Virginia's capital city and a rural county on the Eastern Shore are opting out of beginning to reopen Friday, saying it is still too soon to ease restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Ralph Northam granted requests to the city of Richmond and Accomack County on Thursday afternoon to delay a gradual reopening of some nonessential businesses just hours ahead of when those areas were set to start reopening. The governor is easing some restrictions in most of the state Friday. He previously granted a two-week delay to several localities in northern Virginia.
He delayed the reopenings by two weeks, which he’d previously done for several localities in Northern Virginia.
“As I have said previously, Virginia’s Phase One guidelines represent a floor, not a ceiling,” the Democratic governor said in a statement. “I have encouraged local leaders to request exemptions when appropriate."
The move disappointed some business owners who had been preparing to reopen.
After Mark Overby, the owner of Home Team Grill, a sports bar in Richmond, heard that restaurants would be allowed to serve customers with outdoor seating, he went out and bought new tables with easy-to-clean surfaces. He also purchased foliage plants to create natural barriers to comply with social distancing guidelines and called back five workers who were furloughed when COVID-19 hit two months ago.
“If it’s not safe, it's not safe. I’m OK with that, but I would like a little more notice," Overby said.
Natalie Gordon, the owner of Avenue 42 Salon in downtown Richmond, called the decision “a slap in the face” at the “11th hour.”
Northam's order won't affect the heavily populated suburbs around Richmond, including Chesterfield and Henrico counties. Gordon said she worries that some of her customers — she had 30 appointments booked for Friday alone — will choose to go elsewhere.
“Everyone's ready to get back to work,” she said. “We need to get back to work.”
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said at a news conference Thursday that the most recently available data show an increase in the number of coronavirus tests coming back positive in the last two weeks. He also said the virus is having a disproportionate impact on people of color and noted that Richmond has a higher percentage of minorities than the rest of the state.
“I cannot justify risking the health and safety of residents of the great city of Richmond by moving forward with Phase One. I just cannot do that,” Stoney said.
Black state lawmakers have also asked Northam to delay reopening, citing the virus's impact on minorities. People of color are especially exposed because they are more likely to hold many of the jobs that were deemed essential, and, as the reopening starts, they are likely to be among those whose workplaces open first.
By the most recent count, Richmond has had about 611 total cases of the virus. The city has about 230,000 residents.
Accomack County has about 32,000 residents and at least 593 cases. The county is home to two large chicken processing plants that have been hot spots for virus outbreaks. Northam also grew up there.
The Eastern Shore's other county, Northampton, did not request a delayed reopening.
The Accomack County Board of Supervisors voted 5-4 Wednesday to ask Northam to delay reopening. The board said in a letter to the governor that it needs another two weeks to gather sufficient data to determine if the county is ready to start reopening.
Northam announced earlier this week he was delaying the reopening in Northern Virginia by two weeks after elected officials there said the region, which accounts for about 30% of the state’s total population, wasn’t ready. He’s also come under fire from some Republicans for not moving more quickly to reopen the state like some other governors have done.
Also Thursday, new unemployment figures were released by the federal government showing more than 53,000 initial claims were filed in Virginia during the week ending May 9. That number is down by about 6,000 from the week before and marks the fifth straight week of declining totals, but it is still far higher than before the pandemic.
Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.
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