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Northam relaxes mask mandate

Take it off. 

Gov. Ralph Northam has lifted the state’s universal indoor mask mandate to align with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and he will ease all distancing and capacity requirements May 28, two weeks earlier than planned. 

The mask mandate was lifted at midnight May 15 through the governor’s amending of an emergency order, though the state of emergency will remain in place through June 30 to allow local governments the flexibility to support COVID-19 vaccinations. Northam said in a video message he would take executive action to give people the option of wearing masks up to and after that date, and masks will still be required in K-12 public schools due to the low rates of children who have been vaccinated.

CDC guidelines say fully vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in most indoor places except on public transit, in health care facilities and in congregate settings. Businesses will still be able to require masks to enter. 

People who work in the restaurant, retail, fitness, personal care and entertainment areas must continue to wear masks unless they are fully vaccinated, following CDC guidance. Those who are not vaccinated, or not fully vaccinated, “are strongly encouraged” to wear masks in all places. 

Someone is considered to be fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose or two weeks after the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Northam said relaxing COVID-19 measures are due to increasing vaccination rates and declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, a statewide test positivity rate of just 2.9% and revised federal guidelines. Nearly 4.5 million people in Virginia have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — 65% of the state’s adults. 

He said he is confident of state residents being able to meet President Joe Biden’s goal: 70% of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4. The seven-day average of new cases as of May 21 was 447, the state’s lowest in 10 months, and the number of hospitalizations — at 619 — is the state’s lowest since the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Virginians have been working hard, and we are seeing the results in our strong vaccine numbers and dramatically lowered case counts,” Northam said. “That’s why we can safely move up the timeline for lifting mitigation measures in Virginia.”

In Western Tidewater, vaccination percentages lag behind current state averages. Statewide, 52.4% of all state residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 41.5% are fully vaccinated, according to the Virginia Department of Health as of May 21. 

In Suffolk, 39.3% of residents have received at least one dose, and 31.3% (28,846 people) have been fully vaccinated. Isle of Wight County has the highest vaccination percentages in the region, as 46.8% have had at least one dose and 37.5% have been fully vaccinated. Surry County is not far behind, with 44.1% having gotten at least one dose and 37.5% being fully vaccinated. 

In Franklin, 41.9% of people have received at least one dose, while 31.2% have been fully vaccinated. Southampton County’s percentages are similar to Suffolk, with 37.9% having received at least one dose and 28.7% being fully vaccinated. 

Northam, in urging people to get vaccinated, is calling for people to participate in the “It’s Our Shot, Virginia: Statewide Day of Action” May 18. 

People can take part by signing up to be a COVID community ambassador, sharing COVID-19 updates and materials from top experts and sources in their networks and community and sharing one’s vaccination story on social media.

Anyone ages 12 and older can schedule a vaccination appointment by going to vaccinate.virginia.gov or calling 877-829-4682, or they can show up at a vaccination site without an appointment. Those under 18 must have a parent present. 

Call center hours are 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. 

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles will also be opening more windows in its customer service centers beginning June 1. People have been able to schedule the new appointments beginning May 17. Added windows will open in stages on June 1, June 15 and in July as DMV hires and trains new employees to expand available appointment times, adding to more than 530,000 appointments state residents have scheduled in the next three months.