By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
After conversations with local officials in five Northern Virginia jurisdictions, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) has delayed the reopening of the region to midnight on May 28, according to a news release.
Local officials and health directors in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Prince William County wrote an open letter to Northam on Sunday stating that the first phase of the governor’s plan to ease restrictions on Friday is far too soon in Northern Virginia, the state’s hot zone for COVID-19.
In response, Northam issued Executive Order 62 on Tuesday, allowing Northern Virginia localities to enter the first phase of reopening at a later date than the rest of the Commonwealth. The executive order allows cities and counties in the region, including Alexandria, to begin reopening as early as May 28.
“As I have said, it’s important that the Commonwealth as a whole can meet key health metrics before moving into phase one,” Northam said in a statement. “The phase one policies are a floor, not a ceiling. While the data show Virginia as a whole is ready to slowly and deliberately ease some restrictions, it is too soon for Northern Virginia. I support the request from localities in this region to delay implementation of phase one to protect public health.”
On May 4, Northam announced that phase one of his plan to gradually ease restrictions would begin on May 15. The planned reopening would occur in areas of Virginia that have experienced declines in confirmed cases and hospitalizations during a 14-day period.
While phase one would still involve residents sheltering in place, observing social distancing and wearing facemasks, some nonessential businesses – including barbershops, salons, retail stores and restaurants – could begin operating again at limited capacity. Barbershops and salons would be able to take customers by appointment only, while restaurants with outdoor seating could have customers dine in those spaces at 50 percent capacity.
During a May 6 press briefing, Northam acknowledged that different areas of the state face different challenges in containing COVID-19.
“If local governments, based on the situation in their own localities, feel that they need to maintain additional restrictions on gatherings or business operations we will allow that, and we will work with the localities,” Northam said during the briefing.
The letter from Northern Virginia officials came at the governor’s request, in the hopes that it would provide open communication and a unified response across the region when restrictions are lifted, Northam said.
The letter stated that, based on the governor’s own metrics for reopening the state, including a 14-day reduction in hospitalizations and adequate personal protective equipment levels, the region is not yet ready for the first phase of reopening.
“We thought those were appropriate guidelines, appropriate thresholds to make a decision about whether we move to phase one,” Mayor Justin Wilson, who represented Alexandria in crafting the letter, said. “We are not meeting those thresholds in Northern Virginia or in any of those jurisdictions, the five largest jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. What our message was, was we need to meet those guidelines before we move to phase one.”
The letter also included a memo from the jurisdictions’ respective health directors, which detailed the region’s progress in hitting Northam’s 14-day benchmark for improving conditions.
Alexandria has had 1,305 confirmed cases, 148 hospitalizations and 31 fatalities as of Wednesday, according to VDH. The region’s most populous jurisdiction, Fairfax County, is still experiencing a rising rate of confirmed cases and fatalities, according to the memo. On Sunday, there were nine additional deaths and 282 additional cases in Fairfax.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the five jurisdictions, as well as other parts of Northern Virginia including Manassas and Falls Church, accounted for 12,929 – or more than half – of the state’s 24,081 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Sunday.
A much larger percentage of Northern Virginia’s population has tested positive compared to the rest of the state. The region has about a 25 percent positive result to test rate; the rest of the state has about an 18 percent positivity rate. Alexandria has a 27 percent rate, City Manager Mark Jinks said.
Insufficient testing, a limited supply of PPE in nursing homes and a lack of infrastructure for contact tracing would also make the first phase of reopening a potentially risky gambit for the region, according to the memo.
“We would love to be able to say that we’re at the point where stores and businesses can start back on the road to recovery, but we’re just not there yet and if we jump too early, it means that the situation could get worse and that hurts everybody,” Jinks said.
For local businessowners that had hoped to start reopening on Friday, the delay is largely in keeping with their priority: ensuring the safety of customers and employees.
“The challenge that I have is the safety of us and our employees. That’s the main challenge,” Joanna Szczerban, owner of Old Town décor and gift store Boxwood, said. “I don’t want anyone in our store to get sick, nor do I want them to get anyone else sick when customers are coming. That’s what I think about all day long, and I’m very stressed out about it.”
“No matter what the governor says, if we don’t feel comfortable being able to manage the situation and being able to safely serve customers and have our staff safely able to work, then we’re going to err on the side of caution,” Bill Blackburn, a Del Ray restaurateur and co-owner of Home Grown Food Group, said.
Reopening prematurely not only creates health risks but opens businesses up to all kinds of financial risks if they’re unprepared, according to Bill Reagan, executive director of Alexandria’s Small Business Development Center.
“It’s going to be more expensive to operate and, at the same time, they’re going to have fewer customers,” Reagan said.
Before reopening, business owners are going to have to analyze their particular situation and assess the specific challenges associated with opening a business at this time, Reagan said. Business owners may have to consider a phased reopening – some- thing Szczerban is already planning – whether they have enough supplies and inventory, if their supply chain can keep up with those inventory needs and if they can provide adequate staffing. The SBDC’s online resources are available at www.virginiasbdc.org/businessrecoverycenter_stage2.
It’s also still unclear how customers are going to respond as restrictions ease.
“We really don’t know how the public is going to react. I think there may be some pent-up desire to go out and buy things and do things and shop, but at the same time, all of us are so much more cautious these days,” Reagan said.
Fitness centers are excluded from the first phase of reopening, but Kathryn Taron, owner of Refresh Yoga, is already preparing for what her business looks like when it does eventually reopen.
Refresh has been gauging interest in reopening from both instructors and students, both of whom are eager to return to the studio but want to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
“[We’ve been] relooking at our class schedule, so that when we do open, we’ve mapped out where people will be able to place their mats,” Taron said. “We’ve reduced the class sizes down to about six or seven people at a time, spaced at least six feet apart. And there will be at least 30 minutes in between classes, so we can sanitize and allow people to move out before the others move in.”
Meanwhile, virtual offerings, such as online classes for prenatal and senior students, will continue at Refresh. In the early days of the statewide closure, businessowners scrambled to set up online stores and curbside pickup and delivery service. Those options aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Szczerban also has a plan in place for whenever Boxwood opens its doors to more in-person shopping.
“Everyone needs to wear a mask when they come in,” Szczerban said. “We’re going to limit the number of people that can come in.”
Even if it’s inconvenient in the moment, Szczerban said she hopes customers understand that these measures are there to ensure the safety of everybody, employees and customers.
Business owners remain cautious for good reason – a second outbreak could threaten to undo all the city’s, and the region’s, good work, Wilson said.
As the situation continues to change, for the better and worse, Blackburn has taken to following some advice from the Washington Nationals.
“My motto on this has been: Go 1-0 today. I borrowed it from the Nationals. That was their motto last year when they had that World Series run,” Blackburn said. “… That’s all we can do in our lives right now, is go 1-0 today.”