Nearly three weeks ago, most of Virginia moved into Phase 2 of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan, loosening restrictions on a range of businesses. As the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests continues to trend downward, Virginians can now sit down to eat inside in a restaurant, work out at the gym, or hit the pool. And with places like Great Wolf Lodge planning to reopen soon (and Virginia Beach already open), you can even take a summer vacation.
But the pandemic is not over, warns Ryan McKay, deputy incident coordinator for the Thomas Jefferson Health District. Due to increased testing and availability, especially in black and Latino communities (which have been disproportionately impacted by the virus), new cases are still being reported in the Charlottesville area every day. And since the start of Phase 2, four people in the district have been hospitalized with the disease.
Fortunately, “case counts are relatively small compared to other localities in the state,” McKay says. “We continue to climb a little bit, and here and there we may have a day with more cases than we’ve seen previously, [depending] on what sort of testing is going on. But we’re not overwhelmed locally with cases in terms of contract tracing or investigation. Our hospitals have not been overwhelmed…we feel like we’re in really good shape, and we have been all along.”
“But that can change because we’re opening up more,” he stresses. “More people are going to be together in larger groups, and we just want to make sure we’re adhering to the guidance for Phase 2…[They’re] the safety measures that got us to this point in the first place.”
When going out, everyone should take Governor Ralph Northam’s order seriously, and always wear a face mask indoors.
“The asymptomatic individuals who have COVID can spread the disease,” says McKay. “You might feel great. You want to go out, and don’t want the face covering because it’s constrictive, or you don’t like the way it feels or think it’s unnecessary—[but] you still can actually spread the disease.”
“The best way to prevent that spread is [to] wear the face covering,” he adds. “That’s really what it’s meant for, to limit spread. It’s not necessarily a safety measure for the individual wearing it, but we’re helping to protect the community.”
People should also stay at least a six feet away from others, excluding household members, and comply with the established guidelines for each place they visit or activity they participate in, even with close family and friends. At a picnic or cookout, for example, they should avoid sharing food or utensils, says McKay.
While it’s generally fine for people who adhere to these rules to go out, it’s still safest to stay home, when possible. Those with underlying health conditions should especially “be mindful of where they’re going,” and “stay inside as much as they can,” adds McKay.
Though the recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism held in Charlottesville have attracted hundreds of people (many wearing face masks), the area has not seen a dramatic rise in cases. “Phase 2 and some of the protests here have coincided, so we’re not at a point where we can definitely say that one thing or the other has led to a huge increase in cases,” McKay says. “But we haven’t really had big spikes in our cases.”
He says the health department’s main concern is people disregarding safety guidelines on a larger scale. Phase 3 of reopening could be delayed again, or—in dire circumstances—Virginia could go back to Phase 1.
“Wearing the masks, if we do that as a community, down to the individual level, that’ll help us move forward into Phase 3 and continue to be able to do things that we want, with some mitigation strategies in place,” McKay adds.
But until there is a vaccine and widespread immunity to COVID-19, we should remain “concerned” about the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus cases, according to McKay. With local schools and the University of Virginia reopening in the fall, there will be even more opportunity for the virus to spread if the proper precautions aren’t taken.
Right now, “the best thing we can do is stress education about those strategies to minimize risk,” he says. “Making sure we’re protecting ourselves, but also each other, is going to be hugely important.”