With businesses running at limited capacity for months and federal COVID-19 relief funding running out, harsher restrictions considered by Gov. Ralph Northam in southwest Virginia could cause economic harm and force closures, members of the business community warn.
COVID-19 cases and percent positivity rates in testing have begun to increase in the region, according to Virginia Department of Health numbers. The percent positivity rate in the region is just under 8%, but some of the localities farther west are closer to 9% and could be linked to an uptick in Tennessee, which the localities border. The statewide percent positivity rate has remained mostly flat around 5.1%, but the state has seen a slight increase in cases.
“The spread in the southwest is driven in part by small family gatherings,” Northam said during a news conference. “I strongly urge everyone in the southwest to look at these numbers and step up your precautions. I ask you also to wear face protection. We know that that works.”
Northam said he would consider imposing additional restrictions in the southwest region but did not specify what those would be. Previous phases included limitations on the number of people who could gather and capacity restrictions on restaurants.
“In our rural areas, in particular, a small increase in cases can have a very large impact,” Northam said.
Past restrictions disproportionately have hurt certain businesses, particularly restaurants, hotels and convention centers.
Erjon Tani, the owner of Coach & Four Restaurant in Roanoke, told The Center Square his business is taking in only 35% of the revenue it had in January and February. If heavier restrictions force him to close again, Tani said he probably will not reopen until the pandemic is over. He said it would not be profitable for him to keep closing and reopening if the restrictions keep changing.
“[If I have to close], it’s going to be another year or so [until I reopen],” Tani said.
Robert Melvin, the director of government affairs at the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, told The Center Square he hopes Northam avoids any restrictions that will harm businesses. If family gatherings are driving the spike in large part, Melvin said Northam should fixate on that instead of restricting businesses.
If the governor introduces a stricter cap on public gatherings, Melvin said he should carve out hotels and convention centers to ensure they still can host conferences and weddings. He warned that going backward on the reopening plan could be “the final nail in the coffin” for many businesses.
Northern Virginia also has begun to see an uptick in cases, but its percent positivity rate remains low at 4.7%. Melvin said Northam also should avoid increasing restrictions on businesses in this region.
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