With the exception of Richmond and the Northern Virginia region, most of Virginia will move into Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan on Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced at a news briefing on Tuesday.
The relaxed restrictions — normally a marquee announcement for the administration as Virginia continues to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — took a backseat as Northam publicly addressed protests over the May 25 police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, which began in Richmond last Friday and spread to other areas of the state.
Many of the demonstrations in Richmond were held feet from the Virginia governor’s executive mansion on Capitol Square. As Northam spoke on Tuesday, crowds of protesters assembled in front of the nearby Patrick Henry Building where he gave his address, waving signs and chanting “Bring him out.”
Inside, Northam said that “our country is in a moment of turmoil and we have to talk about it,” adding that while he didn’t issue a public statement on the Virginia demonstrations before Tuesday, he spent the weekend consulting with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to control the protests and working with advocates to understand the root of the problem.
“We have been working with our leaders and really asking the question ‘Why? Why are these happening?’” Northam said. “And to recognize, all of us together, that this is real pain that people are experiencing.”
He was joined by a coalition of faith leaders and public representatives, including state Del. Delores McQuinn, a longtime Democratic leader from Richmond, who, along with the governor, suggested that the state’s General Assembly could begin to address criminal justice reform as early as August, when legislators are expected to assemble for a special budget session.
“In the next three weeks, you will have a brand-new criminal justice commission,” McQuinn added. “Many of the criminal justice issues that have been coming back and forth to the General Assembly year after year, those things will be addressed. And I can promise you there will be a difference in terms of legislation and implementation.”
The same day, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, announced a list of planned legislation on policing, including measures to ban the use of chokeholds and other lethal restraints. Floyd died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd’s neck with his knee for nearly nine minutes.
His death was met with protests across the country, including in Virginia, where Richmond became the epicenter of the demonstrations. Protesters swept the city before a coordinated police response on Sunday night, some lighting fires and vandalizing local stores.
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, criticized Northam’s response in a statement on Tuesday, writing that “the best our governor could come up with was a half-hearted hope that people would stop being violent.”
While the protests were the focus of Northam’s briefing, he acknowledged that Virginia “was still in a pandemic” before announcing the start of Phase Two. The relaxed restrictions allow many businesses to reopen under sector-specific guidelines governing their response to the virus.
Starting Friday in all but Northern Virginia and Richmond, restaurants, breweries, and other food and drink establishments can reopen for indoor dining at 50 percent capacity. Gyms and fitness centers can also reopen as long as customers are stationed at least 10 feet apart.
Personal care businesses including barber shops and salons are subject to many of the same restrictions as restaurants, including a 50 percent capacity limit and requirement that employees wear face coverings.
The National Federation of Independent Business described the loosened restrictions as a “big relief.”
“Most of these entrepreneurs who opened a restaurant business or started a fitness center risked everything they had to build it and suddenly faced losing that,” Virginia state director Nicole Riley said in a statement on Tuesday. “But the restrictions still mean revenue will be very limited. We hope people patronize these neighborhood businesses because they are doing all they can to ensure health and safety.”
Phase Two still requires Virginians to wear masks in most indoor settings and restricts social gatherings with more than 50 people.