Under Phase 3 of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan for reviving the pandemic-stifled economy, groups of as many as 250 people are allowed to gather. Restaurants and other nonessential businesses can operate at full capacity with physical distancing measures in place while swimming pools and gyms can function at 75 percent capacity with restrictions in place.
Those looser restrictions had local business owners making last-minute alterations Wednesday in hopes of accommodating more customers.
But with the state’s seven-day averages for new coronavirus infections and covid-19 deaths higher than a week ago, some businesses were wary of opening too much, too soon.
The tally of known coronavirus infections in the District, Maryland and Virginia reached 141,486 Wednesday, with a death toll of 5,544. The region’s averages for new cases and fatalities have hit a plateau in recent days.
Virginia’s numbers have been going back up. On Wednesday, the state’s daily average for new fatalities stood at 18 — twice the number as on June 21. The seven-day average for new infections was 527, compared with 498 on June 21.
“We may put a fifth table in here, but hesitantly,” said Elizabeth Myllenbeck, walking gingerly around the four indoor tables in the downstairs portion of Sonoma Cellar, her restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. The restaurant already added another table inside its sunlit upstairs room, which Myllenbeck said “makes a real difference for us.”
But, she said, “it makes me nervous with the current spike. We don’t want to close again.”
Myllenbeck then approached the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning specialist she had hired, asking him to inspect the attic air filter once more.
The skyrocketing number of cases in other parts of the country heightened local anxieties about reopening, particularly in Northern Virginia, where Loudoun County has seen an outbreak of cases among at least 100 teenagers and young adults who returned from a “beach week” trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Those concerns, plus warnings from federal officials that bars have been a major source of new infections, prompted Northam (D) to keep Phase 2 restrictions in place for bar areas in restaurants and taverns.
Maryland and the District are both in their second phases of reopening, with officials closely monitoring Virginia’s latest step. Public health experts say it’s crucial to be flexible about reopening plans and for residents to continue wearing masks.
“It’s been difficult and painful, but it’s the new normal,” said Amanda Castel, a professor at the Department of Epidemiology at George Washington University. “We’re all doing our part.”
Castel said the virus might be more manageable in the summer, when warmer weather makes it easier for people to socialize outdoors. But, she said, “with each reopening, there’s an increased level of exposure and risk of new cases.”
In Tysons, a strip of struggling beauty parlors met Phase 3 with a sense of dread. Now that they were permitted to expand their capacity, the absence of customers felt even more devastating.
Hai Phan, who owns Natural Nails, reopened his salon last month, with business sputtering after the first week. July 1 did not mark a step toward a better normal — it was the day his $6,000 rent was due.
“Why would we have more people in here when we don’t have a lot of business?” he said.
The scene inside Natural Nails was still hopeful.
Addison Sobonya, 8, was on her first “girl date” of the pandemic. She sat, cat and rainbow mask on, a few tables over from her former kindergarten teacher, Jillian Maenza, who has since become her best friend.
“I feel so happy and excited and blown away to be here,” Addison said, admiring her light pink nails through the plexiglass.
It had been a hard few months for Addison, who has been out of school since March. First, she had to avoid seeing her friends. Then, her parents were worried her younger brother had covid-19.
But finally, Wednesday morning, she got good news from her mom: She was able to see her favorite teacher and get her nails done.
“She just started screaming,” said Ashley Sobonya.
The best friends exited the nail salon, fresh coat of paint drying, and discussed when they could go on a shopping trip together.
“She wants to get matching outfits,” said Maenza, who teaches in Sterling. “And now that stores are more open, maybe we will.”
In Maryland, officials reported 359 new coronavirus infections and 15 additional covid-19 deaths Wednesday.
That news didn’t stop families from venturing to outdoor pools, water parks and the Six Flags America amusement park in Prince George’s County — all of which reopened Wednesday at reduced capacities.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) urged residents to be “vigilant” about social distancing, citing a surge in confirmed coronavirus cases among people under 35.
While the state’s daily case count remains flat and Maryland has avoided spikes experienced elsewhere, Hogan said the current infection rate among Maryland residents under 35 is 52 percent higher than other groups.
“This crisis is not behind us,” the governor said. “Younger people seem to be acting and feeling as if they’re bulletproof, and many of them are unfortunately ignoring the public health guidelines.”
Prince George’s, which has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other Maryland locality, reported 73 new infections and four covid-19 fatalities Wednesday.
Nonetheless, families from across the region journeyed to Six Flags for a taste of summer. After closing its doors in March, the amusement park reopened Wednesday for members and season-pass holders. The public will be allowed to enter Friday.
Those who arrived Wednesday were greeted by an array of safety precautions.
Their temperatures were taken before they could enter, and those with temperatures above 100.4 degrees were asked to leave. Inside the park, patrons were required to wear a mask at all times, apart from eating and scattered break areas.
Jennifer Martin, who came from Annapolis with her three children, brought gloves for the family.
“We decided that as long as we take precautions, it will be safe to enjoy,” Martin said.
During the heat of the day, some patrons removed their masks before being reminded by staff to put them back on.
Candace Phillips, who drove with her husband and two kids for two hours from their home in Pennsylvania, reluctantly obeyed the mask requirement.
“Masks make it not feel normal,” Phillips said. “But just being able to take the kids here is a huge relief.”
At Glenn Dale Splash Park in Prince George’s, face masks and physical distancing were also required. Each group had to sign up in advance for two-hour slots.
Laquinta Atley, a 41-year-old health-care provider from Bowie, brought five of her children, nieces and nephews to the pool.
“Coming here gives the children more to do,” Atley said. “I try to get them to be as active as possible during the coronavirus, but it’s hard to get them outside and enjoy their summer.”
But each step toward normalcy came with pandemic-related tension.
At Woodland Wonderland Playground in Capitol Heights, trash was scattered around picnic tables where parents watched their kids play.
After learning that all of Prince George’s more than 230 playgrounds would reopen Wednesday, Monique Chiles brought her two kids to the playground. One child has asthma, so she brought hand sanitizer and warned them to stay distanced from other children.
But the trash, coupled with the smell from closed and uncleaned restrooms, was a distraction.
“If the playground is open, the bathroom should be open,” Chiles said, adding that one of her children had an accident because there was no available restroom while they were playing.
At Bowl America in Falls Church, the thunder and crash of bowling balls striking pins again filled the air.
Dolores Middle, 78, wore a glove on her bowling hand and doused her table with sanitizer — a welcomed ritual after spending most of the past three months inside her Arlington home.
“I feel great,” Middle said, packing up her cleaning kit. “I mean look, I bowled a 187!”
Mike McKittrick, the bowling alley’s assistant manager, stood far behind plexiglass as he checked in a growing line of customers.
At 68, he was grateful to be working again but nervous that his heart disease and diabetes put him at higher risk for infection.
McKittrick glanced intently at a patron who approached his stand with his face exposed, grabbing his own mask and snapping it over his face as a reminder.
“Look, if you’re not on the lane, you’ve got to wear your mask,” McKittrick said.
Stone-faced, the man slowly pulled his mask over his nose.
Erin Cox contributed to this report.