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Northam to White House: Virginia has already let churches reopen

Mike Still • May 23, 2020 at 1:00 PM

RICHMOND — A demand by the Trump administration to let churches reopen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is after the fact, Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday.

Northam, asked about his reaction to the White House’s insistence to let churches reopen in states where governors have imposed lockdowns on businesses and public gathering places, said Virginia has allowed outdoor and drive-in worship services since his March emergency closing orders. Places of worship have also been allowed to operate at half-capacity for occupancy since May 15, he added, when Phase One of the state’s “Forward Virginia” reopening plan went into effect in most regions of the state.

The Washington Post reported Friday that President Donald Trump said “if governors do not follow his recommendations to allow in-person religious services to resume, he will ‘override’ them.”

“We’ve made sure people can continue to practice their faith,” Northam said.

Northam announced two new initiatives related to the pandemic. Virginia will participate in a USDA pilot program whereby 740,000 state residents receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits will be able to buy groceries online and have them delivered through Amazon or Walmart starting May 29.

Northam said the SNAP grocery pilot program will allow vulnerable populations to obtain food without risking exposure to COVID-19 infection. SNAP customers cannot pay for delivery, convenience or other fees with their benefits, but can buy groceries using Amazon’s or Walmart’s online systems.

Other retailers interested in participating in the program can contact the USDA, Northam said.

Northam also announced the Virginia Department of Health’s new online symptom checker (www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covidcheck/). The website includes a series of questions to help the user identify specifics about their symptoms, get advice on self-isolation or treatment and find nearby COVID-19 testing locations.

Northam’s weekly schedule of COVID-19 public updates will shift to Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2 p.m. starting May 26. He said he expected to give more information next week on how and when the state may enter Phase Two of reopening businesses and public places.

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