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County delays vote on mask requirement, restaurant capacity limits till Aug. 5

Albemarle County is considering making masks mandatory in public, limiting restaurants to 50% occupancy indoors and restricting public and private in-person gatherings to a maximum of 50 people.

During a special meeting on Wednesday, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors discussed the measures as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.

Last week, the supervisors said they wanted to go back to the regulations that were in place under Phase Two of the state’s reopening guidelines, in light of a then-increasing COVID-19 percent positivity rate and the specter of University of Virginia students returning to the area.

The board Wednesday decided to defer a vote on the ordinance until its regular meeting on August 5, or at an earlier special meeting, so county staff can get prepared and to give Charlottesville and the University of Virginia time to review the ordinance.

“We’re obviously interested in having regional coordination, so they’ll have the opportunity to see it and see if they would like to go along, so that there can be some parallel ordinance,” Board Chair Ned Gallaway said after the meeting.

The emergency ordinance under consideration by the board states that the authority to implement the regulations is within the general powers of counties outlined in state code. The law says counties can adopt measures “to secure and promote the health, safety and general welfare of its inhabitants which are not inconsistent with the general laws of the Commonwealth,” including “the adoption of necessary regulations to prevent the spread of contagious diseases among persons.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday that the statewide “Forward Virginia” phases represent a floor for regulations, not a ceiling.

“[Northam] welcomes localities’ requests in consultation with their local health departments,” Alena Yarmosky said in an email.

Yarmosky said the governor had not heard from either Albemarle or Charlottesville, which has also discussed returning to Phase Two, as of Tuesday. She did not answer an email asking whether localities must request permission to revert.

According to the draft ordinance, indoor occupancy at food establishments, farm wineries, limited breweries, and limited distilleries would be capped at 50% of the lowest occupancy load, or not more than 50 persons. Workers do not count toward the limits.

Violations could result in the owner being charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor, according to the ordinance.

All public and private in-person gatherings of more than 50 people would be prohibited, except for outdoor gatherings for activities allowed at farm wineries, limited breweries, and limited distilleries, gatherings for religious exercises, including religious ceremonies, and wedding ceremonies and receptions. People working do not count toward the limits.

Violations could result in the business or property owner being charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor, and those attending could be charged with a Class 4 misdemeanor, according to the ordinance.

A gathering, according to the ordinance, does not include a place of employment, events or activities on the grounds of an institution of higher education- or public or private school-owned property, or persons engaging in religious exercise at their place of worship or other place of religious significance.

The ordinance also includes a face covering mandate in public places, except for children 10 and under, those for whom wearing a face covering “poses certain risks” and employees of the public place for which regulations established by a state entity apply.

Face coverings would not be required to be worn during outdoor activities, if people maintain six feet of distance between each other, or while eating food or drinking.

Violators could be charged with a Class 4 misdemeanor, according to the ordinance.

County Attorney Greg Kamptner said hired ambassadors would do preliminary enforcement, but that the Albemarle County Police Department would come in later. The police would enforce instead of the health department, Kamptner said, because the health department is operating under Phase Three, which allows full occupancy of restaurants.

“It would be up to the health department to make certain that the tables are properly spaced … all of those types of issues,” he said. “For PD, it’s really just looking at the occupancy total and counting the heads of the non-employees within the restaurant.

Lance Stewart, the county’s director of facilities and environmental services, said the ambassadors would cost roughly $123,000 through the end of the year.

“This is not the board’s one opportunity to deal with the pandemic,” Kamptner said. “So as circumstances change, we will be coming back with amendments to it that changes the scope.”

The Thomas Jefferson Health District at the meeting presented information that showed the University of Virginia Health System’s COVID ICU is full, COVID acute care is at 86% capacity, ICU is at 72% capacity and acute care is at 83% capacity. UVa Health spokesman Eric Swensen said he wasn’t sure where that information came from, and that the university’s COVID caseload is similar to what it has seen through the spring and early summer.

“The number of COVID patients we’re caring for now is within the range of patients we’ve seen over the past few months, and we continue to have capacity to care for both patients with COVID as well as patients with other conditions,” Swensen said.

A health district official told the board that UVa Health will not solely cater to local COVID patients.

“UVa in particular is not just going to have individuals from our Health District, from the city from the county, they’re really bringing in people from across the state and potentially across state lines,” said Ryan McKay, senior policy analyst for the health district.

Gallaway said he was concerned about staffing and capacity at the hospitals, and wanted to know more information.

“If we start to have an uptick, what kind of strain and pressure do we put on our local hospitals to deal with the situation,” he said, “If there’s a way to get at this to understand fully what we’re looking at … and then what these capacity levels are, I think would be an important piece of information.”

Dr. Denise Bonds, director of the TJHD, said both UVa and Sentara Martha Jefferson have had issues with the ability to discharge people that are ready to go back into places like long term care facilities.

“There’s a little bit of a challenge in getting folks that don’t really need that acute care any longer into a facility where their needs can be more appropriately met, and that has to do with outbreaks that we’re having in long term care facilities” she said.

When asked about UVa students coming back, Bonds said she anticipates students will continue to have parties and gatherings as they have this summer.

“That being said, it’s not fair to put the entire burden on UVa, because we’ve seen lots of social gatherings, over the Fourth of July weekend, for example, in the city of Charlottesville where we had two large block parties with several hundred people at them combined, and had a large number of people who were positive out of that as well,” she said.

The UVa Health System was supposed to help with additional community testing on behalf of TJHD, but Bonds said that state contract that UVa thought it was going to get to pay for the cost of the tests fell through.

“Now it’s not clear that they’re going to be able to do it because they won’t do testing if they have to both pay for all of the employee time plus test costs,” she said.

After the meeting, Swensen said that UVa Health is committed to working with the TJHD and the Virginia Department of Health to provide community testing in the Charlottesville area.

“We will have more details to share in the coming days,” he said.

Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Bonds said, will not be able to provide community testing after this week. Currently, the TJHD testing team is paid for by a private foundation grant and the state was supposed to fund another testing team, but that funding has not yet come through.

“Without that additional state resource and funding, we’re going to be really hampered,” she said. “So while things look good now, I’m very worried that come the middle of August when I don’t have UVa necessarily because we can’t figure out how to pay for their tests, and then Sentara has taken that asset back, I’m going to be left with our testing team trying to do the best they can with the resources that we have. So that’s where we’re at.”


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