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Local COVID restrictions easing

Charlottesville and Albemarle County are repealing many of their local restrictions around COVID-19.

In July, both localities initially approved similar ordinances with more restrictive measures than the state’s executive order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and have updated them multiple times over the last eight months.

On Wednesday, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted to repeal most of the local restrictions, effective immediately, and the Charlottesville City Council plans to repeal its ordinance at its April 19 meeting.

Both localities will then follow the state’s regulations, which include increased gathering limits, more indoor capacity in restaurants and an increased number of spectators allowed at recreational sporting events.

However, Albemarle still will require medical documentation for anyone wishing to be exempted from the mask requirement.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the changes last month at the state level, and they went into effect April 1.

“He makes a strong case, and we would too, that our continued vigilance, our continued use of what mitigation measures are in place — mask wearing social distancing — all are extremely important to our ability to even be in a position we would recommend that the board consider using your own restrictions in order to align with the state,” Albemarle’s deputy county executive, Doug Walker, said.

He said local case counts, incidence rates and percent positivity rates are at their lowest points since November.

The city had been mostly in line with state regulations except on indoor capacity in restaurants, farm wineries, breweries and distilleries, which Charlottesville kept consistent with Albemarle at 50% of the lowest occupancy load or 50 people for places without an established occupancy rate.

With the changes, patrons indoors at restaurants, farm wineries, breweries and distilleries will be required to be separated by six feet, and private bookings are capped at 50 people.

“There are cases where we believe, in a restaurant, for example, that at six- foot separation there’s no way they can have 50% occupancy anyway, but again that’s somewhat anecdotal,” Walker said.

Albemarle’s ordinance limited indoor and outdoor gatherings to 10 people. That will expand to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.

Entertainment venues now will be able to host events at 30% of their capacity or 500 people indoors, whichever is less, while outdoor venues will be able to host at 30% of capacity.

The number of spectators at recreational sporting events will increase to 100 people indoors and 500 outdoors, or 30% of the lowest occupancy load for the venue, whichever is less.

Walker said most of the complaints the county has received are about people not wearing masks, not about too many people in a smaller space. If someone calls the police about mask wearing, the county would dispatch a police officer.

“We’ve not actually had to charge anyone — we’ve taken a very significant educational role,” he said.

Dr. Denise Bonds, director of the Blue Ridge Health District, told supervisors Wednesday that the factory issues in Baltimore that impacted the Johnson & Johnson vaccine affected the amount of doses the health district received this week.

“While we got a fair amount of J&J this week, we will not be likely getting any next week, or probably even the week after,” she said. “The state seems to think that that factory will be online by the end of the month, and so we should begin to see it again soon.”

This week, the district received 10,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, up from 5,000 the week before, according to state data.

Bonds said the health district is getting just under 8,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and just under 4,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine every week. The University of Virginia is getting its own allotment of the Pfizer vaccine and pharmacies are getting vaccine doses from the federal stockpile.

Supervisor Liz Palmer asked when the health district expects all adults in the Blue Ridge Health District who want a vaccine to be able to get one. Bonds said all of the moving pieces make it challenging to determine.

“I think if Johnson & Johnson comes back online when it’s expected to, I think that by the end of May anyone who wanted an appointment should have gotten at least a first dose at that point in time,” she said. “That’s my hope, please don’t hold me to it though.”

Bonds, who is also serving as interim director for the Rappahannock Health District, said localities in that district had spring break earlier than this area, and they did notice an increase in cases there in school-age children after the break.

“Now, that also corresponded to when most of the school districts are going back to four day a week in-person, and so it’s not clear if it was spring break or if it was the more frequent contact in the classroom,” she said.

All supervisors voted in favor of the COVID restriction changes.

“Masks are absolutely essential for everybody, and there also are large numbers of young people who will be months and months and months on their own [without a vaccine], and we have to protect them, as well,” Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said.

On Monday, most councilors voiced support for repealing the city’s restrictions.

“If the only difference is the in-person dining, it seems like it’s at a point where it’s not really even enforceable at this point,” said Councilor Michael Payne.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she was still concerned, and pointed to UVa’s decision to hold in-person graduation and previously packed summer recreation activities as potential for more people to be in the area and closer together.

“Charlottesville has done relatively well and there are a lot of people committed to making sure that as a locality and regionally we were doing well, but it was because of some of those more restrictive measures,” she said. “I hope that if there’s a time where we have to definitely revisit those, that we do that over the temporary feelings that people are having.”

The mayor said evidence around vaccine protection length has grown and changed and will continue to evolve over time.

“I hope we are just paying attention to that,” she said. “I know people are angry and a lot of you can’t handle people not being happy, but I think in the longer term they’ll be happier if we get this right versus just trying to meet demands.”

Walker noted that there was likely support for the repeal as part of the consent agenda at council’s April 19 meeting, but that she will be asking to move for a separate vote.


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