Ralph Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, dons a mask as he leaves a news conference, Thursday, June 4, in Richmond, Va. 

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia is entering Phase Three of its reopening plan today, but all safety protocol, including mandatory wearing of facial coverings in public buildings, remain in place.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week the state was ready to enter the phase as statistics in several key areas continue to trend well, including a steady decline in positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths associated with COVID-19.

Phase Three will allow social gatherings of up to 250 people; no capacity on occupancy for non-essential businesses, including restaurants, with physical distancing required; zoos and museums and other large venues will be 50 percent capacity but no more than 1,000 people; gyms and fitness centers as well as swimming pools will be at 75 percent capacity; and hair salons and barbershops with no capacity limits but physical distancing required; recreational sports can happen but with physical distancing.

Northam said he is aware of surges of positive cases in other states as they reopen and he does not want to see that happen in the commonwealth and it will not if “everyone continues to take this pandemic very seriously.”

Those surges in other states are “being monitored very closely,” he said, adding that it is possible Virginia could return to previous phases if it becomes necessary.

“If we see surges in the commonwealth and are going in the wrong direction obviously we will have to make difficult decisions,” he said. “If we become complacent and don’t continue to follow the guidelines the possibility is there we would have to go back. I don’t want to do that and I don’t think anybody wants to do that.”

On a related issue, Attorney General Mark Herring announced Tuesday that a legal challenge to Virginia’s facial covering mandate was defeated.

A Fauquier County winery and its owner had filed suit challenging the Governor’s ability to order the use of face coverings and claiming the order conflicted with the criminal statute barring the wearing of a mask in public “with the intent to conceal his identity.” Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction allowing them to opt out of the mask law, but Judge Jeanette Irby of the Twentieth Judicial Circuit denied the request for an injunction after finding that “the plaintiffs cannot demonstrate a clear showing of likely success on the merits.”

“Wearing a mask is such an easy, effective way to help control the spread of COVID and to show your fellow Virginians that you care about the health and well-being of your friends, neighbors, and community,” Herring said. “As cases continue to spike around the country, we know that our progress in controlling COVID in Virginia is real, but requires a sustained commitment to things like covering our faces and maintaining social distancing whenever possible. I’m proud we were able to defend this commonsense measures to help stop COVID, and I’m really proud of all the great work my team has done to keep Virginians safe during this uncertain time.”

Although the overall numbers in the commonwealth continue to improve, according to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) positive cases in Southwest Virginia have been on the increase.

The region has seen a slow increase in the number of positive cases since March, with fluctuations along the way.

For example a spike on May 20 saw 61 positive cases, but dropping to 30 on June 14. However, during the following two weeks, a sharp increase in cases was recorded, peaking at 86 on June 22.

Both Tazewell and Giles Counties have seen a significant rise in positive cases just over the last 10 days.

Tazewell County jumped from 9 to 15 and Giles County from five to 15.

The state as a whole reached its peak on May 18 with 1,273 positive cases reported, with the latest one-day spike on June 22 at 561.

Hospitalizations and deaths have also continued to fall around the state. The number of deaths peaked on May 4 with 44 and the latest peak was on June 21 with eight.

Hospitalizations peaked on May 4 with 110, dropping to 22 on June 23.

As of Tuesday, Virginia has reported a total of 62,787 positive cases, 6,203 hospitalizations and 1,763 deaths.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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