Slowing the spread: City and county adopt local COVID-19 restrictions different from state guidelines

Charlottesville City Council recently approved new COVID-19 restrictions, which are stricter than those mandated by Governor Ralph Northam on July 1, when the state moved to Phase 3 of reopening. PC: Eze Amos / Mark Warner Flickr Charlottesville City Council recently approved new COVID-19 restrictions, which are stricter than those mandated by Governor Ralph Northam on July 1, when the state moved to Phase 3 of reopening. PC: Eze Amos / Mark Warner Flickr

By Emily Hamilton

On August 1, residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle became subject to a new set of coronavirus restrictions: in-person gatherings of more than 50 people are banned; restaurants and other venues such as wineries, breweries, and distilleries can operate at only 50 percent capacity; and face coverings are required in indoor public spaces. The state’s Phase 3 guidelines, which have been in effect since July 1, allow in-person gatherings of up to 250 people, and stores, restaurants, and bars have no capacity limits, as long as social distancing is enforced.

The new local rules, which were approved July 27 and will last for 60 days, are more strict than the current statewide guidelines, and demonstrate the power localities have been given in crafting policy to contain COVID-19.

As of August 3, the Virginia Department of Health reports 775 cases of coronavirus in Albemarle and 495 cases in Charlottesville. Much of the support for both ordinances comes from concerns surrounding the impending return of UVA students. As the community prepares for the influx, Charlottesville and Albemarle government leaders recognize the potential for a surge.

“Part of…the motivation for this is that nothing would be worse for the economy than for UVA students coming back…to be a super spreader event,” said City Councilor Michael Payne at the July 27 emergency meeting. “And to prevent that, I think, is a decision worth making.”

The Charlottesville and Albemarle County ordinances reflect the difficulty that local governments face as they mitigate the damage the pandemic has wrought upon their communities. Although Virginia entered Phase 3 more than a month ago, recent actions reflect the state’s piecemeal approach to virus control.

In late July, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer wrote a letter to Governor Ralph Northam asking the state to impose harsher restrictions after cases surged in that area. Dyer requested that the governor mandate restaurants and bars close early, among other rules. Northam quickly assented, making the rules official the following day.

Historically, Virginia is no stranger to friction between state and local jurisdictions. Localities in Virginia generally do not have much power, thanks to the Dillon Rule, which limits the powers of local governments only to those expressed by the state government. Localities aren’t allowed to do things like ban firearms or (until this year) remove monuments.

In times of crisis, localities have a little more say. Although Charlottesville and Albemarle’s new guidelines depart from those set by the state, the ordinances are in line with the expectation for local governments to protect their citizens during a crisis. The city’s ordinance cites the continued state of emergency along with the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic remains a “disaster” under Virginia Code. In Northam’s executive order declaring the state of emergency, he stated that local governments have the power “to implement recovery and mitigation operations” to fight the virus.

At the July 27 Albemarle County Board of Supervisors meeting, Bea LaPisto Kirtley, who represents the Rivanna District, expressed her confidence in the board’s decision to move forward with the local ordinance. “I would hope that the public, our county, our citizens, our community, would look at this as what I call a Phase 2.5,” she said. “I think we’ve made a lot of adjustments that fit our community, that fit us, and then will help us help our businesses help keep our citizens safe.”

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