RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After two months of being largely shutdown amid the coronavirus, most of Virginia is beginning the first phase of a gradual reopening plan put in place by Gov. Ralph Northam.
Nonessential businesses across the state reopened Friday under modified restrictions set in place by the governor. Retail stores were reopening with limited capacity, but indoor gyms remained closed, beaches were still off limits to sunbathers and restaurants were prohibited from indoor dine-in service.
And there’s a large asterisk accompanying Virginia’s reopening, as northern Virginia, Richmond and Accomack County were all granted two-week delays after elected leaders there expressed concern it was too early to open amid the coronavirus outbreak. Altogether, that accounts for about a third of the state’s total population.
In places that were open, some people expressed cautious optimism at regaining some type of normalcy.
The number of picnic tables on the patio of Redwood Smoke Shack, a popular BBQ and beer spot in Norfolk, were whittled down from nine to four. Another four tables were spaced out in a nearby parking lot.
Employees wore masks as they served up brisket and pulled pork. As patio tables filled for the first time in two months on a sunny, 80-degree day, owner Bob Roberts said: “It makes me happy. But also, is it the right thing to do?”
“We just don’t know what the repercussions will be statewide,” Roberts continued. “Will everyone follow the rules and regulations? We’re writing the manual here. We’re doing the best we can to see what works.”
Redwood customer Scott Malone, 46, who works for a commercial dive and maritime construction company, said he and his family will be selective on where they go.
“We might try another restaurant, but if they’re not at this level (of precaution), we won’t go,” he said on the patio, his mask around his neck. “It’s not worth the risk.”
Stacey Zebrowski, a Zumba instructor at a YMCA in Henrico County, led morning classes on a soccer field. She wore a mask and class participants kept far apart from each other. While far different from her normal classes, Zebrowski said it felt “fantastic” to be back teaching again.
“People were sincerely happy to be back,” said said. “You could just see the joy in their eyes.”
Meanwhile, people in parts of the state that remained closed expressed frustration.
“You can tell from some of the government leaders’ comments that there’s not an appreciation or respect for businesses,” said Tom Houck, who runs the nonprofit Top of the Podium wrestling center in Sterling, a youth training center in northern Virginia.
Next month begins the summer camp season, which is critically important to maintaining the facility’s revenue stream, Houck said.
He has instituted a 30-point plan to improve safety at the camps, from enhanced disinfection to modifying the content of camps to reduce heavy exertion and keep kids paired up with the same sparring partner. He thinks families should be trusted to make an informed decision about whether they want to participate.
Northam said he’s basing his decision to reopen on positive trends in key metrics related to the virus’s spread, like hospital readiness and testing capacity. He’s stressed repeatedly that the process will be slow and at a news conference Friday urged people to continue social distancing and to stay home when possible.
Northam has been criticized by black lawmakers and progressive activist groups for reopening too soon and by Republicans who said he has not moved quickly enough.
As the state has started to reopen, many employers are reporting problems trying to recall laid-off workers, said Joyce Fogg, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Employment Commission.
Some people earn more from unemployment than they did previously, especially with a $600 per week supplemental federal payment. Some workers also worry about contracting the virus or spreading it to their loved ones. An Associated Press analysis earlier this month showed thousands of people are getting sick from COVID-19 on the job
Fogg noted that the commission has added a link at the top of its homepage where employers can report information about an individual who has refused to return to work, something Fogg said would likely cut off the person’s unemployment benefits.
Northam said Friday that he understood some public-facing workers may not feel comfortable returning and said his administration was working on possible accommodations.