Alexandria prepares to enter phase one of reopening on Friday

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As part of the city's reopening plans, restaurants along King Street will be able to open outdoor dining on sidewalks and in parking spots in front of the restaurant. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

After a two-week delay, Northern Virginia will be allowed to join the rest of the state in entering the first phase of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) plan to reopen the state on Friday, Northam said at a briefing on Tuesday.

The majority of the Commonwealth entered the first stages of reopening on May 15, as specific businesses opened their doors in a limited capacity. Northern Virginia’s reopening was delayed until May 29, after local officials and health directors in five jurisdictions, including Alexandria, wrote an open letter to Northam stating that May 15 was too early for the region, one of the state’s COVID-19 epicenters, to consider reopening.

At that time, Northern Virginia still lagged behind the rest of the state in achieving the six metrics Northam had laid out on April 24 as necessary to begin the first phase of reopening.

On Sunday, Mayor Justin Wilson and local officials from eight other Northern Virginia jurisdictions, including Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, sent another joint statement reflecting the advice of their respective public health directors, updating Northam on the region’s progress.

The letter noted that the region has attained four of the six metrics: a downward trend in the percentage of positive tests over 14 days; a downward trend in hospitalizations over 14 days; an increase in testing; and adequate hospital beds and intensive care capacity, according to the joint health directors’ assessment.

Although progress has been made, the assessment notes that the region has yet to increase contact tracing and attain a sustainable supply of PPE, particularly in long-term care facilities.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) at a coronavirus press briefing. (Photo/Jack Mayer/Office of the Governor)

“I think if you look at the data and you look at the metrics, particularly the percent positivity and the percent of new hospitalizations, it shows that we’re headed in the right direction,” Wilson said. “I think it’s not universal – it’s not perfect – but generally speaking, we are headed in the right direction.”

Northam’s metrics are meant to indicate a locality’s resilience against the threat of future outbreaks, which is why Wilson has cautioned residents against looking at case numbers when thinking about reopening, Wilson said.

“I’ve had a lot of residents who have come to me and said, ‘Oh gosh, we can’t reopen until we don’t have new infections or anything like that.’ And that’s just not going to be a reality,” Wilson said. “Until we have a vaccine and a vaccine’s been deployed and we have widespread immunity in the population, we are going to continue to have new cases of COVID-19 for a while.”

In the letter, the joint group of jurisdictions also made two requests of Northam: that Northern Virginia enter phase two alongside the rest of the state and that the state accelerate the availability of mental health services for residents in the area, particularly veterans.

Phase one will look the same for Northern Virginia as it does the rest of the state. Certain businesses, including restaurants, barbershops and retail stores, will be able to open with limited capacity, while residents will still have to observe social distancing and Northam’s stay at home order, which lasts until June 10.

However, Northam announced a new element to phase one during one of his biweekly updates on Tuesday: the required use of face coverings.

“Everyone will need to wear a face covering when you’re inside or at a public place, starting this Friday,” Northam said. “That’s at a store, a barbershop, a restaurant, on public transportation, at a government build- ing or anywhere where people can congregate in groups.”

“I am taking this step because science increasingly shows us that the virus spreads less easily when everyone is wearing face coverings,” the governor continued.

There are a few exceptions to the rule around face coverings, which takes effect on Friday. Virginians will not be required to wear masks when they are eating or drinking at a restaurant or exercising. Residents with health conditions that make it difficult to wear a face covering or children under the age of 10 will not be required to wear face coverings.

The new rule will be enforced by the Virginia Department of Health, not law enforcement, since “this is a matter of public health,” Northam said on Tuesday.

With the region preparing to begin easing restrictions, local businesses are looking for guidance and clarity, especially after the initial two-week delay.

Ahead of Northern Virginia’s presumed May 15 reopening, many business owners told the Times they were prioritizing safety for employees and customers over an expedient reopening. Business owners are still anticipating the first phase of the region’s reopening, after 2 1⁄2 months in lockdown, balancing safety and profit is even more key.

Some business owners, especially those whose businesses offer personal care services like salons and barbershops, are concerned about the risks of reopening too quickly, Wilson said.

Although businesses are encouraged to reopen only when “they can do so safely,” Northam said, some business owners feel that the competition will drive them to reopen before they are ready.

“Particularly some of the personal service industries, they are concerned that if they’re allowed to reopen, they’re going to, for competitive reasons, be forced to reopen at a certain time, and they’re concerned about some of the risk,” Wilson said.

The two-week delay in Northern Virginia’s initial reopening has allowed the region to make progress in hitting Northam’s metrics for resiliency, but the unexpected change in direction was also damaging to some business owners.

“I just feel like we’re constantly getting jerked around and it’s really, really hard. It’s really tough,” Noe Landini, owner of Landini Brothers and Fish Market, said.

As a result of the delay, Landini has had to stretch money he received from the Paycheck Protection Program for an additional two weeks. The employees who are currently working – and who were expecting to reopen on May 15 – won’t be able to receive full payments from the PPP.

The city is planning to allow local restaurants to expand outdoor dining options on sidewalks and parking spaces to comply with social distancing measures. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

“The pro forma on the PPP of the CARES Act stuff was really good up until May 15, so when they pushed that back it did a lot of damage,” Landini said. “It did a lot of damage because we didn’t anticipate having that kind of a delay and with very little to no revenue coming in, liquidity is very important.”

Landini and his team had been preparing to offer limited outdoor seating on King Street, put together full menus for the first time in months and increase and retrain staff. All those plans went out the window, as the team shifted to cook-at-home kits and to-go cocktails.

Now, Landini and his team are starting to put those plans back into action. The restaurateur acknowledged that despite the criticism he’s received for pushing to reopen, he’s looking out for his employees, in terms of safety and pay.

“I’ve been catching a lot of slack because I’m like, ‘Let us get to it. Let us do what we do.’ And people are like, ‘You don’t care about lives,’” Landini said. “That’s ridiculous. I do care about lives, but I also care about livelihoods.”

But with Northern Virginia joining the rest of the state, the potential for more community spread in a region that’s already a hotspot has local officials on alert. Until there is a vaccine, residents will need to remain committed to observing protections like social distancing, Wilson said.

“Everyone has to understand this is a modest reopening. We have to do this safe,” Wilson said.

(Read more: COVID-19 hits Chirilagua hard)

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