With Memorial Day weekend fast approaching, the Prince William board of supervisors has sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam asking that Prince William restaurants be allowed to open their outside patios at 50% capacity beginning tomorrow, Friday, May 22.
Supervisors voted 5-3 during their meeting Tuesday to make the request. Supervisors Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, Yesli Vega, R-Coles, and Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, were joined by Supervisors Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, and Victor Angry, D-Neabsco, in voting for the reopening of restaurant patios.
At-large Chair Ann Wheeler (D) and Supervisors Margaret Angela Franklin, D-Woodbridge, and Andrea Bailey, D-Potomac, opposed the request to ease restaurant restrictions early.
Memorial Day weekend is typically one of the biggest times of the year for restaurants. However, Northern Virginia restaurants are considered “non-essential” under the state’s stay-at-home order and can only operate with curbside and to-go service. The region will not join the rest of the state in Phase One reopening until Friday, May 29.
On May 9, local leaders and health district directors from Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William, Alexandria and Arlington requested a delayed reopening because health directors said Northern Virginia had not met the criteria for reopening outlined in Northam’s “Forward Virginia” plan.
Northern Virginia has about one-third of the state’s population, but more than 50% of Virginia’s cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
According to the health directors, the region had not yet seen a downward trend in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and did not have an adequate number of contact tracers or personal protective equipment to reopen safely as of May 5.
Lawson asked that a letter be sent to the governor requesting the easing of restrictions on outdoor seating over concerns that local restauranteurs would miss out on one of their busiest days of the year. Lawson said she would like to “send some good news to restaurant owners that have outdoor seating.”
“I’m simply asking for outdoor restaurants seating at 50%, which is I believe what the governor’s order is for the rest of the state. I’m not advocating for anything other than that,” Lawson said.
Candland, whose wife owns two Cookies & Cream Ice Cream parlors in Haymarket and Gainesville, said the business has been “devastated” because of the pandemic. Candland said the restaurant has been able to do curbside and to-go orders but that “it doesn’t even remotely reflect what has been made during this period.”
“We’ve been devastated over this,” Candland said.
Wheeler said she could not support the request to reopen restaurant patios early because the percent-positivity rate on COVID-19 in the county has been the highest in Virginia in recent days. The county’s percent positivity rate as of May 17 was 28%. The Northam administration is recommending localities have a percent-positivity rate of 10% before reopening.
“I think it’s irresponsible to think that we need to reopen. I am not willing to put people’s lives at risk when the data is not going in the right direction,” Wheeler said. “We have some of the per capita highest positives in the state … I can’t ignore that.”
Franklin said she also opposed reopening restaurants a week early. Franklin’s district encompasses the 22191 ZIP Code, which has among the highest rates of positive COVID-19 cases in the state. Franklin said more data is needed about whether the county is ready to open, and whether there are public health risks involved in reopening restaurants patios.
“I want to stand with our business owners as much as possible, but I want to know what the risk factors are if we do this,” Franklin said. “Right now, I feel like we’re ill prepared to make this decision.”
There are four ZIP Codes in the Prince William Health District that have more than 150 cases per 10,000 residents – three of those ZIP Codes areas are in the Manassas area, and one is located in Woodbridge, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. They have among the highest case counts in the state.
Boddye, who voted in favor of the reopening of restaurant patios this weekend, said it was a difficult decision to make.
“I reject the notion that there’s a no-brainer choice here,” Boddye said. “If we allow anyone to open up a little bit more, we are risking some level of public safety as a result of that. And the question becomes, are we willing to balance those risks?”
The letter was sent by the board on Wednesday, with the goal of reopening restaurant patios by Friday.
Asked during his Wednesday press conference about how he would respond to Prince William’s request, Northam did not give a definitive answer.
Northam recently declined a request from leaders in western Loudoun County to allow their area to ease restrictions before the rest of Northern Virginia. On Wednesday, Northam said he “takes everything into consideration” after receiving such requests but strives to “remain consistent” in his decisions about the reopening process.