Northam orders 10-customer limit at restaurants, gyms

Restaurants, gyms, and theaters in Virginia will not serve more than 10 customers at a time under an order the governor issued Tuesday in response to the coronavirus.

Gov. Ralph Northam also urged Virginians to comply with new federal guidelines not to gather in groups of more than 10 and for people older than 65 to self-quarantine.

Several other states and cities have ordered restaurants and bars to close, which Northam said he did not favor. Speaking at a Capitol news conference, he said Virginians get about half their meals from restaurants and an outright ban would be harmful. He also said he hoped that Virginians would voluntarily comply with the new measures.

“I’m much more about carrots than I am about sticks,” Northam said. “Hopefully we get to the point where we don’t have to do a lot of enforcement.”

The governor’s office said the 10-customer cap was indefinite but would be reevaluated in two weeks. Northam’s office said the recommendation to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people “does not include normal operations at essential services such as manufacturers, distribution centers, airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, grocery stores, or pharmacies.”

Northam’s announcement came a day after the White House released a series of sweeping guidelines that for the next 15 days will temporarily rewrite the norms of American society. They include the recommendation not to gather in groups of more than 10 people and that discretionary travel and social visits should be avoided.

The governor had previously banned all public gatherings of more than 100 people and ordered schools closed for two weeks.

Virginians continued to adjust to changes in their normal routines under new restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Because all schools in the state are closed for at least the next two weeks, some districts began distributing meals to families who depend on free school breakfasts and lunches. Henrico County offered the meals for pickup at six different sites. A spokesman said nearly 1,400 meals were picked up on Tuesday, the first day of the program.

In Virginia Beach, Sheriff Ken Stolle said he would start allowing some nonviolent offenders who have 90 days or less left in their sentences to serve house arrest with electronic monitoring devices.

“The coronavirus is presenting an unprecedented challenge to public safety, especially here in the jail, where we have hundreds of people living in close contact,” Stolle said in a statement.

Many restaurant owners in Richmond had already decided to shut down, even before the new restrictions announced by Northam.

Liz Kincaid, co-owner of four restaurants in Richmond, closed them all on Monday. She said business at the restaurants was way down last week amid coronavirus fears, and employees were growing increasingly concerned about potential exposure to the virus.

“It’s a pretty sad moment right now,” she said Tuesday. “It was an extremely difficult decision. A lot of our staff have been with us for a long time __ for years __ and I just hope they understand. … We felt it would be socially irresponsible to stay open at this point.”

The YMCA announced Tuesday that it will temporarily close all of its facilities in the Richmond area. Tim Joyce, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater Richmond, said the closings are being done in an attempt to help “flatten the curve,” the phrase used to describe efforts to slow the spread of the virus so the healthcare system does not get overwhelmed.

“These are unprecedented times unlike any we have been through,” Joyce said in a statement.

Northam said the state would waive a one-week waiting period for people seeking unemployment benefits and expand eligibility to certain workers affected by business closings.

The governor also asked younger people to take precautions to avoid spreading the virus to others.

“Do not go to St. Patrick’s Day parties tonight. If you do, you are literally putting others at risk,” Northam said.

The governor said he was also ordering the temporary closure of Department of Motor Vehicle offices around the state.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Virginia had 67 cases of the virus, up from 51 the day before. That includes the first known instance of someone at a long-term care facility testing positive for the virus.

“This is very concerning,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said.

He said the state was actively investigating the case and working with the nursing home to isolate the patient so the virus doesn’t spread to others at the facility.

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