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How Gov. Ralph Northam decided when Virginia might emerge from shutdown

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) speaks at a late-April news conference in Richmond. (Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam looked like anyone else working from home on Sunday night, wearing an old flannel shirt and sweatpants. But he was dialing into a conference call that would determine when 8.5 million Virginians could go back out and earn a living or get a haircut or eat in a restaurant amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

There was increasing pressure to reopen as the state’s economy tanked. Nearby Tennessee had caved. Earlier that day, President Trump had criticized Virginia — again — during a Fox News town hall, singling out the commonwealth as one of the states that, “frankly, aren’t going fast enough.”

Northam (D), the nation’s only governor who is also a physician, had said all along that he would let health data guide him in deciding when to ease restrictions. When he convened the call, advisers told him it looked as if the data might be falling into place.

The percentage of positive coronavirus tests was bending downward. Hospitalizations were stable, bed capacity good. There were big variables — the state was ramping up its lagging testing program, and that could expose new surges of infection.

But aides said the computer models suggested Virginia was at the beginning of what could be 14 days of decline in the rate of new infections. That was the federal government standard that Northam had said he wanted to see.

The next day, Monday, Northam announced that if the trends held, on May 15 he would launch “Phase 1” of rolling back the state’s social and economic shutdown.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said on May 4 that nonessential businesses such as gyms, hair salons and restaurants could possibly begin to open May 15. (Video: Reuters)

At last, Virginians had a date to circle on the year’s strange calendar. But it only highlighted the remaining uncertainties.

Republicans criticized Northam for not moving faster, particularly for rural parts of the state that have seen little direct impact from the pandemic.

Communities in hard-hit Northern Virginia worried that the governor was moving too fast and jumping ahead of leaders in Maryland and the District.

His answer to that was an assurance that cities and counties facing a more severe outbreak — particularly in Northern Virginia — could use local authority to impose tighter restrictions than the rest of the state.

The split-the-baby approach seemed to violate Northam’s proclamation just the week before that Virginians would approach the crisis with a united front. But it reflected the complicated task before him.

“It’s all risk. Nothing is completely safe,” Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said in an interview. “It’s all measured risks.”

Northam says he’ll probably ease some restrictions in Virginia on May 15

The Family Drive-In Theater was one of many drive-in theaters that opened in Virginia the first weekend in May. (Video: The Washington Post)

Watching key metrics

Several weeks ago, Northam had hoped May 8 might be the date he could start lifting restrictions.

Northam’s original executive order shutting most nonessential businesses was set to expire just before midnight April 23. But the governor extended it to 11:59 p.m. May 7 because the state was still struggling to ramp up widespread testing.

Infections were soaring, particularly in nursing homes, and health workers issued desperate pleas for the personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed to safely administer to patients.

Officials worried that hospitals were about to be overloaded, so Northam worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to identify locations for temporary facilities.

By late last week, many of those conditions had improved. Hospitals had enough capacity without the temporary help. The state had gotten shipments of PPE, along with thousands of masks manufactured by the Department of Corrections. After averaging about 2,600 tests per day, Virginia had doubled its total and was climbing toward its goal of 10,000 daily tests.

Still, Northam’s advisers did not believe there was enough of a track record to justify lifting the business shutdown order May 8.

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Since declaring a state of emergency on March 12, the governor has maintained a steady schedule of 7:30 a.m. weekday meetings with a core team including Mercer, state health secretary Dan Carey and public safety secretary Brian Moran.

That group meets in person in the Patrick Henry Building, a few steps from the Executive Mansion, wearing masks — at least until they start talking — and checking body temperatures before convening. None have been tested for the coronavirus, Mercer said.

Regular weekend meetings are all dial-in.

On May 1, a Friday, the advisers gave Northam a set of briefing slides with proposals for what it might look like to start reopening the economy.

The pandemic is estimated to cost Virginia $3 billion in expenses and lost revenue over the remainder of this fiscal year and the next two. Unemployment claims are at record highs, weeks after Virginia had neared record lows.

In an interview, Northam emphasized that he prioritizes public health over rescuing the economy. “We’ll never recover economically unless we get the health crisis under control and behind us,” he said.

But it is more complicated than that. Northam had championed a long list of social programs that are now frozen because of the budget crisis. And Mercer acknowledged that a longer shutdown would harm the health and well-being of residents.

Angela Navarro, deputy secretary of commerce and trade, has been working with Laurie Forlano, the state epidemiologist, to coordinate a balanced approach.

Forlano’s team provides data and metrics for when the state could move to Phase 1 of a projected three-phase recovery. Navarro’s team has designed what the phases would look like.

Their work shaped the recommendations Northam took home on May 1, along with a key decision — when to start rolling them out.

Meeting Sunday night

All weekend, Northam mulled the briefing slides. He has rarely ventured from the mansion and the offices next door since the crisis began, and aides described few distractions other than occasional runs or taking his new puppy for a walk.

A close adviser said Northam tried watching the hit Netflix documentary “Tiger King” but gave up after half an episode.

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In the call Sunday night, Forlano focused on public health data as the underpinning of when and how to act. Navarro discussed “mitigation measures” — how reopened businesses would have to require social distancing, enhanced cleaning and the wearing of face coverings.

General gatherings of more than 10 would still be prohibited. Restaurants could resume sit-down dining, but only outdoors and at reduced capacity.

Those steps were aimed not only at halting the spread of disease but also at making consumers feel confident enough to go back out into the marketplace.

Northam peppered her with questions: How would they handle campgrounds? Farmers markets? Beaches?

Initially, Northam had been open to the idea that some remote parts of the state might be allowed to ease restrictions first. But advisers said the merchants they consulted were strongly against that — worried about being inundated with outsiders.

Data from the weekend confirmed that new infections as a percentage of total testing were leveling off, officials said. The health team, consulting various computer models, said extending the business shutdown by one more week could allow for a 14-day trend of declining infections.

So that provided a date: May 15.

Trouble in the north

Northam announced his decision Monday, tempering it by saying circumstances could still change.

Leaders in Northern Virginia reacted with alarm. The next day, they wrote him to express a “strong desire” to be included in any decisions about reopening.

“As you know, our communities are unique, and our needs remain great,” read the letter signed by board chairs in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties. “This is not an attempt to slow our progress. Rather, a recognition of the need for greater collaboration between state and local governments.”

In Fairfax, County Executive Bryan J. Hill said he hoped the state would give localities flexibility. “There is no county in Northern Virginia that is on a downward slope right now,” he said. “Everybody is feeling the same pressure.”

Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey (D) wanted assurances that the board could use emergency powers to curb any phased reopening. “We’re very concerned,” Garvey said. “We’ve got to have some ability to protect people.”

Mercer said Northam was contacting the leaders and planned to speak with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission to explain the situation.

Northam also spoke with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who had said they were not ready to go as far as Virginia and were concerned that the capital region would not have a consistent approach.

An aide to Bowser said later that she was pleased with the idea that Northern Virginia could maintain tighter restrictions. And Hogan said Wednesday that he, too, might consider moving to Phase 1 of reopening next week — although his plan is stricter and does not include indoor fitness centers or dine-in restaurants, for example.

Northam and his aides said the potential carve-out for hard-hit parts of the state, including those affected by outbreaks in poultry plants on the Eastern Shore, is not inconsistent with the idea of a unified reopening.

The May 15 conditions are a “floor,” Northam said, a base level that all must meet before anyone can reopen.

If that sounds ambiguous, it is a good glimpse of the future. On Wednesday, as Northam explained the idea at a public briefing, cars of protesters drove around the State Capitol, honking their horns and demanding that he reopen the state immediately.

Fenit Nirappil and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.

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