By Maia Stanley
Capital News Service
The state issued an order Tuesday that allows law enforcement to enforce a ban that prohibits more than 10 patrons in places such as restaurants, fitness centers and theaters.
Gov. Ralph Northam and State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver issued a public health emergency order to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19.
“I hope that everyone will have the common sense to stay home tonight and in the days ahead,” Northam said. “This order will ensure that state and local officials have the tools they need to keep people safe.”
All Virginians should increase social distancing, avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, the state said. This follows federal guidelines announced Monday, March 16.
Oliver announced at Tuesday’s press conference that two people have died from the disease and 67 people are confirmed to have it, including one patient who is currently in a long-term care facility — which he said was “very concerning.” Oliver said about 48 tests are currently pending. The first confirmed case was announced on March 7.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high but the individual risk is dependent upon exposure. People over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions were urged to self-quarantine due to elevated vulnerability to the disease.
Oliver said that there are currently 300 to 400 COVID-19 testing kits in the commonwealth, with more on order.
“I don’t want you to think that you are just getting a cold,” Oliver said. “This is a serious, serious pandemic and social distancing is, therefore, something we should do and take seriously, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our community.”
Oliver also said that there are federal plans to launch automated test sites and drive-through testing centers nationwide in the areas that have been hit the hardest by the disease.
Sentara Healthcare has opened several drive-through testing centers in Hampton Roads for those who are at the highest risk for the disease.
Northam has also rolled out new measures to support workers across the state that are being affected by closures due to the coronavirus, including eliminating the wait for unemployment benefits and increased eligibility for unemployment status.
Workers may be able to qualify for unemployment if their employer slows or ceases operations due to the disease, if they have been issued a notice to self-quarantine by a medical or public health official but are not receiving sick pay or medical leave or if they are not receiving paid medical leave while staying home to take care of sick family members. The one-week unpaid waiting period was waived for benefits, and unemployment funds are available through the Virginia Employment Commission, Northam said.
The state ordered all 75 offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles to close, in addition to urging the Supreme Court of Virginia to close all courts until April 6 for non-emergency or non-essential court proceedings. Online services are still available, the governor said, and 60-day extensions have been granted for expired licenses and registrations.
The State Corporation Commission also issued an order to suspend utility service disconnections for the next 60 days in order to provide relief for those financially impacted by COVID-19.
The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) also is encouraging use of the online option, gooutdoorsvirginia.com for all licensing and registration needs. Hunters, anglers, boaters and wildlife enthusiasts can do most transactions online.
“Together we will get through this and we will be a better Virginia,” Northam said. “Every single one of us has a personal responsibility in this situation, every one of us has a role in being part of the solution.”
The Virginia Department of Health currently has a 24-hour Coronavirus information hotline that can be reached at 877-ASK-VDH3 or 877-275-8343 for questions about the disease.
Gov. Ralph Northam (at podium), officials from the Virginia Department of Health and others discuss COVID-19 and Virginia’s efforts to control the illness.