Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged Wednesday that COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been on the rise across the state in recent days and implored Virginians to carefully consider their plans for Thanksgiving.
But the governor announced no new restrictions in addition to those that went into effect early Monday morning, which limited social gatherings to 25 people, prohibited restaurant alcohol sales after 10 p.m. and expanded the statewide mask mandate to children as young as 5.
Northam also declined to set statewide pandemic parameters dictating when the state's schools should revert to all-virtual instruction, saying “no one size fits all” for Virginia’s schools.
The governor also noted his optimism about the prospects for a COVID-19 vaccination and said the state is beginning to prepare to distribute one as soon as it is available – perhaps as early as mid-December – to first-tier recipients, including health care workers and first responders.
“We have been planning for distribution for months, and we will be ready,” Northam said of vaccinations from firms such as Pfizer and Moderna that are nearing federal approval.
“This is wonderful news. It gives all of us hope. It means a light at the end of this tunnel, and I think we can all agree that this has been a long tunnel,” Northam said.
He noted it will take months, however, to fully distribute the vaccinations and implored residents to continue mitigation efforts such as wearing masks and practicing physical distancing and frequent hand-washing.
Northam made the comments during another of his occasional press briefings, held at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18. It was the first since the release on Friday, Nov. 13, of a video he made to announce the most recent COVID-19 restrictions, which were codified via amendments to two of his earlier executive orders.
Pointing to 'consistent guidelines' on schools, Northam declines to impose pandemic parameters
In response to reporters’ questions, Northam elaborated a bit on why he would not set thresholds on COVID-19 metrics at which schools should revert to all-virtual instruction, saying again that he would leave that decision to local school division officials.
“We have a diverse commonwealth. No one size fits all. This is why I made the decision earlier to give, I think, very consistent guidelines to our schools,” Northam said.
“We have the [COVID-19 school metrics] dashboards, that I know everybody is aware of,” he added. “But then [we] allow the localities to make that decision, because what may be good for one area of Virginia is not necessarily good for another.”
When another reporter pressed the governor on why he won’t impose statewide rules for schools despite his criticism, over the course of the pandemic, about a lack of federal guidance to stem COVID-19, Northam again said he believes he has “given very consistent guidelines” to school division leaders.
“We have a dashboard. They have access to all the data we have, and, again, one size doesn’t fit all,” Northam said. “I’ve allowed the localities to make those decisions, and that’s the way we’ll move forward.”
Teachers’ unions call for return to all-virtual instruction
Northam’s comments come two days after the heads of Northern Virginia’s teachers’ unions held a Monday, Nov. 16, press conference calling for a return to all-virtual learning because of the rising COVID-19 levels across the state. The group included Maggie Hansford, president of the Prince William Education Association.
Hansford called for Prince William County Superintendent Steven Walts and the school board to set clear parameters on when COVID-19 metrics are too high for in-person instruction.
School divisions across Northern Virginia are following different return-to-school timelines. In Prince William County, more than 3,000 pre-K and kindergarten students who opted for in-person instruction returned to school on a hybrid, two-day-a-week schedule on Tuesday, Nov. 10. They joined about 1,200 students with disabilities and some English-language learners who have been attending school four days a week since the start of the new school year on Sept. 8.
Most other Northern Virginia school divisions have returned fewer students for in-person learning.
Fairfax County and Manassas Park schools put the brakes earlier this week on their plans to return more students to school buildings in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases.
The Prince William County School Board will hold a meeting at 6 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, Nov. 18, during which Walts is expected to give the board a pandemic update.
Walts and school division leaders have said they consider Prince William County to be in the “moderate to high” level of COVID-19 transmission, which restricts in-person learning to students with disabilities, English-language learners and those in pre-K through grade three.
Northam on rising death toll: ‘We don’t need that happening in Virginia.’
Northam became emotional at one point during the press conference when asked by a reporter why he decided to announce additional COVID-19 restrictions on Friday, Nov. 13, after declining to do so during a press conference he held just a few days earlier.
Northam said he requested a briefing on the latest COVID-19 metrics across the state on Friday morning and was moved by news reports showing mobile morgues being called to hospitals to hold the dead.
“We don’t need that happening in Virginia,” he said.
Northam noted that Virginia is doing better than most other states when it comes to the rate of infections per capita. But he emphasized that the future course of the pandemic “is in Virginians’ hands."
He stressed the importance of taking extra precautions on Thanksgiving, perhaps by eating outside or holding virtual celebrations. Northam noted that ZOOM is lifting its time limits for the holiday.
“I know there have been few enough celebrations this year. We think of Thanksgiving as a time of family and of love and maybe football,” Northam said. “But this year, staying home is an act of love, too. Protecting people you care about, protecting your neighbors and community, even protecting strangers is an active love. So please think about your holiday plans and the risk.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org