Elections, cell phones, firearms and the public peace: New Virginia laws cover broad landscape

RICHMOND — Barring any reversals of COVID-19 health conditions, Virginia is on track to a slow reopening of businesses and public facilities on May 15.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday announced the details of Phase One of his Forward Virginia Blueprint. While state residents will still be encouraged to adopt a “safer-at-home” attitude, he said, emergency orders will be relaxed for the following types of businesses and public places:

— Non-essential retail businesses will move from a limit of 10 people inside to 50% their customer capacity.

— Restaurants and beverage sales can shift from takeout and delivery only to takeout, delivery and outdoor seating to 50% of capacity.

— Personal grooming businesses, including hair salons and barber shops, can reopen on an appointment-only basis with strict social distancing and face coverings required.

— Places of worship can move from drive-in services or indoor services limited to 10 people to drive-in services and indoor services at 50% of indoor capacity.

— Private campgrounds can reopen, Northam said, and state parks will phase from day-only use to day and overnight use in stages. The state’s beaches will remain open only for fishing and exercise during Phase One.

— Child care facilities will also remain open only for working families during the first phase of Forward Virginia, Northam said, while entertainment and amusement businesses, fitness and exercise sites and overnight summer camps will remain closed.

Northam said the May 15 reopening date still hinges on whether the state can maintain through the next week a downward trend in COVID-19-related hospitalizations, confirmed new cases per day, the numbers of positive tests each day, along with upward trends in numbers of people tested and adequate hospital bed capacity.

“This is not like we’re flipping a switch and saying it’s time for everyone to go back to their lives as they know them before COVID-19,” Northam said, comparing the reopening process to turning up a dimmer switch slowly and watching the effectiveness of anti-pandemic measures.

Phase One could last two weeks or longer and will depend on whether Virginia sees rising COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates as well as shortages of personal protective equipment for health care workers, Northam said. A Phase Two or Three reopening also will depend on health metrics being used to decide on next week’s reopening, he added.

Asked how the restrictions on beach and state park openings will impact Memorial Day recreation, Northam said, “Everyone has to realize we’re dealing with a new normal. … Consumers, they need to feel comfortable that they’re going to be safe and not get the virus.”

Northam said he understood workers in those businesses set to reopen next week may have concerns, adding that he wanted to assure them that safety in any reopening is important. Any worker concerned that state safety procedures are not being followed in their workplace can report that to the state Department of Labor and Industry, he said.

“If businesses cannot meet those guidelines, they will remain closed,” Northam said.

Asked if a surge in cases could result in a pullback of Phase One, Northam said, “Absolutely, yes. This is a dynamic, fluid situation.”

State Director of Workforce Development Megan Healey said more than 500,000 state residents have filed unemployment claims during the pandemic, and weekly unemployment benefits as well as the time period for receiving those benefits have increased.

Northam said the reopening depends not only on public health data but on businesses and the state making it safe for people.

“What will make you comfortable going back into that place of business?” Northam said. “That’s what we need to hear as we work through these guidelines, as we work through turning up that dimmer switch every day, every week.”