Virginia was among states with a downward-trending number of COVID-19 cases throughout May and part of June, and it proceeded into its third phase of reopening on July 1st. Now, two weeks later, numbers for statewide and local cases have increased. Local officials are reminding residents to remain vigilant and take precautions — with Charlottesville’s government considering requesting the area be able to return to Phase II.
As of Monday, the Thomas Jefferson Health District reported 1,236 total cases, with 106 hospitalizations, and 29 fatalities, up 92 cases and four hospitalizations from the previous Friday.
As part of a Monday afternoon press conference and Zoom conference call, Mayor Nikuyah Walker explained that Charlottesville government would be discussing joint efforts with Albemarle County in requesting a return to Phase II.
Walker said that discussion has happened within the city and that City Manager Tarron Richardson was in talks with County officials, including County Executive Jeff Richardson, on the matter.
“Because of our proximity, it’s difficult for the city of Charlottesville to do anything in isolation,” Walker said.
Throughout the conference call, Charlottesville residents stressed the significance of social distancing, mask use and other precautionary measures to protect themselves and others.
On enforcement of safety protections, like wearing face coverings and masks in public, Tarron Richardson and Dr. Denise Bonds, director of the Thomas Jefferson Health District, stressed the educational approach for first-time offenders.
“I know that there has been some concern about what happens when you make complaints about an institution or business that is not compliant with the mask order,” Bonds said. “Those complaints do come to us at the health department.”
There have been 180 such complaints to date, Bonds said, and that most of them have related to individuals not wearing masks in retail establishments or restaurants.
“Our policy right now is to inform and educate for the first few times we get a complaint about a particular organization or restaurant,” Bonds explained. “If the complaint continues and is an agency that we are responsible for regulating, we do have the authority to issue more serious compliance orders with that.”
If a retail establishment does not fall under TJHD regulation, then Bonds says that repeated complaints are referred to the organization that does regulate such establishments.
Many Charlottesville residents also are worrying that the return of students to University of Virginia Grounds in August will spread cases within the Charlottesville community. This past weekend, as many UVA students returned to campus for Midsummers — an unofficial tradition wherein they return to Charlottesville to party — pictures of celebrants without masks circulated on social media, prompting anger and frustration from community members who doubt that students will practice social distancing or mask-wearing this fall.
“There have been several events from about mid-June to even last weekend — where people are gathering at parks, house parties and in some neighborhoods — I guess would be considered the block party,” Walker said at the press conference. “I think we all saw the house party that has been going around social media in regard to UVA — maybe some UVA students.”
Walker said that, as of Monday afternoon, she hadn’t verified the photograph and didn’t know if it “was something that was not doctored.”
Walker said the city has no power to restrict such large gatherings. “We need to talk to Gov. [Ralph] Northam and President [Jim] Ryan,” Walker said. “I, for one, do not understand why the students are coming back into the community from all over the globe and why we would take that chance. It’s a recipe for disaster … and we’ll be left here cleaning up the fallout from that decision.”
The university’s public health requirements for returning to campus this fall include a policy requiring face coverings to be worn by all faculty, staff, students, contractors, volunteers and visitors while on university property and inside university buildings in the presence of others. The policy states that “Failure to comply with requirements of this policy may result in disciplinary action in accordance with relevant University policies.”
How this policy will be enforced has not yet been communicated to the UVA or Charlottesville communities. According to University Police, in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow, “The University is still developing this policy and the protocols with it, to include enforcement. There will be more information in the near future that the University will be able to share as this work is completed.”
A spokesperson from UVA Health Systems said the hospital is prepared to accommodate the influx of patients that could result from the new upward trend of local cases.
“We have developed multiple scenarios to have sufficient staff and beds to provide care, including ICU care, if we were to see an influx of patients that required inpatient care for coronavirus,” said the spokesperson. “Our team at UVA has been hard at work on scenario planning, and UVA Health will be there to meet our community’s needs.”
Additionally, a Sentara Martha Jefferson spokesperson says the hospital is taking a “proactive approach” to respond to a potential surge in cases.
“We continue to treat COVID patients on a daily basis, but also have looked ahead, across our organization, at what PPE and staffing needs we might need to handle an uptick of cases in the future and have a strong plan in place should it be needed,” the spokesperson said.