If COVID-19 virus numbers keep declining and vaccination rates keep rising, Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday he will lift mitigation measures, capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements starting June 15.
Speaking from Richmond, the governor said Virginia’s vaccination rates are looking good enough for the state to open at 100% capacity, except for any specific venue concerns, by mid-June.
“The vaccines are working,” Northam said. “They’re helping reduce the spread of this disease.”
Encouraging all eligible people who haven’t been vaccinated yet to get the vaccine, he reiterated that the only requirement for getting the COVID-19 vaccine is that participants are 16 or older.
“Getting vaccinated is easy and free,” Northam said. “It’s what we all envisioned when we heard a vaccine was finally ready — a vaccine that is easy for everyone to get.”
After more than 13 months of Virginia’s mask mandate, the June 15 plan for lifting restrictions presents an exciting goal for residents, visitors and business owners.
However, June's deadline could be a problem for people who still want to wear masks because the commonwealth’s previous ban against wearing a mask will resume.
On June 30, Virginia’s declaration of a state of emergency for the pandemic expires, as do all other declarations of states of emergency, said Rita Davis, lead counselor to the governor.
Before the pandemic, it was a felony in Virginia for adults to wear a mask in public that obscures their identity except in special circumstances such as a mask worn as part of one’s job. The law also applies to face paint that obscures a person’s identity.
Virginia Code 18.2-422 reads “It shall be unlawful for any person over 16 years of age to, with the intent to conceal his identity, wear any mask, hood or other device whereby a substantial portion of the face is hidden or covered so as to conceal the identity of the wearer, to be or appear in any public place, or upon any private property in this Commonwealth without first having obtained from the owner or tenant thereof consent to do so in writing.”
The code gives exceptions for “wearing protective masks which are deemed necessary for the physical safety of the wearer or other persons,” and “wearing a mask, hood or other device for bona fide medical reasons…”
These reasons include “the advice of a licensed physician or osteopath and carrying on his person an affidavit from the physician or osteopath specifying the medical necessity” and “the declaration of a disaster or state of emergency by the Governor in response to a public health emergency where the emergency declaration expressly waives this section, defines the mask appropriate for the emergency, and provides for the duration of the waiver.”
Under Virginia law, “The violation of any provisions of this section is a Class 6 felony,” the code says.
If Northam does not extend the state of emergency or designate a new declaration, Davis said, then as of July 1, it will be illegal again in Virginia for adults to wear a face mask in public.
Northam did not specify plans for extending the state of emergency except to say that he will comply with guidelines from the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Northam said he’s encouraged by recent numbers that show COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are in decline while vaccinations keep rising.
For the last couple of weeks, he said, the Virginia Department of Health has recorded fewer than 1,000 cases each day and now has a seven-day average lower than it’s been since October.
“That’s a big deal after a hard year, and we should all celebrate that,” he said.
Hospitalizations with positive COVID tests are also at their lowest number since October, and although new daily deaths are still occurring, he said those numbers are trending down.
“Every death is tragic, but this is a hopeful sign as well,” Northam said. “These are all very positive signs.”
In addition to mass vaccination sites, the COVID vaccine is now available at various pharmacies, doctors’ offices and smaller community sites. Many sites are taking walk-ins as well as offering appointments.
On Wednesday, CVS announced that 342 of its Virginia locations would now accept walk-ins for the vaccine as well as same-day appointments.
Locally, that includes five Winchester locations, both Front Royal locations and Woodstock’s store, a company representative later confirmed. Locations are at:
* 800 John Marshall Highway, Front Royal
* 10 Crooked Run Plaza, Front Royal
* 1920 Senseny Road, Winchester
* 1379 North Frederick Pike, Winchester
* 1725 Amherst St., Winchester
* 2340 Legge Blvd., Winchester
* 191 Market St., Winchester
* 221 W. Reservoir Road, Woodstock
In Warren County, the Lord Fairfax Health District will host a walk-in clinic at the Parks and Recreation Gymnasium in the Warren County Health & Human Services Complex at 465 W. 15th St. on Wednesday. Best walk-in times are from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
In Shenandoah County, the fairgrounds will host a drive-through first-dose Moderna vaccination clinic for in-county residents only from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursday. Reservations are required, and a second-dose appointment will be scheduled for June 10. Reserve a spot by calling 540-459-3733.
In Winchester, the Apple Blossom Mall will be hosting regular walk-in clinics on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays starting on Wednesday. Times will be 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays in a store between Victoria’s Secret and LensCrafters. The most convenient entrance is near H&R Block.
For more information, go to vaccines.gov, the new site address for vaccinefinder.org. Click on “Find COVID-19 Vaccines” and type in the Zip code of the area you’re searching for a list of available locations. Or visit vdh.virginia.gov/lord-fairfax/covid-19-vaccine-clinics.
Addressing people who may still be on the fence about getting a vaccine, Northam encouraged them to talk to their doctor.
“It is an unpredictable disease. It can put anyone in the hospital, including young people. It can cause long-lasting debilitating side effects,” he said.
Recalling his own experience contracting COVID in October, he said risking getting sick from the coronavirus or its variants is worse than any side effects from the vaccine.
“Seven months later, I still can’t smell or taste anything," he said. "Many long-lasting side effects are much worse."