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Governor places limits on gatherings, furthers mask mandate

Citing COVID-19 surges across the country and rising case counts throughout the state, Gov. Ralph Northam is placing restrictions on gatherings, expanding the state’s mask mandate, placing a curfew on on-site alcohol sales and drinking and increasing enforcement of retail businesses on adhering to protocols. The measures take effect at midnight Nov. 15.

Gatherings in public and private places — inside and out — will be limited to 25 people, down from the current limit of 250 people. Northam is also expanding the mask mandate to require one in all indoor public locations by anyone age 5 and up. Previously, it was only required of people aged 10 and up.

All essential retail businesses, including grocery stores and pharmacies, must follow state guidelines for physical distancing, mask-wearing and enhanced cleaning, with violations now enforceable through the Virginia Department of Health as a class one misdemeanor.

Selling, drinking or possessing alcohol will be prohibited after 10 p.m. in any restaurant, dining establishment, food court, brewery or tasting room, and they must close by midnight. Though the state does not distinguish between restaurants and bars, people drinking alcohol before 10 p.m. must be served as in a restaurant and must sit at tables at least six feet apart.

“COVID-19 is surging across the country, and while cases are not rising in Virginia as rapidly as in some other states, I do not intend to wait until they are,” Northam said in a news release, noting increases not only in cases, but also in positive tests and hospitalizations. “We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse.

“Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work. I am confident that we can come together as one Commonwealth to get this virus under control and save lives.”

The statewide seven-day positivity rate has been steadily increasing since Oct. 8, when it was 4.7%. As of Nov. 13, it was 6.5%.

Statewide, 3,785 people have died from COVID-19, all but 144 of them at least 50 years old. There have been 160 COVID-19-related deaths in Western Tidewater and 79 in Suffolk. Just seven of the region’s deaths from COVID-19 have been of people under 50.

In Western Tidewater, the seven-day positivity rate is 4.5% as of Nov. 13, up from 3.4% Nov. 5. Of the nearly 57,000 people in the region tested for COVID-19, 4,866 have tested positive — 2,480 of those in Suffolk. Across the state, nearly 200,000 people statewide have tested positive for COVID-19.

The state is averaging 1,500 newly-reported COVID-19 cases daily, up from a previous peak of  1,200 in May. Southwest Virginia has had a spike in COVID-19 and while hospital capacity statewide remains stable, hospitalizations have increased by more than 35% in the past four weeks.

Northam on Nov. 10 announced new contracts with a trio of labs — part of the state’s OneLabNetwork — designed to increase COVID-19 testing capacity. The labs include Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville and Sentara Healthcare in Norfolk.

On Tuesday, Governor Northam announced new contracts with three laboratories as part of the Commonwealth’s OneLabNetwork, which will significantly increase Virginia’s public health testing capacity. Contracts with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, and Sentara Healthcare in Norfolk will directly support high-priority outbreak investigations, community testing events, and testing in congregate settings, with a goal of being able to perform 7,000 per day by the end of the year.