A sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in Hampton Roads led Gov. Ralph Northam to issue a warning during a press briefing on Tuesday—wear masks or face the consequences. He coined a new catch phrase for the directive: No shirts, no shoes, no mask, no service.
Northam said that the number of coronavirus cases in Hampton Roads has been on the rise over the past few days, with the rate of positive test results now topping 10 percent. While the region averaged 60 cases a day in June, he said, it had 346 cases on Tuesday alone.
There is a substantial amount of community spread of the illness in the region, said Northam, largely driven by people socializing without wearing masks, especially those in the 20-29 year-old age range, for whom cases are up by 250 percent.
“People are clearly flouting the rules,” he said. “You are being selfish.”
Virginia Department of Health statistics for Monday were even worse than Tuesday, with 450 new cases for just six localities—Chesapeake (73), Hampton (56), Norfolk (40), Newport News (96), Portsmouth (28) and Virginia Beach (157).
As a result, Northam said there will be stronger enforcement of mask and social-distancing requirements in the region. He said he was sending a letter to local health districts about increasing enforcement measures, and was instructing Virginia ABC and Agriculture and Consumer Services personnel to begin making unannounced visits to places of business.
“If you’re not following requirements, your licenses will be on the line,” he said. “If a patron is violating the rules, you have the ability to enforce them.”
Northam said businesses have long enforced a requirement that people wear shirts and shoes in restaurants and retail stores. Now, he said, they need to add masks to that requirement.
“You can tell them to leave, and call the police if necessary,” he said.
The governor said his staff is working on a plan for an earlier cut-off time for alcohol sales at restaurants, and he is considering reducing the size of gatherings allowed from the 250 people outlined under Phase 3 guidelines to just 50. In addition, he has asked beach towns to provide him with information about how they’re following through on beach access plans they developed in May.
Statewide the numbers still look good, said Northam, with the number of people testing positive still well below 10 percent. Although Northern Virginia has two-thirds of the population of the entire state, he said, cases there are dramatically down, and the numbers remain low in the western and central parts of the state, as well.
Northam said that the decision about whether to open schools is “not an easy choice,” and he emphasized that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to schools.
“We all want to be comfortable sending our children back to school,” he said, “and we want our teachers and support staff to feel comfortable, as well.”
There are fewer students per classroom in some parts of the state, said Northam, making it perhaps easier to accommodate social distancing needs and allowing those schools to reopen more safely.
Because of this, Northam said, local school boards will decide whether they’ll be able to open their schools while complying with guidelines for safety. Colleges and universities will make their own decisions, as well, taking into consideration the health data on their localities and shifting policy as needed.
“I want to remind you that we have come a long way together since March,” said Northam. “We’ve flattened the curve and kept hospitals from becoming overcrowded. I’m grateful to everyone for putting their neighbors first. But we can’t act like the crisis has gone away. We have to remain vigilant.”
In addition to wearing masks, Northam reminded people to physically distance from each other, wash their hands frequently, and stay home if they feel sick.
“We can’t go back to where we started, and we don’t have to,” he said. “If we want to return to something like normal life, we have to all do our part. We are all in this together.”