RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday ordered Virginia residents to remain at home except for certain necessities, stepping up the state’s restrictions on public activity to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The order — which went into effect Monday and will remain in place until June 10 — allows people to leave their homes if they “must go out for food, supplies, medical care, or to get fresh air or exercise,” Northam said during a news conference.
The order also allows people to travel to work, places of worship and child care providers and for volunteering, caretaking and to seek social services.
“You should stay home to the greatest extent possible,” Northam said.
The order comes as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb in Virginia, where 1,020 people have tested positive for the virus. On Monday, the Virginia Department of Health reported 130 new cases of COVID-19 and that the state death toll was up to 25. So far, 12,038 people have been tested in Virginia.
Unlike the stay-at-home order Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued Monday, which can lead to jail time and a fine, Northam’s order does not carry a civil or criminal penalty.
Without a means for enforcement, the order simply brings Virginia’s messaging more in line with that of neighboring states like Maryland and North Carolina, while adding clarity to what the state deems an essential outing.
The directive is a change for Northam, who on Friday said there was virtually no difference between issuing an order and his ongoing requests for people to stay at home except when it’s necessary to leave.
“We’re talking semantics here,” he said Friday.
On Monday — after a weekend of warm weather that attracted crowds to the state’s public spaces — Northam said many people had not heeded the call for distancing, prompting his more aggressive message.
Northam said the sight of the crowds, amid anecdotes of health care professionals grappling with the disease in strained hospitals, became personal for the former U.S. Army physician.
“They are sacrificing their time. They’re sacrificing perhaps their health, the health of their families,” Northam said. “I also see people congregating on the beach that are completely ignoring what we’re doing.”
Speaking of members of the weekend crowd, Northam said: “You are being very, very selfish, because you’re putting all of us, especially our health care providers, at risk. And so until today, this has been a suggestion to Virginia. Today it’s an order.”
Northam’s order will limit access to Virginia’s beaches except for exercise and fishing.
People will still be allowed to engage in outdoor activities, as long as they follow the state’s ban on gatherings larger than 10 people and remain at least six feet from others, except family, household members or caretakers. The state’s parks will remain open.
The ban does not affect businesses that were already allowed to remain open, and which Virginia residents can still frequent on an as-needed basis.
In a separate executive order, Northam last week called for the closure of businesses that offer indoor entertainment, such as movie theaters, museums and gyms, as well as personal care establishments, like barbershops and nail salons.
Restaurants can remain open as long as they only offer food via delivery or carry-out. All other businesses can remain open, as long as they limit the number of patrons to 10.
At the same time, Northam said employees who can work from home must do so under the order.
“If you can work remotely, you need to do so. Companies need to allow that,” he said.
Asked about employees who feel unsafe at work amid COVID-19, the administration’s chief workforce development adviser, Megan Healy, suggested employees approach their managers, or file complaints with the federal Office of Safety and Health Administration or a state regional workforce agency.
Healy said OSHA is developing standards around workplace safety amid the pandemic, which the state would adopt when it receives them.
Northam’s ban on gatherings of 10 or more will remain enforceable by state and local police, subject to a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Asked why he decided to forgo a penalty for people who violate the stay-at-home order, Northam said: “This is not a time … when we’re looking to put people in jail. But it’s a time when I expect all Virginia to comply.”
Northam chief of staff Clark Mercer said that under the advice of Attorney General Mark Herring, the administration does not have the authority to levy a civil penalty for violating the executive order.
The administration’s only avenue would have been to allow violators to be charged with a crime, which the administration is reluctant to do.
“For police to be able to arrest anyone on the spot, it’s a slippery slope,” Mercer said. “If we had the ability to enforce it civilly, that’s something the governor would consider. We don’t have the ability to do that.”
Northam’s order also clarifies that private gatherings of 10 or more are also banned, whether indoors or outdoors.
Furthermore, it bans higher education institutions from offering in-person classes, regardless of the size of the class, but allows for other functions.
“For purposes of facilitating remote learning, performing critical research, or performing essential functions, institutions of higher education may continue to operate, provided that social distancing requirements are maintained,” the order reads.
The Associated Press reported that Liberty University in Lynchburg, which initially declined to stop all on-campus teaching, says it plans to end in-person instruction. As of Monday, the only in-person teaching taking place was flight instructing, and that was going to be suspended to comply with the governor’s order, said Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb.
SOLs officially canceled
With Virginia schools shuttered for the rest of the academic year, most state testing is officially canceled.
The U.S. Department of Education on Saturday approved the state’s application for a waiver from federally mandated state testing, which the federal agency had pledged it would do to ease the burden families, students and teachers face in trying to balance school closures and a public health crisis.
James Lane, state superintendent of public instruction, submitted the application on Friday, with the approval coming a day later, according to a Virginia Department of Education news release on Monday.
“I would like to thank USED for how quickly they are granting these waivers so that we can provide certainty for our educators and students,” Lane said in a statement.
Lane and the state Education Department had initially said the application required approval from the Virginia Board of Education, but the federal agency said that wasn’t needed, according to the release.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal government’s primary K-12 education law, requires annual testing in third through eighth grades in reading and math, while mandating that states test students in science at least once during elementary, middle and high school.
While the reading, math and science tests have been canceled, Virginia’s testing system also includes tests in writing and social studies. Those tests are not mandated by federal law, but by state statute.
The state Education Department said it is “exploring options” for canceling those tests when the General Assembly reconvenes for its veto session April 22.