Charlottesville, Albemarle County and University of Virginia law enforcement officers have answered a half-dozen calls for crowds that exceed a 10-person limit since Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order was signed last month, but so far no arrests have been made for violations.
Emergency officials say area residents should continue social distancing measures during the upcoming Easter weekend in an effort to keep cases of COVID-19 low enough to allow medical treatments for those who need them.
“We will continue to enforce EO-53 by educating our residents about it first, followed by reminders, and potential warning for repeat offenders,” said Tyler Hawn, Charlottesville police spokesman. “If we continue to see someone constantly violating EO-53, we could issue a citation at that point.”
Violating the governor’s order is a class one misdemeanor, punishable by a jail term of no more than a year, a fine of not more than $2,500, or both.
Speaking on the city’s Cville360 webcast on Thursday, Charlottesville Fire Chief Andrew Baxter said the emergency communications center had received six calls regarding violations of Executive Order 53, which prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people and required the shutdown of dine-in restaurants, recreation areas and religious services.
A Russell County man has sued to create a religious exemption to the rule, but a request to consider the exemption before Easter was denied Thursday.
“It’s important for people to understand that for a considerable time we’re going to have to continue to engage in pretty aggressive social distancing,” Baxter said. “Our social distancing score card goes down on weekends and on a holiday it is like a perfect storm. We’re taking a big risk by lifting the lid on social distancing too soon.”
On Thursday, the Thomas Jefferson Health District reported 123 confirmed and clinically diagnosed cases, including 52 in Albemarle County and 30 in Charlottesville.
Baxter said current estimates are that Virginia will peak in COVID-19 cases around April 20. That date has been pushed back as social distancing has proved successful, Baxter said.
Moving the date back and flattening the curve of the number of cases that occur in the same time period will also help emergency responders and medical providers replenish personal protective equipment, he said.
“It will give the supply chain a chance to recover,” he said.
Utility shutoff suspension continued
The State Corporation Commission on Thursday extended its suspension of shutoffs of electricity, gas, water and sewer services during the coronavirus public health emergency until June 14.
The original order, signed March 16, prohibited utility shutoffs for unpaid bills due during the COVID-19 crisis.
“While we fervently wish otherwise, it appears that the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are unlikely to abate significantly,” an official statement from the commissioners reads.
The order does not forgive utility bills, but puts them off until after the declared emergency.