By DENISE LAVOIE Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s governor announced Friday that he is lifting the state’s indoor mask mandate in line with new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gov. Ralph Northam said the mask policy change takes effect at midnight along with changes to other mitigation measures expanding capacity for sports and entertainment venues and an easing of limits on social gatherings.
Northam also said Virginia will ease all distancing and capacity restrictions on May 28, two weeks earlier than planned.
Increasing vaccination rates and declines in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and statewide test positivity rate changes made the changes possible. On Friday, Virginia’s positivity rate — the percentage of people testing positive for the virus — stood at 3.5%, a rate that is lower than at any time since the pandemic began more than a year ago.
Virginians have been working hard, and we are seeing the results in our strong vaccine numbers and dramatically lowered case counts,” Northam said in a statement. He also urged any unvaccinated people to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their communities.
“The message is clear: vaccinations are how we put this pandemic 2021 in the rearview mirror and get back to being with the people we love and doing the things we have missed,” he said.
The CDC guidelines state that fully vaccinated individuals do not have to wear masks in most indoor settings, except on public transit, in health care facilities, and in congregate settings.
Masks will still be required in K-12 public schools, given low rates of vaccination among children. Also, businesses can still require masks in their establishments. Employees in certain business sectors, including restaurants, retail, fitness, personal care, and entertainment, must continue to wear masks unless fully vaccinated, in line with CDC guidance.
Tony Stafford, president of the Virginia Restaurant Association, said he expects the lifting of the mask mandate to cause some confusion.
“It really puts us in a rough spot because I don’t feel comfortable and I don’t think I’m allowed to ask (customers) if they’re vaccinated,” he said.
“What does this mean? Am I going to ask them to see their vaccination card? I mean, I’m not going to do that. I’m just here to feed people,” said Stafford, the owner of Ford’s Fish Shack.
Still, Stafford said, the lifting of the mandate is an encouraging sign for business owners.
“We want to get back to work. We want to get back to living without the masks, but we also want to be very cautious and respect everyone’s decision to wear a mask or not wear a mask,” he said. “We just want to serve people great fish and chips.”
Stafford said his staff will continue to wear masks.
Northam said unvaccinated people or people who aren’t fully vaccinated are strongly encouraged to wear masks in all settings.
Virginia has given out nearly seven million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. More than four million people have received at least one dose, representing over 64% of the state’s adult population. Northam has said he remains confident that Virginia will meet President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70 percent of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4.