Mar 23, 2020

Governor Ralph Northam Virginia Coronavirus Briefing Transcript March 23: Closes Schools for the Rest of the School Year

Virgina Governor Coronavirus Update March 23
RevBlogTranscriptsPress Conference TranscriptsGovernor Ralph Northam Virginia Coronavirus Briefing Transcript March 23: Closes Schools for the Rest of the School Year

Governor Ralph Northam held a Virginia coronavirus briefing today on March 23. He announced the closure of all Virginia schools until the end of the school year. Read the full transcript here.

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Ralph Northam: (01:41)
Well, good afternoon and thank you all again for being here, and for those of you that are either listening and are watching at home. We’re here today to talk about the next steps for everyone in Virginia. Since I spoke to you yesterday, community spread continues of COVID-19. As of noon today, we have had 254 positive cases, and unfortunately a total of six deaths. Around 3,700 Virginians have been tested by public and private labs. These numbers will unfortunately continue to rise. As I said yesterday, we are in this for months, not weeks, so we are taking additional actions to keep Virginian safe.

Ralph Northam: (02:31)
Today, I’m directing all schools in Virginia to remain closed, at least through the end of this academic year. Today, I signed Executive Order 53 effective at midnight tomorrow to put additional restrictions on establishments that serve the public. Restaurants can remain open for carry out curb and delivery service only. All recreation and entertainment services such as bowling alleys, theaters, fitness centers, our race tracks must closed. Personal care services that cannot adhere to social distancing like barbershops, spas, massage parlors must close. Non-essential retail establishments can remain open if they allow 10 or fewer patrons and adhere to social distancing and increased sanitizing procedures. Essential services like grocery stores, health services, and businesses in our supply chain will remain open, but they must adhere to social distancing and increased sanitizing procedures. Gatherings of more than 10 are banned.

Ralph Northam: (03:59)
These measures will be in effect statewide for at least 30 days. We do not make these decisions lightly. Virginia is one of the country’s largest and most diverse states, but COVID-19 is serious, and we must act. Unfortunately, the virus does not respect national borders or state borders. It is now everywhere, or it will be soon. That is what happens when a global pandemic hits a nation. With this pandemic, states have been left to figure out this on our own, and I am acting to protect Virginians. It’s important to acknowledge that there is no playbook for this. Every action affects people and their livelihoods. We are acting judiciously and with full regard for the consequences. It is clear that many of our non-essential businesses must close to minimize the the speed at which COVID-19 spreads and protect the capacity of our healthcare system. The point is to limit the places where people gather in groups. We will be posting guidance for what is considered as essential and what is non-essential on our website. This list is not exhaustive. You can expect it to change.

Ralph Northam: (05:36)
I want to be clear. Essential businesses will remain open. These are things like grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and others. You will still be able to buy food and necessary supplies for you and your family. I also want to be clear about the expectations for essential businesses that remain open. Social distancing matters everywhere, so essential businesses that remain open have a responsibility to adhere to social distancing recommendations. You need to step up sanitizing practices on common surfaces. You can find more workplace guidance from the CDC, OSHA and the State Department of Labor and Industry. Make no mistake, if you are essential and open, you have a special responsibility to do the right thing to help make sure Virginians hear these messages about the importance of social distancing. We’re launching a statewide communication effort including targeted messaging on VDOT’s highway signs.

Ralph Northam: (06:49)
Now, let’s talk about our schools. School closures are necessary to minimize the speed at which COVID-19 spreads and protect the capacity of our healthcare system. I know this raises a lot of questions for parents and also for our students. Let’s start with the academics. I want to thank our superintendents, our teachers and other school leaders who have been caring for the families in their schools during this crisis. They sacrifice every day in normal times and they are providing and tremendous example today. I’m hearing stories about people doing reading lessons on YouTube, teachers calling parents just to check in, and volunteers showing up to help package food for our students. This is what it means to serve others, and I thank all of you for doing that.

Ralph Northam: (07:47)
School division leaders will decide how students can learn the information they were meant to cover for the remainder of the year. By tomorrow, our Department of Education will issue guidance to help school divisions think through those decisions and ensure that every student is served equitably. We’re already working on waivers to relieve testing requirements and ensure that our students who were on track to graduate can do so. I understand that for many families, these closures present practical considerations of who will care for children during the day now that they are not in school. These questions are especially pressing for our essential workers such as our doctors, nurses, and first responders, our grocery store workers. These people keep our communities functioning. We have 1.2 million children under age 12 in our commonwealth, and half of them are in public schools or preschools. A Yale study estimates that 80,000 of them may be the children of healthcare workers, so we need an urgent public/private response.

Ralph Northam: (09:05)
Today, I’m calling on our local communities, private daycare providers, community childcare partners, and public schools to rally together to provide childcare for the young children and school age children of essential personnel. Our childcare providers are also essential personnel. We must rally together to fill this pressing need across the commonwealth, while following strict public health protocols to keep our children safe. Today, our Department of Social Services and our Department of Education will issue guidance to communities about how to provide a emergency childcare services for essential personnel.

Ralph Northam: (09:51)
Finally, I want to recognize the extraordinary work of everyone at the Department of Education and in our local schools, who are continuing to make meals accessible to students during these closures. Every single division in the commonwealth has stepped up to the plate to figure out how to feed our children, and I sincerely thank them. If you are a family wondering where your next meal was going to come from, you can text “food,” F-O-O-D, or “comida,” C-O-M-I-D-A. That’s C-O-M-I-D- A, to 877877 to learn more about feeding sites closest to you.

Ralph Northam: (10:38)
Now, let’s talk about what this all means for us as Virginians. We are moving into a period of sacrifice. Most of us have already begun to experience this. Many businesses are closed already because their owners have done the responsible thing. I thank them for the tremendous sacrifices they have made.

Ralph Northam: (11:02)
… them for the tremendous sacrifices they have made. There is more ahead and things are changing fast. Just last week we announced one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Today thousands of people are without work here in our Commonwealth. About 40,000 people have filed for unemployment just last week. That number will unfortunately go up. More families will be out of work. That has serious health consequences too. It will lead to anxiety. It will lead to fear. It is difficult to live with uncertainty. We can expect to see more depression, alcoholism, and domestic violence, but the sooner we all take these necessary steps to slow the spread, the sooner we will all get through this. We all need to take care of each other from afar because social distancing is the only path forward. That’s why I’m directing these business closures today. That is why I am closing our schools.

Ralph Northam: (12:14)
Our priority is to save lives. We have a health crisis and we have an economic crisis, but the sooner that we can get this health crisis under control, the sooner our economy will recover. So I ask every Virginian to stand with me as we fight this battle. Do your part. Stay home when you can and social distance and wash your hands when you must go out for supplies. I know that the next several weeks, the next several months, will be difficult. They will require everyone to change the way that we live and the way we interact with each other. We have not been called upon to sacrifice this in many, many years, but I am calling on you to do just that. We must put aside what we want and replace it with what we need. This will change every part of our life and all of the daily patterns that we’re used to. It will require everyone to sacrifice. It will require all of us to live differently. It will take time, but we can and we will get through this together. So again, thank you for all of your cooperation. This is a team and we will win this battle. I’ll be glad to take your questions.

Henry: (13:46)
The stay at home order, can you kind of qualify what exactly this is that you just ordered?

Ralph Northam: (13:52)
Well, starting with our schools, Henry, we are closing our schools for the rest of the academic year. So for our children that can stay at home, yes. For those that need to be in childcare, I will see if their parents are essential workers, they’re going to need to be in childcare. We are closing, as I said, recreational and entertainment establishments across the Commonwealth of Virginia. We are limiting nonessential bricks and mortar retail stores to 10 or less patrons and for essential businesses we are asking them to adhere to the social distancing that we’ve been talking about and also to adhere to sanitation measure. So, we are encouraging Henry, I think the answer to your question for people to stay at home, but we also know that some people have to work, people have to go out and get supplies, whether they be at the grocery store, the pharmacy, et cetera. People have to go out or should go out and and walk around the neighborhood, go to a park, etc. But anything that we can do to stop gatherings of people is what we intend to do by making these recommendations.

Speaker 1: (15:07)
Governor, you mentioned encouraging people to go out the parks and that sort of thing, but it seems as though at least in our area, the beaches it’s not working as well as perhaps you had hoped. So you haven’t said the word shelter places, but it sounds like you’re going to anytime soon. Can you talk about that decision?

Ralph Northam: (15:25)
Well, I think your question is what do we do about gatherings of 10 or more people on the beach or in parks and we do have means of enforcing this. We’re not out there to penalize people. We certainly are not out there to put people in jails, but we are working with our localities. And for example, if a person from the deputies from the Sheriff’s department sees a congregation on the beach of 10 or more, they will be reminded that that is not acceptable. So, we will be making the rounds, if you will. And again, our effort is not to penalize people, but it is to encourage people to do the right thing. And that’s what we expect of all Virginians.

Kate: (16:06)
Yeah. I was just wondering, Governor, what changed for you between this weekend and today to make you think that this decision was necessary and was it proceeded by any conversation with other regional leaders such as Governor Hogan or Mayor Bowzer?

Ralph Northam: (16:21)
The question was what prompted the decisions today? A couple of things Kate, this, as I’ve said from the first day that this started, this is fluid, it’s dynamic. It changes every day. I have a lot of consultants, public health experts, economical experts, and so we make decisions every day. As I mentioned at the beginning of my comments, the spread in communities continues, the death rate increases. I worry about our capacity in our hospitals. So again, every day I make decisions that are in the best interest of Virginians. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing today.

Ralph Northam: (16:58)
Regarding our communication with other governors, with other leaders in our localities, recently, just earlier today, I was on a phone call with the mayor of Washington, with the governor of Maryland who are our neighbors and just talking about ways that we can work together, ways that we can be consistent with our guidelines. So that will be as least confusion as possible.

Ralph Northam: (17:25)
And also something that I am proud of is the cooperation that we’re receiving from other governances and especially our neighboring governor and mayor. We all share the concern of our capacity in our hospitals, not only with our number of beds, but also with our staff, with our number of amount of equipment, our PPEs, medications, et cetera. So we will be working closely. We have inventories of what’s available. We certainly hope to increase those inventories. We have reciprocity with caregivers. We’ve made a lot of arrangements to be able to take care of each other and work together.

Speaker 2: (18:04)
Two things, one, what does this mean for ABC stores in Virginia and have there been any discussion about tax tolls and [inaudible 00:18:12] general policies surrounding those?

Ralph Northam: (18:15)
The first part of your question is what does this mean for ABC stores? ABC stores will remain open. They will be required to maintain social distancing, sanitation measures, et cetera. And I, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the second part of your question.

Speaker 2: (18:30)
Have you had any discussion about altering tax tolls, like eliminating them to prevent the exchange of cash is obviously not inherently sanitary and preventing those employees from being exposed?

Ralph Northam: (18:42)
Good question. Our Secretary of Transportation, I don’t know is with us, Shannon Valentine. Any from the VEST team know the answer to that question?

Speaker 3: (18:53)
We’d have to research.

Ralph Northam: (18:54)
Yeah, I will certainly get back to you, but the less we are touching different things where droplets could be present, the better. So I will get back with you on that.

Speaker 4: (19:05)
Governor, we’ve seen even stricter measures in some other states. What I’ve read is the experience of Italy and some other countries, the best way to contain this is to do it early to really restrict people’s movements. Why not go farther?

Ralph Northam: (19:22)
We will continue to be proactive. Again, as you see, I have a lot of various smart, capable people around me and we meet every day, literally every hour and make decisions. So I believe that we’ve made some very aggressive steps in Virginia and I’ll continue to look at the data every day, take that into consideration, take the input from people across the Commonwealth and make decisions that we need to that are in the best interest of Virginians.

Speaker 5: (19:53)
Governor, I know there were some doctors in Charlottesville and probably elsewhere, who were talking about [inaudible 00:19:58] desperate need for medical supplies. I know Dr. Kerry has spoken to that, but are there any updates on getting more supplies?

Ralph Northam: (20:09)
Question is about our supplies, medical supplies in Virginia and Dr. Kerry?

Dr. Kerry: (20:17)
Thank you Governor. We do not. We are distributing that which we had gotten from the national stockpile and we continue those efforts on mobilizing. For example, respirators from nonmedical industries that we had mentioned before. We are tracking down every lead. Dr Stern and his team at the logistics team at the VEST and VDEM are continuing to track down every lead, every source we can. So no announcements today, but all of those leads are being followed.

Speaker 6: (20:55)
Over here. Two questions. One, other than recreational businesses are there any other categories of businesses that will be mandated closed? The second question is about testing capacity. Can you give us an update on that? And also are you considering expanding the criteria by which we decide who is tested?

Ralph Northam: (21:17)
Two questions and I appreciate your questions. The first is I think what businesses are open versus not, and I’m going to let our Deputy Secretary of Commerce address that and. If you can just keep your second question and we will move to that next because the answer is going to be a different person.

Angela Navarro: (21:37)
Yes, Angela Navarro, Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade. So there’s three categories of businesses that are impacted by this executive order. The first is recreational and entertainment businesses, which the governor mentioned. Those businesses are explicitly set forth in the executive order and they must close. The second category is restaurants and other businesses that are providing beverage services like breweries and wineries. Those businesses are only allowed to remain open if they provide take out.

Angela Navarro: (22:03)
Those businesses are only allowed to remain open if they provide takeout or delivery services. And then, the third category of businesses that are restricted are non-essential brick and mortar stores. They have to maintain 10 patrons or less in their establishments with adequate social distancing. If they cannot do so, then those businesses also have to close. Thank you.

Speaker 7: (22:20)
I’d just like to clarify: so, the 10 does not include staff members that might be inside?

Angela Navarro: (22:26)
The 10 does not include staff members; it’s patrons of the business itself.

Ralph Northam: (22:33)
And I believe your second question was regarding testing and I’m going to let Dr. Tony answer that. Dr Tony, thank you.

Dr. Tony: (22:43)
So with respect to testing capacity, the State lab is still maintaining a capacity to test samples that are approved by the Virginia Department of Health. Even though we are actively performing testing every day, we are also receiving supplies that are required for us to do the testing. There are multiple components that go into us being able to perform a single test. And as of today, we still have an ability to perform over a thousand patient tests and we’re expecting more supplies again this week.

Dr. Tony: (23:18)
The other initiative that we have been working on is to do extensive outreach to not only the private laboratories within the Commonwealth that are performing testing, but also hospitals and creating a database of all of those facilities that are providing testing, have the capability or are planning to bring up testing. And so, we will have that information and we will be sharing it with the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Hospital Health Care Association so that we will know what testing capacity is available for those samples that are not approved for testing at the State laboratory.

Speaker 7: (24:01)
Will that information be made public at some point?

Dr. Tony: (24:07)
I would think that it would be eventually made public because most of the commercial companies at least are putting it on their websites once they are capable of providing the testing for the Commonwealth.

Speaker 8: (24:21)
Several things: one regarding the school closures, does that mandate require about private schools as well? And for the daycare, are you saying to anyone who is not an essential worker, “You can’t bring your kids to day care” or you’re just asking them with their kids to leave it open?

Ralph Northam: (24:38)
Yes. A two part question: it does apply to private schools in Virginia. And as far as essential, if someone were to come to the childcare center and say that they’re essential, that their word will be taken.

Speaker 8: (24:52)
Okay. Will that require documentation?

Ralph Northam: (24:56)
No.

Speaker 8: (24:56)
If I can just get another one in then. Concerns about buses coming in from highly infectious regions, any thoughts of limiting the transportation in the State at this point?

Ralph Northam: (25:06)
We’re certainly using sanitation measures to keep our school buses clean, but in some areas, especially rural areas of Virginia, we’re actually using our school buses to deliver supplies and meals.

Speaker 8: (25:16)
I’m referring to commercial buses like Greyhound, things like that.

Ralph Northam: (25:23)
Is your question-

Speaker 8: (25:25)
Restricting commercial bus traffic. That’s like Greyhound or the other bus company that I can’t think of right now.

Ralph Northam: (25:34)
Yeah. We haven’t made any restrictions on that.

Speaker 9: (25:37)
Great. Can you talk a little bit back to the testing? We’re testing a certain number of people, but obviously, we’re not getting a full picture. Can you give us an idea of what it would look like if we were to test say, even a quarter of the State’s population, where are we headed?

Ralph Northam: (25:52)
I’m going to let Dr. Peake, our epidemiologist answer that question. Dr Peake, thank you.

Speaker 10: (26:01)
Thank you. So your question was if we tested a quarter of the population, how many people would we expect to be positive?

Speaker 9: (26:10)
Just, if you could give us a general idea. There’s a bigger picture right now. We’re only looking at this, yes, there are this many people that are confirmed because we’re only testing this many people. So, if you were open up testing to quarter or half of the State population, what would that look like? Do you have any projections?

Speaker 10: (26:24)
We don’t have a specific projection now, but we are working on a model. And so, we hope to have more information about that later in the week.

Speaker 11: (26:35)
Yeah, two separate questions. One is whether the State realistically thinks that students will be able to complete the rest of the year’s learning through virtual teaching and whether students will receive credits for those courses?

Ralph Northam: (26:51)
Why don’t we just do one question at a time because it might be different people answering for us. Is that the first question?

Speaker 11: (26:57)
Yeah.

Ralph Northam: (26:57)
Okay. Dr. Lane.

Dr. Lane: (27:02)
Good afternoon. As the Governor mentioned in his remarks, we will be issuing guidance on how school divisions should be working with students to ascertain whether they’ve completed the course. And in that guidance, we’ll be offering numerous options from, as you mentioned, distance or remote learning, extending the school year next year, embedding some of that instruction into the curriculum in the next year if they don’t extend and maybe continuing instruction now, but maybe we can’t get to every student equitably, just bringing some students back to make sure that we fill the gaps for students that were missed in the virtual space.

Dr. Lane: (27:41)
And so, we’ll lay out those four options to school divisions tomorrow. And then for a variety of reasons, each locality is going to have to make a choice.

Speaker 11: (27:55)
Okay. I was also wondering, given the delays we’re seeing at the federal level in terms of economic stimulus packages and the economic order today, are we considering any more initiatives at a State level to help those who might be losing their jobs as a result of closure?

Ralph Northam: (28:10)
Couple parts of that question, Megan, if you might want to answer, how can we help? I think it’s important, how can we help Virginians who are losing their jobs and what means do we have with doing that? So, Dr. Megan Healy.

Megan Healy: (28:25)
Great. I’m Megan Healy, Governor Northam’s Chief Workforce Advisor. A lot of our unemployment insurance is regulated by the federal government and our funds come in through what we can do. The governor and his team has been working with the federal government about flexibility in how we give out funds. Currently now, we can give out anyone who we have payroll data on, but we know that independent contractors, gig workers, other folks who are not in our unemployment insurance, we’re looking at different ways of flexibility to give them funds. So, we have to work with the federal government for those.

Speaker 11: (28:55)
And are there any thoughts to using the State’s rainy day fund for independent or individual payments to residents, anything like that?

Megan Healy: (29:03)
We talk about it, but we have not made any decisions on that.

Speaker 11: (29:07)
Just a few more, Henry.

Henry: (29:09)
On the business side of things that order goes into effect at midnight. Who’s the teeth behind enforcing it? Would that be local police? And then, does this cover the construction industry too?

Ralph Northam: (29:22)
Midnight tomorrow night is when it will go into effect. And the second part of your question, enforcement, and again, we are given the localities the authority to enforce these guidelines. And your third question?

Henry: (29:37)
Construction industry. Where would they fall in this?

Ralph Northam: (29:42)
Angela, do you want to address that? Thank you.

Angela Navarro: (29:46)
Yeah. So, the question was does this affect the construction industry? No, it does not affect the construction industry and construction product retail stores are considered essential as well. Thank you.

Speaker 9: (29:57)
Jackie, yeah.

Jackie: (30:00)
One real quick: does this include churches, or does churches include the non-essential businesses?

Ralph Northam: (30:07)
Anytime that there’s a gathering of more than 10 people, we would certainly discourage that. As I have mentioned, faith is very important to individuals, especially during these times, but we’re asking churches to practice the same social distancing. And I have talked to a lot of pastors across the Commonwealth, a lot of faith leaders who are really being creative and innovative as how they’re communicating with their church members. And I’ll be on a call this evening. I’m not sure the exact time. I believe it’s at 6:30 with our faith leaders across Virginia to continue to talk about how we can reach out to individuals and make sure that they maintain their faith during these times.

Jackie: (30:58)
So, in New York for the Governor of New York talking a lot about concerns of price gouging that States are seeing in trying to obtain these critical resources and saying that because of that, the federal government really needs to take more of a lead on this. I guess, have you, in your experience reaching out for these supplies, seen price gouging of masks, ventilators, that sort of thing? And do you think the federal government needs to start taking the lead because of that?

Ralph Northam: (31:24)
Well, I think the federal government needs to take the lead in a lot of different areas, especially with their stimulus package. As far as price gouging, it’s out there. We haven’t seen specific cases of it in Virginia, but we actually are keeping a close eye on that. And if we do see it, we’ll make sure that we deal with it.

Speaker 11: (31:52)
We have time for one more and then, I don’t know if you-

Speaker 12: (31:52)
You talked a little bit about Washington’s response to this. What about the other shortcomings you’ve seen? Where are you seeing some positives from DC?

Ralph Northam: (32:00)
Well, I think the main problem has been misinformation and mixed messages. And as I have said, we are essentially fighting a biological war right now in this country. And I expect our President and our leaders in Washington to accept that that’s the reality now and to have guidance and also to give support to the states where we need it. And we’ve talked about a lot of that, our ability to do testing, our resources that we have at hospitals, so you could go on and on. But what has happened, as I mentioned in my remarks, we haven’t received that guidance. And this is not unique to Virginia, but it encompasses all of our states. We have had to take the lead and do what’s in the best interest of our constituents and our citizens. And so, I hope that the federal government continue-

Ralph Northam: (33:03)
I hope that the federal government continues to do the right thing and support us. But in the meantime, I will do everything I can as the leader of Virginia to make sure that Virginians are safe and to make sure that they’re getting accurate and updated information.

Ralph Northam: (33:15)
Thank you all very much. We’ll see you all again tomorrow at 2:00. Thank you.

Ralph Northam: (33:19)
(silence)