Gatherings limited to 25 people starting midnight Sunday, masks required for ages 5 and up

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Friday that the state will enforce new restrictions to prevent further spread of COVID-19 starting at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 16, including limiting gatherings to 25 people — down from a current cap of 250 people. Also, all people ages 5 and older will be required to wear face masks in indoor public spaces, a change from a limit on people ages 10 and up.

Enforcement of social distancing, mask wearing and cleaning at grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential retail businesses will be increased, with violations leading to possible Class 1 misdemeanor charges, and there will be an on-site alcohol curfew of 10 p.m. for all businesses that serve drinks.

The 25-person limit on gatherings does not affect Virginia’s theme parks, which are limited to 1,000 patrons under Phase Three of Northam’s reopening plan. According to a spokesperson from Busch Gardens, the new orders pertain only to “small gatherings like parties, weddings. We continue to enforce our mask and social distancing policy, plus temperature checks for all guests and ambassadors,” Cindy Sarko said in an email Friday. Both Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion have announced plans for holiday-themed events.

Nicole Riley, director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement that “this late announcement on a Friday afternoon puts many small businesses in a difficult position to not only understand the new restrictions but prepare and comply by midnight Sunday. It will be devastating to hard-hit restaurants and event venues that are already struggling to stay afloat, and now they must cope with additional reductions in operating hours and possibly the number of customers. It could mean permanent closures.” Riley added that the organization hopes that “the threat of criminal charges will be handled in a judicious way by authorities so that those who have acted in good faith aren’t unfairly penalized.”

Virginia has seen an uptick in coronavirus cases over the past month, although not the extremes reported in other states. On Friday, the U.S. reported more than 153,000 new coronavirus cases recorded Thursday, setting a new one-day record, and 66,000 people were hospitalized with the virus.

According to the governor’s office, Virginia is averaging 1,500 newly-reported COVID-19 cases per day, up from a statewide peak of approximately 1,200 in May. The statewide seven-day positivity rate is 6.5%, according to the Virginia Department of Health update Friday, but the percentage is higher in Southwest Virginia, where the rate has hovered around 8% to 9% for the past month. Virus-related hospitalizations have increased statewide by more than 35% in the last four weeks.

“COVID-19 is surging across the country, and while cases are not rising in Virginia as rapidly as in some other states, I do not intend to wait until they are. We are acting now to prevent this health crisis from getting worse,” Northam said in a statement. “Everyone is tired of this pandemic and restrictions on our lives. I’m tired, and I know you are tired too. But as we saw earlier this year, these mitigation measures work. I am confident that we can come together as one commonwealth to get this virus under control and save lives.”

At his COVID-19 public update Tuesday, Northam said he prefers “carrots” — asking Virginians to wear masks and keep safe distances, as well as washing their hands frequently — as opposed to “sticks,” meaning enforced restrictions. But as numbers rose in the commonwealth and the nation, the governor noted Tuesday that restrictions were not off the table. Several other governors have placed limits on gatherings and enforced masks and other safety measures in recent weeks as case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths skyrocket. Private gatherings at homes, experts say, have been the cause of much community spread of the virus.

The Alleghany, Cumberland Plateau, Lenowisco and Mount Rogers health districts all marked seven-day positivity rates of between 11% and 17% as of Friday, and the city of Roanoke’s rate was 10.5%.

Virginia neared 200,000 total COVID-19 cases since March on Friday, with 199,262 cases reported by VDH, including an increase of 1,235 cases Thursday. There have been 3,785 total deaths in Virginia since the start of the pandemic, and the nation has recorded 10.6 million cases as of Friday and 243,044 deaths.

Northam released a video Friday explaining the new measures going into effect Sunday at midnight.

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