Gov. Ralph Northam during Friday, May 22, press conference

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a press conference on Friday, May 22.

Restaurants in Prince William County and Manassas will remain to-go only this weekend, despite efforts by Prince William County and Manassas officials to seek Gov. Ralph Northam’s permission to allow some outdoor seating.

Also, Northam on Friday suggested he could announce as early as next week a mask rule for all of Virginia.

During his press conference on Friday, May 22, Northam did not directly address the request about restaurants he received this week from Prince William County supervisors and the Manassas City Council.

But in response to a question about whether parts of the state would likely progress through the state’s three reopening phases at different times, Northam said he has not agreed to change the rules within jurisdictions.

“I’ve had a number of requests: Can a part of this county, or town, move forward more quickly? And the answer to that is, we’re not allowing that,” Northam said. “We have a floor in place that we will maintain.”

Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, said after the press conference he is “very disappointed” by the governor’s decision. 

On Tuesday, Candland suggested the county ask Northam to modify the rules to allow restaurants to offer outdoor seating at half-capacity. A resolution backing the suggestion was approved in a 5-3 vote, supported by Candland as well as Supervisors Victor Angry, D-Neabsco; Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan; Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville; and Yesli Vega, R-Coles.

“It will never be safe to reopen, but every day the governor keeps his shutdown in place, more businesses fold, more people are left without jobs and more people go deeper and deeper into debt,” Candland said in a text message. “People’s lives have been devastated by this government-imposed shutdown, and we need to give folks an opportunity to open back up and try to recover.”

Ross Snare, spokesman for the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, said local restaurants are “itching” to reopen beyond takeout.

“I don’t know how much longer a lot of our businesses can take it, really. … People are ready to reopen. A lot of these restaurants have been shut down for three months and it hurts,” Snare said.

Northern Virginia is slated to say in “phase zero” of the state’s reopening process until a minute before midnight on Thursday, May 28. Northam further said Friday that he would share more information Tuesday on whether Northern Virginia would be allowed to move into phase one on schedule.

“We are in frequent communication with leaders in those localities and we will have more information next week,” Northam said.

Northern Virginia continues to have higher numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths than the rest of the state. 

The Prince William Health District reported 158 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and three additional deaths, including one of a man in his 30s. Also, the local health district has the highest percent-positivity rate on COVID-19 cases in the state at 27.6%.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County reported an additional 154 cases on Friday and 12 more deaths.

“In most of Virginia, the percent-positivity [rate] continues to trend downward. We’re still talking to our leaders in Northern Virginia,” Northam said.

Mask rule could be announced next week

Regarding masks, Northam said his team will work over the weekend to develop a policy on wearing masks in public places. But as “homework” to all Virginians over the weekend, he suggested that people take the time to get masks for themselves and their families.

“As I’ve said before, wearing a mask could literally save someone else’s life,” Northam said. Later, he said he is weighing issues such as equity and enforcement before making his announcement on a mask police next week.

“It’s an equity issue. We want to make sure everyone has access to a mask, and we have to talk about how to enforce that,” Northam said.

Memorial Day and the stay-at-home order

In response to another question, Northam said he expects Virginians who remain under a stay-at-home order – including those in Northern Virginia counties, the city of Richmond and Accomack County – to do exactly that this weekend.

“Unless it’s essential that they be out, we don’t expect them to be traveling outside of those areas,” Northam said. “They are still under a stay-at-home order, so we would encourage them to abide by those orders.”

Northam also announced that U.S. and Virginia flags would fly at half-staff over the weekend in memory of those lost to COVID-19 in the state and in the U.S. President Donald Trump made a similar announcement this morning.

So far, Virginia has lost 1,136 residents to COVID-19, including 37 reported Friday. That’s the fourth-highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic. Virginia saw its highest number of daily deaths on Sunday, May 3, when 44 new deaths were reported.

Northam noted that the deaths reported each day do not necessarily occur within a 24-hour period, and that it can take a few days before they are reported and recorded by each local health district. Still, he called Friday’s number “concerning.”

“Every death is important and we’re following those trends. … We’ll continue to monitor that moving forward,” he said.

Regarding flying flags at half-staff in remembrance of those lost to COVID-19, Northam added: “They are our friends and our neighbors. They leave behind families and friends who loved them, and we all mourn their loss.”

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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