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Northam reopening plan includes strict limits; Bowser, Alsobrooks say their communities not ready

Barber Breanne Sikes, of Wastler’s Barber Shop in Frederick, cuts hair for a client as a passerby looks through the glass on Friday. The barber shop is open for essential workers and by appointment only. Virginia may open salons to customers next Friday, with strict social distancing and cleaning measures in place. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday shared details of his plan to slowly loosen shutdown restrictions at the end of next week, while leaders in the District and suburban Maryland said they were not ready to consider reopening as infections of the novel coronavirus continued to mount.

The contrast was striking, with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) citing a spike in both deaths and new coronavirus cases in the city since the day before.

“These numbers are indeed sobering,” she said, adding that decisions on when to start lifting restrictions “need to be based in science and not political expediency.”

Bowser did not say whether she will extend current restrictions beyond their May 15 expiration date. But she has signaled the restrictions are likely to continue, perhaps with some exceptions for limited services.

Northam (D) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) have said they will likely move toward reopening some aspects of their states late next week if infection rates continue to trend downward.

Leaders in the D.C. suburbs of both states are expressing concern about those plans; on Friday, Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said that “we are not quite there yet,” with county hospitals still experiencing an influx of critically ill patients.

Northam made clear that he won’t abruptly remove all restrictions. He outlined a “Phase 1” reopening that would continue to place extreme limits on businesses, with movie theaters and indoor gyms still closed and restaurants allowed to reopen only if they offer outdoor seating.

“When the time is right, we will turn a dimmer switch up just a notch,” he said, adding that some communities — such as Northern Virginia — might choose to keep heavier restrictions in place.

The state’s limit on general gatherings of more than 10 people would stay in effect until June 10, but the ban would be waived to allow nonessential retailers to reopen at half of their lowest licensed capacity, Northam said.

Retail customers would have to be kept at least six feet apart while shopping or standing in line; fitting rooms or other enclosed spaces would remain closed; and masks would be required for employees and strongly encouraged for customers.

Churches could resume indoor services, but at 50 percent capacity.

Restaurants, currently allowed to offer only takeout or delivery, would be able to offer seated dining outside if they were already licensed for outdoor service. And that would be restricted to half of capacity, with single-use, disposable menus.

While indoor fitness and recreation facilities would remain closed, they could offer limited outdoor classes with equipment disinfected and participants at least 10 feet apart.

Tracking coronavirus cases and deaths in Virginia, Maryland and the District

Outdoor basketball and racquetball courts would still be closed. Outdoor pools may reopen only for lap swimming, with one person per lane. Beaches would remain closed for everything except exercise and fishing.

Hair and nail salons could operate by appointment only, with one customer per service provider, at least six feet between stations and at half the facility’s licensed capacity. Employees and customers alike would be required to wear masks, so no beard trimming or lip waxing.

Some limits, such as the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people and the use of beaches, are punishable as Class 1 misdemeanors. Businesses that violate the operating limits could be shut down by the health department.

Northam said this phase of reopening — which the state explains in detail online — would last at least two weeks before moving to a slightly more permissive Phase 2.

The Virginia arm of the National Federation of Independent Business said it welcomed Northam’s move to lift restrictions but worried about some of the continued limits.

“Many small business owners are in dire financial straits after being shut down for so long,” Virginia state director Nicole Riley said. “We continue to be concerned about certain industries like restaurants that are still restricted from any indoor seating and may not have an outdoor permit.”

Merchants in Virginia Beach were upset by Northam’s decision to keep beaches essentially closed as Memorial Day approaches. “It’s devastating,” said Russell Lyons, president of the Virginia Beach Hotel Association. “It just lays waste to our economy.”

Speaking earlier Friday, Bowser said reopening D.C. restaurants while covid-19 deaths are rising “makes no sense.”

The mayor said Washingtonians should find optimism in the fact that the District has secured more protective equipment, testing kits, contact tracers and hospital capacity. She also emphasized that residents need to adapt to a new reality in which the coronavirus is always present.

“Without a cure or a vaccine, we have to do everything that we can with how we operate to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Bowser said.

LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the city’s health department, said the city was conducting quality checks on new antibody testing equipment that can detect whether a person was exposed to the coronavirus. Those tests might be ready to deploy as early as Monday. She said the city would prioritize such tests for people at high risk for exposure, including health-care workers, first responders and residents of long-term care facilities and detention centers.

In Maryland, Prince George’s County officials said Friday that the county is not yet ready to consider reopening, even if the rest of the state moves in that direction.

There are 256 patients who are positive for the coronavirus in the county’s five hospitals, compared with 125 patients a month ago, health officer Ernest L. Carter said. An average of nine county residents die of covid-19 each day. He said intensive care units at four of the five hospitals are more than 70 percent full, with a 52 percent increase in covid-19 patients using acute care beds in the past two weeks.

“Our curve has not flattened,” Carter said at a news conference. “I want to make that clear.”

Alsobrooks said there are about 5,000 tests being done weekly in the county — a figure she said was “simply inadequate” and should be closer to 15,000.

Alsobrooks said she has requested 90,000 tests from the state and spoke with Hogan about the request on Thursday. He assured her that the county would receive some of the 500,000 tests the state purchased from South Korea, Alsobrooks said, but that has not yet happened. Instead, Prince George’s officials have been working with Montgomery County officials to buy tests from private labs.

Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said Friday that the governor supports local leaders making decisions that are best for their residents, particularly in areas where there are high concentrations of infections. He said Hogan is committed to working with Alsobrooks on testing.

Here’s why so few of the tests Hogan bought from South Korea are being used

As the economic fallout of the pandemic worsens, the office of Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring said it is concerned about landlords threatening tenants with eviction if they don’t make at least partial rent payments.

With tens of thousands of Virginians out of work, the state Supreme Court has suspended non-emergency evictions through May 17.

But Herring’s office said property management companies and other landlords have tried to get around the order by sending “pay or quit” notices to tenants in arrears, a preliminary step in eviction proceedings that seek to pressure residents into making at least partial payments within a five-day period.

“Our office has heard of many troubling instances of landlords attempting to make end-runs around the required judicial process to attempt to evict tenants,” said Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Herring.

The notices have sown fear in predominantly African American or Latino immigrant apartment communities, prompting some tenants to make plans to move, according to VOICE, a multifaith community organization in Northern Virginia.

Covid-19 is ravaging one of the nation’s wealthiest black counties

AHC Inc., an Arlington-based company with properties in Northern Virginia and Maryland, sent out pay or quit notices in April to tenants in some of its locations.

But Celia Slater, a company spokeswoman, said that was an error. The company, which caters to low- to middle-income renters, sent follow-up notices informing tenants that they will not be evicted, she said.

“We didn’t have any intention to upset people,” Slater said. “We have not evicted anyone. We don’t intend to evict anyone.”

The company says it has tried to help tenants find work, navigate the state’s system for unemployment claims and find medical services during the crisis. But with about 21 percent of AHC’s tenants behind on their rent, owing a collective $1.3 million, that kind of support may soon wear thin without federal support for landlords, Slater said.

“This is a critical domino situation,” she said. “If we can’t keep the lights on for people, that is going to cause all kinds of economic repercussions for the region’s economy.”

Overall, the District, Virginia and Maryland on Friday reported 119 new coronavirus-related fatalities and 2,128 new infections.

The District’s 19 new deaths tied a record for the city set April 30. They included a 49-year-old man and three women in their 90s, bringing the city’s total coronavirus-related deaths to 304. Its total number of positive cases hit 5,899.

Disparities persist in the latest death count, with 15 of the fatalities being black and 13 having lived in Wards 5, 7 and 8, the poorest parts of the city.

Maryland reported 1,111 new cases Friday and 57 new deaths, bringing the total number of cases and fatalities in the state to 30,485 and 1,560, respectively.

Virginia reported 43 deaths on Friday, bringing the total in the state to 812. There were 772 new infections reported. The state has recorded 22,342 positive cases.

An earlier version of this story misstated data regarding covid-19 deaths in Prince George’s County. An average of nine Prince George’s residents die each day, not each week, of covid-19.

Antonio Olivo and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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