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Virginia Is Lifting Gathering Restrictions Ahead of Memorial Day Weekend

Concertgoers attend a socially distanced show
Concertgoers attend a socially distanced show on Brown's Island in early May. Virginia's latest rules mean events - both indoor and outdoor - can once again operate at maximum capacity. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

After over a year of social distancing, masking and avoiding crowds, Virginia will lift its ‘Commonsense’ public health restrictions Friday morning. That includes all remaining state-mandated distancing and gathering rules.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the change earlier this month following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that vaccinated individuals could safely congregate in almost any setting. The state’s message has been to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“Commonsense public health restrictions have kept many Virginians safe during the last year, and with vaccines now widely available – over three millions Virginians are fully vaccinated and safe from serious illness or death caused by COVID-19 – it is time to begin our new normal,” Northam wrote in the order.

Some masking rules will remain. The new order cites CDC guidelines, which still requires unvaccinated people to mask up. It also requires anyone in a school building to cover their face - and clarifies that the waiver of a Virginia law allowing the use of face masks in public remains in effect for now.

“At some point we have to look at the data and say, ‘okay, it’s time to do that,’ and that’s sort of what they’re doing now,” VCU Health epidemiologist Michael Stevens told VPM. 

Stevens called the vaccines used in the U.S. “wildly effective at preventing severe illness.”

But Stevens said his perspective on relaxing restrictions is likely more strict than the public health experts at the CDC and Virginia Department of Health. He pointed to remaining unknowns, particularly the transmission of COVID-19 among vaccinated individuals, and said that sticking to protective measures might be the right call for some people.

“If you’re in a crowded grocery store, you should feel free to wear a mask if it makes you feel more comfortable, because that’s where your risk would be higher,” Stevens said.

Dr. Melissa Viray, Deputy Director of the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, says there are lots of pandemic habits that are useful everyday.

“I’m hoping that individuals have learned lessons from COVID,” Viray said. “Lessons around mask wearing, we have learned lessons around paying attention to symptoms and getting tested when you’re sick.”

All of these things protect against illness, and Viray says they’ll be essential to maintaining our progress so far in the pandemic.

Despite all the changes, Viray sees her role as a public servant not shifting too much. There will be fewer updates to national and state guidance moving forward, but local health districts are still very much involved in messaging about this new stage of the pandemic.

“I’m very optimistic,” Viray said, “because we are making that next step forward.”

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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