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Virginia to impose nightly curfew, limit social gatherings to 10 people, tighten mask rules

Virginia will be under a nightly curfew from midnight until 5 a.m., and social gatherings will be limited to 10 people under new public restrictions meant to stem the surge of COVID-19 that take effect early Monday.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the restrictions Thursday afternoon, citing an untamed spike of COVID-19 cases in the state in the middle of the busy holiday season.

“Virginia will go into a modified stay-at-home order,” Northam said during a briefing with reporters. “The virus, we know, spreads when people are around each other in groups. When groups are smaller, it spreads less. That’s one more reason why it’s important to stay home. If you don’t need to be out, we ask you to stay home.”
 
The Northam administration declined to further tighten restrictions on restaurants and bars, arguing that existing restrictions are sufficient.

The new restrictions go into effect a minute into Monday, and expire Jan. 31. Northam said restrictions could be lifted early or extended, depending on the state’s trends. (The governor’s new executive order incorporates two others he issued previously.)

“We don’t want to extend this but we may have to. It all depends on what the virus is doing next. And that depends on what you do,” Northam said, speaking into the camera to Virginians watching.
 
The state on Thursday also tightened its guidance on mask wearing to align with new guidance the federal Centers for Disease Control issued last week.
All Virginians ages 5 and over will now be required to wear masks indoors when sharing the space with other people who are coming within 6 feet. That includes private residences. The amended executive order says the restriction does not apply to people inside their personal residence, but administration officials are encouraging Virginians to wear masks when hosting visitors, or when visiting others.
Masks are now also required outdoors when coming within 6 feet of other people.
Over the past week, the state has averaged 3,800 new COVID-19 cases per day, a staggering number compared with the state’s previous peaks. The positivity rate — the share of people testing positive among everyone tested — is now at 11%. Just three months ago, that rate was 4.8%, below the World Health Organization’s suggested 5% target, which would suggest the spread of the virus is under control.
 
 
While state and federal health officials have touted an impending vaccine, it may be months until the general public has access to it, making social distancing crucial to keeping cases low and hospitals from breaching their capacities, state officials said.

Virginia is following the lead of North Carolina, which this week implemented a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew amid a surge of cases there.
Virginia’s curfew will start later, at midnight. As it’s done in the past, the Northam administration said it will rely on education and public goodwill, not enforcement, to foster compliance.
“The purpose is to be a step beyond what we’ve done with the 10 p.m. alcohol restrictions. We know people tend to get less vigilant late at night, especially with alcohol involved,” Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said.
 
The curfew will include broad exceptions for work and essential needs, but it will not include exceptions for visits with friends and family outside people’s immediate households.
 
“The goal is not off the street, but in your residence,” Yarmosky said.

The Northam administration is also again dropping the limit of people who can gather in private or in public for socializing. Last month, the administration set the limit at 25. It will now drop down to 10, reflecting the limit in place during the strictest phase of the pandemic in the spring.
The decision comes 15 days before Christmas and on the first day of Hanukkah, likely forcing many extended families to reconsider their holiday plans.

Does not apply to businesses, churches
The gathering limit doesn’t apply to businesses, places of worship and other specific venues, which are currently operating under their own, venue-specific restrictions.
Those restrictions appeared to remain unchanged Thursday, with the exception that all restaurants, dining establishments, food courts, breweries, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, and tasting rooms must close by midnight, in line with the curfew. Those establishments were already operating under a restriction that cut off alcohol sales at 10 p.m., and guidelines on social distancing and masking.
 
 
The Northam administration said Thursday that it is stepping up enforcement of those guidelines, and sanctioning businesses found out of compliance.
Nicole Riley, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the group is glad Northam “did not further restrict small businesses,” but is concerned that Northam’s modified stay-at-home order will reduce the number of people coming into retail shops and restaurants.

“Continued restrictions will only increase the likelihood more and more small businesses will not survive especially with no additional financial relief from either the federal or state government,” Riley said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, called the governor’s curfew order “blatantly unconstitutional” and questioned how it would save lives.
The administration on Thursday also doubled down on its workplace guidance urging workplaces that can telework to do so.
 
“The message is clear. If you can work from home, please do it. If you don’t need to go out, please stay at home,” Northam said.
The governor reiterated that the state is not making policy for colleges and universities, arguing that local communities “are working very hard to make thoughtful and responsible decisions at the local level, because local leaders know what’s right for their community.”
 
At the same time, Northam said the state is working to ensure teachers are prioritized to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down an order by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that set limits on gatherings in places of worship in parts of the state hit hard by COVID-19.

Virginia Senate Republican leaders said of Northam’s actions Thursday: “While we are relieved he abided by the recent decisions of the Supreme Court and did not attempt to force further restrictions on churches, the imposition of a statewide curfew smacks of martial law.”

While the state is not issuing new restrictions specific to places of worship, Northam urged the state’s religious leaders to encourage healthy behaviors among their communities.
 
“For me, God is wherever you are. You don’t have to sit in a pew for God to hear your prayers. So I strongly call on our faith leaders to lead the way,” Northam said. “Worship outside or worship online is still worship.”
 
mleonor@timesdispatch.com