Northam (D) made the announcement as Virginia reported a second straight day of spikes in new cases, driven by big numbers in the populous D.C. suburbs. He also announced a new policy requiring Virginians to wear face coverings when they enter public buildings or use public transit, tightening what had been simply a suggestion.
“The virus clearly is still here, but overall the numbers are trending in the right direction,” Northam said. Later, he added: “Just because you can open doesn’t mean that you have to open.”
The seemingly contradictory moves and statements highlighted the confusing nature of efforts to both fight the virus and begin reopening the economy in the nation’s capital region, which has been hit hard.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), like Northam, moved much of his state into “phase one” of reopening on May 15, while D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has yet to loosen restrictions. She is expected to announce on Wednesday a timeline for a gradual reopening, with the city having met benchmarks that have shifted over time.
Both Hogan and Northam initially exempted the D.C. suburbs from reopening because of the heavy concentration of infections there, while Hogan allowed local jurisdictions to opt out of reopening, drawing criticism for leaving it up to local leaders to decide when to move forward.
Howard County officials said Tuesday that they will move into the first phase at the end of the week, while authorities in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have not announced a date. Baltimore City said it would permit nonessential stores to offer curbside retail starting Wednesday.
In Howard, retail stores, barber shops and beauty salons can reopen on Friday morning at 50 percent capacity, County Executive Calvin Ball (D) said. Houses of worship will be able to hold outdoor services with up to 250 people, but indoor services remain capped at 10.
Northam said leaders of the capital region “want to be consistent,” but noted that “each area obviously has their own challenges.”
His announcement about Northern Virginia marks the first step toward reopening a metropolitan region that was singled out by the lead coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force last week as having some of the worst infection rates in the country.
The raw numbers continued to climb over the Memorial Day weekend.
Virginia reported 28 deaths and 1,615 new infections on Tuesday, marking the second day in a row that the state posted record increases in new cases. A majority were in Northern Virginia, with Prince William County reporting a county record of 290 new cases and Fairfax adding 357 new infections — its third-highest single-day jump since the outbreak began.
The spike increased the commonwealth’s seven-day average for new cases to 1,028 — 101 more than the previous peak of 927, logged in mid-May. The average in new daily fatalities also increased, although new hospitalizations declined.
Health officials say the numbers are up because the state is increasing its volume of testing, reaching an average of about 8,000 tests per day in part by offering pop-up clinics that will test residents who have not shown symptoms or obtained a doctor’s referral.
As the numbers climb, the percentage of tests that come back positive has trended downward — a key metric for Northam.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised states to look for a 14-day decline in the percentage of positive tests. Virginia officials are tracking that through a seven-day moving average. Occasional spikes in raw numbers — such as those recorded Monday and Tuesday — will not alter their outlook if the overall trend continues downward, officials said.
Northern Virginia’s positivity rate has declined from a high of more than 35 percent in late April to 21.5 percent on Friday. The rate is about 10 percent in other parts of the state.
Many epidemiologists recommend that cities wait to reopen until they have seen two weeks of 5 percent positivity or less. But health experts also warn against putting too much emphasis on positivity.
“Positivity is not a perfect measure,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The statistic can be skewed depending on how many people are being tested and where they live. Testing only the sickest people will miss those who might not have bad symptoms, Nuzzo said.
But open testing, like Virginia has offered recently, also could be unreliable if healthy people crowd out those at greater risk, said James Lamberti, a pulmonary critical care doctor in Annandale who has expressed his concerns to the state.
“Oftentimes, it’s the ‘worried well’ who hear about these things and wait in line,” Lamberti said.
In a joint letter to Northam on Monday, the elected leaders of 10 Northern Virginia counties, cities and towns said four out of six critical metrics for entering into a phase one reopening have been met: increased testing, adequate hospital capacity, and 14 days of consistent declines in positivity and new hospitalizations.
They said they were close to reaching the remaining two metrics — adequate personal protective equipment and increased contact tracing.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we can go ahead and move forward,” said Libby Garvey (D), chair of the Arlington County Board, preparing for a meeting where the county would decide how restaurants can reopen. “I’m pretty confident that we’re doing well here in Arlington.”
The letter said that “if the data supports it,” the region should also join the state when it enters into the second phase of reopening — in which more nonessential businesses will be allowed to operate, the limit on group gatherings will expand to 50 from 10, and only residents who are more vulnerable to covid-19 will be asked to stay at home.
Northam had said he will consider moving to the second phase as soon as this weekend, two weeks after entering phase one. But he said Tuesday that there was not yet enough data to discuss it.
Jeff C. McKay, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said he’s worried that the path forward is not being sufficiently coordinated across state borders.
“As someone who has worked with a lot of our Northern Virginia colleagues to be uniform, it is frustrating that there doesn’t seem to be that same uniformity between the governors and the mayor,” McKay said.
Two other parts of the state have joined Northern Virginia in delaying reopening. Local officials in rural Accomack County, which has suffered a severe outbreak at poultry processing plants, also have signaled that they are ready to move into phase one on Friday, Northam said.
The governor said he is also clearing Richmond for phase one, though he reassured Mayor Levar Stoney (D) that individual businesses and houses of worship can opt to remain closed.
“If you wish to pursue additional restrictions on houses of worship, barber shops, or hair salons, I encourage you to work with your City Council to take the emergency allowed by the Richmond charter, which authorizes the City to ‘make and enforce all regulations necessary to preserve and promote public health and sanitation and protect the inhabitants of the city from contagious, infectious or other diseases,” Northam said in a letter to the mayor.
Northam’s move to begin reopening even the hardest-hit parts of the state came along with a tighter restriction on wearing face coverings in enclosed public places. Though he had hinted last week that such an order was coming, Northam himself violated the spirit of the policy over the weekend when he was photographed maskless, mingling with people in Virginia Beach.
“I was not prepared, because my mask was in the car,” he said Tuesday, following several days of intense criticism on social media. “I take full responsibility. People held me accountable, and I appreciate that. We’re all forming new habits and routines, and we’re all adjusting to this new normal.”
Northam said the mask requirement will be enforced by the state health department, not police. Businesses that let employees work without masks could lose their licenses. Health officials could, through a magistrate, seek misdemeanor charges against individual violators, but Northam indicated that he does not want to go that route. He said he would like the General Assembly to consider creating a civil penalty for violations at an expected special session over the summer.
The pandemic’s toll was not as severe in other parts of the capital region on Tuesday. D.C. reported 109 new cases, slightly below its seven-day average of 129, and — for the first time in 49 days — no new covid-19 deaths.
Maryland reported 535 new cases, its lowest number in more than a month. It also added 31 new deaths, which brought its seven-day average for daily fatalities to 39. The number of covid-19 patients hospitalized in the state increased from 1,279 to 1,315, ending nine consecutive days of decreases.
Fenit Nirappil, Kyle Swenson, Rebecca Tan, Laura Vozzella and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.