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Monday afternoon, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order for the state of Virginia to help curb the spread of COVID-19 and reduce chances of hospital overflow for critical cases. As of his announcement, there were more than 1,000 confirmed cases of the virus in Virginia. The order is effective until June 10, 2020, with potential to be amended or rescinded. In the meantime, University of Virginia Health System and Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital are developing responses to multiple scenarios in order to accommodate for a potential rise in patients. 

“We have developed multiple scenarios for providing care, including ICU care, if we were to see an influx of patients that required inpatient care for coronavirus,” said Eric Swensen, a spokesperson for UVa Health. “These scenarios include having sufficient beds and staffing available to care for patients. As an example, we will be bringing on additional beds in our hospital expansion tower over the next six weeks to provide additional resources if needed.”

According to Jennifer Downs, Sentara Martha Jefferson’s spokesperson, the hospital is identifying additional areas within it that it could care for patients if needed. A tent is currently set up outside the emergency room to be used for triage space if needed. 

“Additionally, we have active plans in place surrounding meeting the staffing needs we would be faced with as well,” she said. 

As Martha Jefferson is part of the 12-hospital Sentara system, she noted that its connection to other Virginia hospitals. 

“Sentara Martha Jefferson also continues to monitor how we can leverage the resources we have across the state as this situation continues to unfold,” Downs said.

“Virginia’s hospitals have approximately 18,500 licensed beds. About 2,000 of those are [Intensive Care Unit] beds,” Northam said during his announcement. “How many more we need depends on the actions we all take right now.”

According to data from 2019, UVa Health has 612 beds and Sentara Martha Jefferson has 176.

Sentara Martha Jefferson has set up a triage tent for potential future use outside of its emergency room. Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf / Charlottesville Tomorrow

The governor’s latest executive order builds on previous ones that have advised the closure of non-essential businesses in the interim and emphasized social distancing. Today’s order formalizes social distancing and staying at home while granting local law enforcement authority to enforce it. 

Reasons Virginians are permitted to leave their homes are as follows:

  • Obtaining food, beverages, goods or services as permitted in Executive Order 53
  • Seeking medical attention, essential social services, governmental services, assistance from law enforcement or emergency services
  • Taking care of other individuals, animals or visiting the home of a family member 
  • Traveling required by court order or to facilitate child custody, visitation or child care
  • Engaging in outdoor activity, including exercise, provided individuals comply with social distancing requirements
  • Traveling to and from one’s residence, place of worship or work
  • Traveling to and from an educational institution
  • Volunteering with organizations that provide charitable or social services
  • Leaving one’s residence due to a reasonable fear for health or safety, at the direction of law enforcement or at the direction of another government agency

Since the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic just over two weeks ago, medical professionals have emphasized the importance of social distancing to slow the virus’ spread. 

“Let’s say we didn’t do social distancing and we all went out,” said Dr. Zack Henry, a hepatologist at UVa Health. “With mild symptoms, they may not think much of it, but you may spread the virus and someone at increased risk is going to get very ill, very quickly. If that happens to a lot of people, we are going to have an overrun healthcare system.” 

Rich Schragger, a UVa law professor notes that Virginia code grants governors special authorities during emergencies. 

“He has broad authority to do this,” Schragger said.

Like Northam’s previous orders, Executive Order 55 outlines exceptions for people to leave the house, such as those who are essential employees or the purchase of food and supplies from stores. 

“It’s interesting that you know the local governments were seeking a more stringent order, and Virginian local governments hadn’t adopted their own orders,” Schragger said. “In other states, local governments had adopted their own stay at home orders.”

Schragger attributes this to Virginia being a Dillon Rule state, meaning local governments have limited authority bestowed to them from the state government. This year’s General Assembly session recently concluded and only slightly loosened its control over local matters.

Last week, Charlottesville city councilors sent a letter to Northam calling for a stay-at-home order.  A similar measure was slated for this week’s virtual Albemarle County Board of Supervisors meeting. 

“It seems to me he got some pressure to formalize this in light of some news reports that people were still not doing social distancing,” Schragger said. 

Schragger and Charlottesville City Councilor Michael Payne feel the formal gesture is in response to reports over the weekend indicating a sizable number of Virginians not practicing social distancing in public places.

“I think it’s definitely a positive thing,” Payne said. “We saw over this past weekend, throughout the state, there were a lot of people businesses and organizations weren’t taking social distancing seriously enough.” 

Another aspect of the latest order classifies violation of the order as a Class 1 Misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 12 months in prison or a fine of up to $2,500. 

$2,500 can especially be taxing on residents if they are low-income residents and/or furloughed from their employment during the pandemic. Payne reiterates the financial struggles some residents face that may necessitate them going out more because they lack the upfront funds to stockpile foods and supplies as they handle rent or other expenses. 

“I think there’s going to be significant challenges for folks who need a certain level of income or wealth to self-quarantine,” he said.

Federally, Congress recently passed a stimulus package, with over $3 billion of the funds directed to Virginia. Individuals will receive $1,200 from the government as part of the package. While Payne worries that is not enough for some residents, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine says the package is not the only thing Congress will work on in response to COVID-19.

During Northam’s announcement, he said that anyone who can work remotely should and that companies should allow for that. The order instructs that state agencies prioritize assisting homeless populations and that residents do not face eviction during this time.

He also noted that almost half the cases in the state are in residents who are under 50, indicating that no age group is immune to the virus. 

“It is clear more people need to hear this basic message,” Northam said. “Stay home.”

Mike Kropf contributed to this reporting.


I was Charlottesville Tomorrow’s government reporter from 2019 to 2022. Thanks for letting me be your resident nerd on how local and state governments serve us. Keep up with me @charlottewords on Twitter. If you haven’t yet, consider subscribing to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s FREE newsletter to get updates from the newsroom on the things you want to know.