equipment and they are concerned about the future.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver confirmed that there are 145 people in intensive care unit beds because of COVID-19. Oliver said there are 108 people currently on ventilators because of the illness. Even after a third shipment of supplies from the national stockpile, Northam says it's not enough. 

"We're competing with each other," he said. "We're competing with other countries. We're competing with other states."

He went on to detail how much personal protective equipment is needed for just one ICU patient -- up to 240 sets per patient per day. Considering all patients on ventilators and in the ICU, that would represent more than 60,000 sets per day in the state.

Northam also confirmed that he's asked state courts to put a hold on all eviction proceedings through April 26.

On a call last week with President Trump and Vice President Pence, Gov. Northam and other governors across the country called on the federal government to manage production of personal protective equipment. 

Speaking at a press conference, Northam said the issue is very simple: "We do not have enough testing materials and personal protective equipment for our medical staff and our first responders." 

Citing a bidding war between states, hospitals, the federal government and other countries, Northam said the Trump administration needs to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of personal protective equipment.

“There is no time to waste,” he said.

The Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law, gives the executive branch the power to direct the production and distribution of materials that are deemed vital to national defense. It would essentially allow the government to jump to the front of the line to buy goods from companies and ship them where needed.

The Trump administration has so far resisted calls to use it. 

Northam, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser are also calling on the Trump administration to set up a federal testing site specifically for the three jurisdictions.

“We are home to the majority of federal workers,” Northam said. “Our specific region needs special accommodation for testing and bed capacity to support this population.”

The Governor Calls Out Liberty University

At a press conference, Gov. Ralph Northam cited Scripture to criticize the administration of Liberty University, which allowed hundreds of students to return to its campus.

"As are told in First Corinthians, 'It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful,'" the governor said. "Proving faithful means providing clear and consistent guidance. And it means respecting the duty that Liberty University has to its students, its staff, the Lynchburg community in which it is located and our Commonwealth."

Other universities across Virginia have sent students home and switched to online classes in response to the pandemic.

Virginia Schools Will Remain Closed For Rest Of Academic Year

Gov. Ralph Northam announced all K-12 public and private schools will remain closed for at least the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

He also said all restaurants can only stay open for takeout and delivery.

“Our priority is to save lives,” Northam said during a daily press conference. "The next several weeks, the next several months will be difficult. They will require everyone to change the way we live and interact with each other." 

Read more here

Economic Impacts In Virginia

Officials said the economic fallout from virus is worsening. In order to minimize the economic impact, Northam has said the federal Small Business Administration will make more small businesses in Virginia eligible for loans up to $2 million with low interest. The SBA website has application details.

Virginia Beach Releasing Some Nonviolent Inmates To House Arrest

Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle decided recently he would release 60 nonviolent inmates who have fewer than 90 days left to serve of their sentence to house arrest.

It's the next phase in dealing with COVID-19 in the city's jail, Stolle said.

“The coronavirus is presenting an unprecedented challenge to public safety, especially here in the jail, where we have hundreds of people living in close contact. This is an inherently high-risk population, especially given our number of sick, elderly and immunocompromised individuals," he said in a press release.

"For them, a coronavirus diagnosis could be a death sentence. It is my responsibility to do everything in my power to protect the health and safety of every person inside this jail, including the deputies who go home to their families at the end of the day."

The jail had 1,338 inmates before releases started. Stolle's decision helps reduce the number and free up space for new admissions, who now have to spend 14 days in quarantine to reduce spread of the coronavirus.

Inmates serving time for nonviolent misdemeanors with fewer than 90 days are eligible for release. Inmates serving time for their third drunken driving charge or any domestic violence charge will not be released.

“I would never compromise public safety or release someone who poses a threat to our community,” Stolle said. “But now is the time for us as a society to decide who we are mad at and who we are afraid of and only incarcerate those we’re afraid of.”

Anti-Price Gouging Laws Begin

Gov. Ralph Northam's emergency declaration means the state's anti-price gouging laws go into effect, a release from the Attorney General's office said.

The law prohibits people charging "unconscionable prices" for things like water, ice, cleaning products, food, medicine and hand sanitizer.

Prices are considered "unconscionable" if it "grossly exceeds" the price charged for the same thing in the 10 days leading up to the emergency declaration, according to the Attorney General's Office.

“When you’re trying to make sure that you and your family have all the necessities in order to protect yourselves against illness, the last thing you want to deal with is a scam or exorbitant price for a needed service or product," Attorney General Mark Herring said in the release.

"The sad reality is that there are unscrupulous folks out there who will take advantage of public health crises in order to make more money."

Possible price-gouging should be reported to Herring's office online or by phone at (800) 552-9963.

WHRO reporters Sam Turken and Mechelle Hankerson, producers Jonah Grinkewitz and Paul Bibeau and Morning Edition host and producer Gina Gambony contributed to this reporting.