While Governor Ralph Northam says he may allow churches, restaurants, barber shops and gyms to slowly reopen beginning on May 15, some of Louisa’s elected leaders want control over when and how that happens.
The Louisa County Board of Supervisors voted on Monday to pass a resolution asking the governor to give them the power to let businesses reopen before June 10.
That is the date Northam’s stay-at-home order, which was issued to curb gatherings of 10 or more individuals, is scheduled to expire. Executive Order 53, which closed non-essential businesses, was originally set to end on April 23; the governor later extended the end date to May 8 and then May 15.
Supervisor Duane Adams (Mineral District) presented the board’s resolution. Since “only 49” confirmed cases of coronavirus had been tallied in Louisa County by the Virginia Department of Health as of Monday, he said, it’s appropriate for county officials to decide when to reopen. It’s an urgent matter, he said, since thousands of local residents have filed for unemployment and mom-and-pop shops are “dying on the vine” because of the pandemic.
“While mom-and-pop shops are closed, Walmart and Lowe’s are packed,” he said. “We’re all in this together, but it’s killing small businesses.”
Supervisors Tommy Barlow, Toni Williams and Willie Gentry (Mountain Road, Jackson and Cuckoo districts) joined Adams in the majority for the 4-3 vote.
In his regular public comments on May 4, Northam said localities with fewer confirmed cases should not take that as a sign to open early. He warned that if one area of the state opens earlier than others, residents could see an influx of out-of-town visitors from areas that are still shut down, and a spike in virus cases.
“If we open some areas but not others, people will travel from hotspots to other areas,” he said. “We would also be picking winners and losers. I want us to open as a Commonwealth.”
Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes (Patrick Henry District) said while he supports small businesses impacted by the virus, he took exception to Adams using the word “only” to refer to the 49 recorded cases. Nine of those cases led to hospitalizations, although no Louisa residents are known to have died from the illness to date.
Williams said he agreed that the word “only” was inappropriate, and Adams agreed to remove it from his resolution.
Barnes said he’s worried about keeping others safe, including his wife, who hasn’t been outside of their home much since the governor’s restrictions on public gatherings and businesses went into effect in mid-March.
“It isn’t fair to her if I bring something home,” he said, explaining why he wears a mask, including at board meetings.
Supervisor Eric Purcell (Louisa District) said he would not support passing a resolution that had no practical effect, since the governor made it clear he does not favor opening one part of the state before another.
“I’m not interested in making political points or poking people with sticks,” he said. “You can do that at the ballot box in November.”
The state will issue more detailed guidance about how businesses will be allowed to open with social distancing in the next few days. Northam said reopening would happen using a three-phase approach. In phase one, beginning on May 15 and lasting at least two to four weeks, gatherings will remain limited to 10 or more people. In a second phase of the same duration, up to 50 people would be allowed to gather. A third phase in which capacity limits are lifted for businesses could be 10 to 12 weeks away, or more. To get to that point, the state would be looking for “no evidence of rebound” of the virus for “a sustained period of time.”
Northam set May 15 as the target date for the initial reopening based on several statewide trends, including the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus as a share of tests; the amount of personal protective equipment available to medical workers; and the rate of hospitalizations statewide.
Once businesses reopen, “you’ll be able to get a haircut, but you’ll need an appointment,” Northam said. “You’ll be able to go to the gym, but with fewer people.” And restaurants will be expected to keep diners at more of a distance from each other than in the past.