RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia could lift capacity limits and relax rules for social distancing next month if the rate of coronavirus infections continues to fall in the state, Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday.
The state's tentative plan is to loosen those restrictions on June 15 and allow businesses such as theaters and yoga studios to operate at full capacity.
Northam said Virginia still needs to evaluate a possible change in the future to its mandate for wearing masks, with the state most likely continuing to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“But this is good news,” the Democratic governor said at a news conference. “And it’s thanks to the millions of Virginians who have done the right thing for so long.”
The Virginia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business had called the state's restrictions “stringent.” It expressed relief that Northam was “finally” planning to lift the rules.
“We have seen countless other states ease their restrictions and let small businesses re-open for the busy summer months," state director Nicole Riley said in a statement. “Small businesses will be able to rebuild, rehire and continue to support Virginia’s economy.”
Northam stressed that the state had not yet reached “the finish line” and that Virginians still need to take precautions and get vaccinated. He also noted a dip in demand for vaccines in recent weeks.
The average number of doses administered daily was nearly 85,000 in early April compared to a little more than 66,000 in early May, according to the Virginia Department of Health's website.
A third of the state's population is fully vaccinated, while 45.9% of Virginians have received at least one dose, according to the website.
Northam, who is a physician, said he hopes that 70% to 75% of the state's population gets vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and to help fight against the more dangerous coronavirus variants.
“We know there are a variety of reasons why someone who is eligible hasn’t been vaccinated yet,” Northam said. “Some people may not know that they’re eligible. I want to be clear: The only eligibility requirement now is that you’re 16 or older. And soon that will probably be 12 or older.”
Virginia's community vaccination clinics are now welcoming people who walk in without an appointment — as are many pharmacies, the governor said. The state will launch new mobile vaccine units next week that will focus on underserved areas.
Meanwhile, the numbers for new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are decreasing, Northam said. For instance, daily reported cases peaked at nearly 10,000 in mid-January compared to the 842 cases reported on Wednesday.
The downward trend preceded the state's announcement last month that it will loosen some coronavirus-related restrictions starting May 15.
Under the new guidelines, the maximum number of individuals permitted in a social gathering will increase to 100 people for indoor settings and 250 people for outdoor settings — up from 50 and 100, respectively.
Indoor entertainment and public amusement venues will be able to operate at 50% capacity, or 1,000 people, up from 30% capacity, or 500 people. Restaurants also will be allowed to return to selling alcohol after midnight.