Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that the commonwealth, including Northern Virginia and Richmond, will move into phase three of the coronavirus reopening plan on July 1.
Starting next Wednesday, gatherings will be limited to 250 people, and retail stores, restaurants and bars will no longer have a capacity limit. Museums, zoos and other outdoor entertainment spaces can reopen at 50% capacity, with a cap of 1,000 people, and fitness centers can open with 75% capacity.
Mr. Northam said he is comfortable moving into the next phase after 3½ weeks in phase two because of the state’s coronavirus metrics.
During a press briefing Tuesday, Mr. Northam displayed graphs showing downward trends in hospitalizations and the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests, which is now around 6.4%.
Although Richmond and Northern Virginia have been behind the rest of the state in its reopening, Mr. Northam said, “To date, I haven’t heard they don’t intend to be with the rest of the state” next Wednesday.
“I want to reiterate that everyone should continue to take this pandemic seriously,” he said, warning of rising cases in other states and encouraging Virginians to wear masks in public places, practice social distancing and telework.
In other matters, the Democratic governor said there have been nearly 500 protests across Virginia since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25. Most protests have been peaceful, but Richmond has seen nightly conflicts between police and demonstrators.
“After three weeks it is no longer clear what the goals are or a path to achieve them,” Mr. Northam said. “Clearly, Richmond needs a different path forward, these nightly conflicts can not continue indefinitely.”
The governor said he doesn’t like to see the use of tear gas and rubber bullets but he isn’t going to direct the police how to do their job, pointing out several peaceful demonstrations.
“When people break the law, we can’t condone that, so in order to keep the peace police are going to need to take the action that’s necessary,” Mr. Northam said, referring to police using tear gas to disperse protesters Monday night during an unlawful assembly in Richmond.
In the District, city police and U.S. Park Police officers used pepper spray and a helicopter to scatter protesters Monday night after a group tried to topple a statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, across from the White House.
Protesters were interrupted by police before they could pull down the monument, but they did destroy parts of replica cannons in front of the structure and spray-painted “killer” on the base of the Jackson statue.
Jackson, the seventh president, owned slaves and signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to displacement and death of tens of thousands of American Indians known as the Trail of Tears.
Two weeks ago, the D.C. Council approved emergency legislation that would outlaw the use of chemical irritants by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to disperse protesters.
Council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat, introduced the emergency bill. On Tuesday he said he isn’t sure that the legislation’s prohibition on tear gas and pepper spray would have applied to Monday night’s incident, which occurred on federal land.
He said he supports a public hearing on a permanent bill that council member Brianne Nadeau, Ward 1 Democrat, introduced Tuesday, saying the city needs to get the “language right.”
“Still, we don’t need a hearing to know peaceful protesters should never be subjected to what we saw last night,” Mr. Allen said in a written statement. “Watching MPD officers in full riot gear working side-by-side with the same US Park Police that previously violently responded to protesters and media, it is clear the use of chemical irritants escalated tensions and may have infringed on First Amendment rights.”
The council on Monday transmitted the 30-page emergency legislation to Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has until July 7 to sign it into law.
“Though the mayor hasn’t signed the emergency legislation effecting the council’s changes yet, I would expect MPD to demonstrate good faith by at least attempting to follow the coming changes,” Council member David Grosso, at-large independent, said in a statement to the Washington Times. “Anything short of that could be seen by the council as an act of defiance by [police] Chief [Peter] Newsham, especially given his recent troubling comments regarding the Council’s actions.”
In a statement to The Washington Times, the Metropolitan Police Department said: “Under the existing and proposed legislation, MPD members in riot gear shall be deployed on First Amendment assemblies when there is a danger of violence. The use of a chemical irritant is reasonable and necessary to protect officers or others from physical harm or to arrest actively resisting subjects and may be used during a First Amendment assembly when assembly participants are committing acts of public disobedience endangering public safety and security.”