Officials aren’t sure exactly what’s driving the COVID-19 surge. Experts say that makes policy more difficult.

Officials aren’t sure exactly what’s driving the COVID-19 surge. Experts say that makes policy more difficult.
Gov. Ralph Northam answered questions from reporters about how the state will and won't enforce a requirement that people wear masks indoors. (Source: May 28, 2020 -- Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Since COVID-19 cases began to rise in late October, small gatherings were quickly pinpointed by state officials in Virginia and across the country as a significant contributor to the spread of the virus.

“We need to continue to figure out why those numbers are rising,” Gov. Ralph Northam said at a news conference in early November. “And they’re rising right now because people are gathering and they’re not wearing masks.” Three days later, he reinforced the message in a video announcing new statewide restrictions, including a midnight curfew for restaurants and a ban on gatherings of more than 25 people.

“We know this virus is spreading in indoor places like restaurants where people take off their masks,” he said in the video announcement. “It’s spreading at small social gatherings, like dinner parties, and it’s spreading when people ignore science and think they don’t need to wear a mask inside.”

The new mandates were quickly criticized by some of the administration’s political opponents, especially when it came to the limit on gatherings sizes. “If this is to be believed then it seems [the governor] is looking to dictate how many people you can have in your own house for Thanksgiving,” Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights — who announced his own campaign for governor last month— wrote on Twitter. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, a frequent critic of the governor’s pandemic emergency orders, called the new restrictions “drastic and confusing” in his own tweet following the announcement.

But the focus on small gatherings as a factor in the nationwide surge has also been increasingly questioned by many epidemiologists and health experts, some of whom have criticized policies that allow businesses such as restaurants to remain open while extended families are encouraged not to meet for the holidays.

Virginia’s gathering restrictions are significantly more lenient than they are in states such as neighboring North Carolina, where indoor events are capped at 10 people, or Minnesota, where Gov. Tim Walz temporarily banned all indoor and outdoor gatherings for anyone who doesn’t share a household. But experts say it can still be confusing when public policies don’t seem to follow an understandable pattern — when family gatherings are discouraged, for instance, but indoor dining remains open.

“I think limitations on the size of gatherings does make sense to me,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “But I also think people expect a continuum of logic that goes between each restriction so they all make sense together. Otherwise, they’re asking, ‘Why this and not that?’”