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Northam: Most of Virginia still on track for Friday reopening

Mike Still • May 12, 2020 at 8:00 AM

RICHMOND – Virginia is probably heading toward its first step in reopening businesses, but Northern Virginia may be holding back.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday said that Northern Virginia is lagging behind the rest of the state in how it is achieving five basic criteria for a safe reopening of some businesses by Friday.

The Northam administration’s “Forward Virginia” phase one reopening depends on how the state can maintain through the next week a downward trend in COVID-19-related hospitalizations, confirmed new cases per day, the numbers of positive tests each day, along with upward trends in numbers of people tested and adequate hospital bed capacity.

While the northern region is showing improvements in all five areas, Northam said, the rate of positive COVID-19 test results there is 25 percent compared to 10 percent for the rest of the state. In the number of new reported COVID-19 cases in the 24 hours prior to Monday’s press conference, Northam said Northern Virginia had 700 of those cases compared to fewer than 300 across the rest of the state.

Northam said he had asked local governments in Northern Virginia to submit a letter indicating they were in agreement that the region should enter into phase one of the state reopening plan at a slower rate than other regions.

“We will continue to work with those officials on a slower phase one” Northam said.

The final decision of the May 15 reopening will be announced on Wednesday, but chances are good that it will happen, Northam said.

State residents hoping to head back to their local Department of Motor Vehicles offices for new licenses and other vehicle business will have to wait at least another week, Northam said. That includes teenagers who were waiting to get their first driver’s license.

“I ask all of you to be patient,” Northam said, adding that he understood the frustration of teens waiting for their licenses.

How the state will handle workers who have workplace health and safety concerns with a Friday reopening is still uncertain, Northam said. State Workforce Development Director Megan Healy said that staffing and call center capacity are still being expanded to handle the volume of unemployment claims under state unemployment and federal CARES Act benefits programs.

Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said discussions with federal labor officials over workers and health concerns are still happening, and workers will still have adjudication rights under state law when it comes to returning to a workplace where safety is an issue, he said. Provisions for giving first responders and health care workers automatic presumptions under state law for not returning to work would have to be passed by the General Assembly, he said.

“I think there will be tension with the Trump administration,” Mercer said of extending unemployment benefits for workers’ health concerns, adding he would prefer to see states be allowed to handle those issues.

Northam said the possibility of Friday’s reopening has been because of state residents following basic health guidelines and driving down new case rates.

“We need to continue with social distancing, we need to continue staying six feet apart, washing our hands, keeping our hands off our face,” Northam said. “All these things, we know they work. We have to keep doing it.”

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