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Northam cancels school year, orders some businesses closed

(AP) Virginia public schools will remain closed for the rest of the current school year and certain types of businesses, like bowling alleys, salons, gyms and theaters, must close in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Ralph Northam said March 23.

Northam’s order would not apply to businesses deemed essential, including grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and gas stations. State-owned liquor stores will also remain open.

“I know that the next several weeks, the next several months, will be difficult. They will require everyone to change the way that we live, the way we interact with each other,” the governor said at a news conference.

Northam, who is a doctor, added that Virginians can expect to see a rise in depression, alcoholism and domestic abuse.

The governor said his executive order, which also bans all gatherings of 10 or more people, was necessary to slow the spread of the virus and ensure that the health care system can keep up. As of March 23, there were over 250 confirmed cases and at least seven virus-related deaths in Virginia, according to information released by public health officials.

The latest death, announced March 23 by the Virginia Beach Health Department, was a man in his 70s with underlying health conditions.

The virus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people, who recover in a matter of weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death in some, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Severe cases are often only able to breathe with respirators.

A growing number of states and localities have been shutting their schools indefinitely. Last week Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly closed public and private K-12 schools for the rest of the academic year.

Schools are still providing online lessons, but state Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who is also a high school teacher, said those offerings are not an equal substitute for in-person classroom instruction. VanValkenburg praised Northam’s decision but said it was hugely disappointing for teachers and students.

“I don’t think there’s a single teacher in the commonwealth who isn’t extremely bummed that we’re not going to finish the school year,” he said.

Northam’s ban on gatherings of 10 or more does not exempt places of worship.

His order on business closings is similar to what some other states have done. He had previously ordered restaurants, fitness centers and theaters to limit their capacity to 10 customers.

The new changes were to take effect statewide at midnight March 24 and remain in effect for at least 30 days, Northam said.

The policies mean restaurants will be limited to only carryout, curbside pickup or delivery. All “recreation and entertainment services,” such as bowling alleys, theaters, gyms and racetracks, must close, Northam said.

“Nonessential” retail shops can stay open if they allow fewer than 10 patrons and follow social distancing and increased sanitizing procedures, he said.

Virginia schools superintendent James Lane said the state would be presenting local school districts with different options to handle the early school closures, which included extending the academic calendar during the next school year.

Northam acknowledged that the extended school closure would have serious impacts on families of young children. He called for schools, day cares and local governments to work together to make sure essential workers like doctors and nurses have access to child care.

“This potential child care crisis necessitates an urgent public-private response,” the Department of Social Services and Department of Education wrote in a document outlining options and waivers available to provide emergency childcare.

The governor also said he understood the impact the changes would have on the economy, noting that about 40,000 people filed for unemployment just last week. But he said the sooner the health care crisis was brought under control, the sooner the economy could begin to recover.

“We are moving into a period of sacrifice,” he said.

-ALAN SUDERMAN and SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press

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