As COVID-19 cases surge nationally, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday new restrictions limiting public and private gatherings to no more than 25 people along with other measures that will go into effect at midnight Sunday.
The measures, which include stopping alcohol sales at 10 p.m., stepping up enforcement of existing COVID state guidelines and expanding the state’s mask mandate, are expected to hamper an already struggling local restaurant industry as well as wineries and breweries with large events, such as weddings, on their calendars.
Northam’s announcement comes ahead of the holiday season when many officials are worried that families will gather indoors and potentially further spread the virus. The state is averaging 1,500 new days per day, up from a previous statewide peak of 1,200, according to a news release.
The restrictions do not apply to schools or churches or limit the capacity of restaurants and other businesses. A spokeswoman for Northam said that the gathering restrictions would mean a restaurant, including breweries and wineries, cannot seat groups over 25 people or host private parties and social events.
But, they can still have more than 25 people on their premises.
The Charlottesville City Council and Albemarle County Board of Supervisors moved over the summer to enact tighter restrictions than the state. The local COVID-19 ordinances make masks mandatory in public, limit restaurants to 50% occupancy indoors and restrict certain public and private in-person gatherings to a maximum of 50 people.
The Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing Nov. 18 to discuss whether to extend the ordinance another 60 days.
Area restaurant owners have worried about the coming winter months when the cold weather would make outdoor dining less viable. Many have relied on outdoor dining and carry out to continue operating, and several have not survived.
“It’s devastating,” said Roy Van Doorn, the Charlottesville chair of the Virginia Restaurant Lodging and Travel Association, adding that he’s also concerned about the rising case numbers. “It’s going to affect thousands of people who work in hospitality and in the wedding industry.”
Van Doorn said the industry has been working very hard to stay afloat and keep staff and customers safe, and pointed out the area’s low positivity rate.
“It’s challenging when we have events like weddings and receptions canceled with three days notice,” he said.
Not all of the new restrictions will have an effect, such as the expanded mask requirement, he said.
But he expects people to get nervous and cancel their small- and medium-sized parties or dinners.
“It will have an effect,” he said.
He encouraged people to call their favorite restaurant and order carry out to keep them going.
George Hodson, with Veritas Winery, said that aside from weddings and events, he’s not expecting the new restrictions to have a huge impact on them, since the establishment closes before 10 p.m.
He’s also president of the Monticello Wine Trail and the Virginia Wineries Association.
Hodson said the restrictions will again increase the level of uncertainty.
“The goal posts are moving again,” he said. “… For those trying to plan for spring weddings, this creates a new seed of uncertainty.”
Hodson, who had served on Northam’s task force for reopening the economy, said he didn’t have a heads up on the new restrictions.
“I’m grateful he gave us the weekend,” he said.
Northam said in a news release that he didn’t want to wait until cases surge in Virginia.
“We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse,” he said in a statement. “Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work. I am confident that we can come together as one Commonwealth to get this virus under control and save lives.”
The governor’s office said that all five of the health regions in the state are currently reporting a positivity rate over five percent, and southwest Virginia has experienced a spike in the number of cases. Hospitalizations have increased by more than 35% in the last month though hospital capacity remains stable.
As of Friday, Charlottesville averaged 15.4 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days. Albemarle averaged 5.7, while the state overall was at 17.6.
Another metric often used to assess the virus’ spread is the percent of positive cases over seven days, which was 2.1% on Friday for the Thomas Jefferson Health District. Public health officials have attributed the low local percent positivity rate to the amount of testing happening at the University of Virginia.
Testing numbers have increased dramatically in recent months as UVa tested more students regularly. For example, in the last week, 10,461 tests have been administered in the health district, and the average number of daily tests for this month is 1,229. In August, the average was 451.
Earlier this week, Northam announced new contracts to increase the state’s public health testing capacity. Contracts with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, and Sentara Healthcare in Norfolk will directly support high-priority outbreak investigations, community testing events, and testing in congregate settings, according to the news release. Their goal is to be able to perform 7,000 per day by the end of the year.