Governor Ralph Northam said Monday the Commonwealth could begin lifting restrictions and reopening its economy starting next week, barring any spike in new COVID-19 cases.

In an afternoon news briefing, Northam said he’s extending an executive order mandating the closure of non-essential businesses from May 8 to May 14. Once the order expires next week, restaurants, gyms, barbershops and many retail stores can reopen while still following social distancing guidelines.

Northam said confirmed COVID-19 cases -- now at 19,492 -- continue to increase because the state is expanding testing capabilities. But the overall rate of new cases is slowing down.

“We will reopen Virginia next Friday,” Northam said. “When we do reopen, hopefully we’ll be able to do it as smoothly as possible and as safely as possible.”

Northam’s “phase one” of reopening transitions the state’s current “stay-at-home” mandate to a “safer at home” guidance. Social gatherings of more than 10 people will remain prohibited and the state is still recommending teleworking from home.

Any company that does bring workers back into offices should keep them physically separated. Cleaning and disinfection should be enhanced at workplaces, and people should wear face masks in public, Northam said.

The phase one guidelines will also direct reopened salons and barbershops to schedule appointments for customers instead of taking walk-ins. Opened restaurants must limit seating capacity in order to comply with social distancing guidelines. Northam added churches and other worship centers can hold gatherings as long as they also practice physical distancing. 

“We’re moving forward,” Northam said. “But we must always be aware this virus is still with us.”

Northam’s announcement Monday came as the Trump administration privately forecasts nationwide confirmed cases of COVID-19 and resulting deaths  to surge by the end of May, according to the New York Times.

The projections show new confirmed cases increasing to 200,000 per day, up from about 25,000 cases each day right now. Daily deaths are projected to rise to 3,000 by the end of April from the current level of 1,750 as more states continue to reopen their economies.

Northam said he foresees his phase one order continuing for about three weeks. Barring any spike in new cases and hospitalizations, Virginia would then begin a phase two of easing more restrictions.

In order to monitor the health impact of easing restrictions, Northam said he ultimately wants 10,000 people to be tested each day for the coronavirus. He noted the state’s testing capacity is already increasing. More than 6,000 people received tests both Saturday and Sunday, up from 3,000 tests per day in mid-April, the governor said.

State Health Commissioner Norm Oliver added the Commonwealth will also hire and deploy 1,000 contact tracers to help monitor the spread of the virus. The health department has already begun hiring case identifiers.

“Reopening means we have to take a very serious approach toward identifying new cases, identifying anyone [who’s] been exposed to that new case,” Oliver said. “To do that will require a new workforce.”