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Amid planned reopening, Virginia Tech students have major concern: Parking

As Virginia Tech prepares the complex process of reopening campus amid a pandemic, one concern is foremost on the minds of many Hokies: parking.

A university decision to start charging campus visitors for weekday parking has sparked a barrage of criticism on social media from students and alumni. The issue has bubbled up at a presidential town hall. And a petition seeking the policy’s reversal argues the change could strain public transportation usage at a time when people should limit their interactions.

“We want people to move toward public transit. But now is not a good time,” said Taren Woelk, a recent alumna who on Monday started the petition, which by Thursday had garnered more than 5,300 signatures. (Meanwhile, an online petition demanding Tech’s COVID-19 testing plan mandate students and staff receive a negative result before returning to campus has just over 300 signatures.)

Woelk, a 22-year-old from Richmond who used to work as a bus driver in Blacksburg, said she interpreted the change as the latest in a series of cost increases to students.

“Virginia Tech has just slowly been getting more outrageous with how they treat their student population,” she said. “It seems just more like a money grab than something that was consciously thought out by the administration.”

Starting this fall, campus visitors and others without parking passes must pay to park on university lots 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. A daily visitor permit will cost $6, while hourly costs for meters vary.

Many residential students use campus lots after normal business hours for clubs or work, Woelk said. Blacksburg residents, too, often use campus parking for university events and errands downtown.

Tech made the change “to more effectively manage parking for the growing number of permit holders who engage in university activities after 5 p.m.,” spokesman Mark Owczarski said in an email.

“In previous years, only student and employee permit holders who parked a vehicle on campus between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. provided the revenue to support parking operations at the university while visitors and non-permit holders were able to park free of charge during the day and in the evenings,” he wrote. “By charging all those who utilize parking services on campus, regardless of what time of day, Virginia Tech will actually be better able to keep parking costs down for all users.”

As a so-called auxiliary service, Tech’s parking division must be financially self-sufficient, per state law, according to Owczarski. It is not funded by tuition or fees not related to parking.

Yet the university could not say Thursday whether the change would actually bring in revenue.

“We do not know whether this change will generate more revenue for parking services or not,” Owczarski wrote. “Should additional revenue be generated, it will be reinvested to maintain and improve parking operations and will be used to hold future user fees down.”

A residential undergraduate student parking pass for a year cost $450 or $256 for a semester, which has increased from $399 and $222, respectively, from the 2017-18 academic year.

Owczarski said the university works hard to keep parking fees as low as possible.

“Among colleges in Virginia, as well as those across the U.S., overall parking fees at Virginia Tech are among the lowest (easily among the bottom 25th percentile),” he said.

Asked for a source for that information, Owczarski said, “I don’t have access to data relative to parking permit costs at universities across the commonwealth or the nation. That said, I stand behind my earlier comment.”

While Tech’s budgets have taken a hit from the pandemic, Owczarski did not directly respond to a question about whether the new policy was implemented because of that.

He pointed to the fact that Tech’s parking policy is guided by a master plan, which was last updated in 2016. That master plan notes, “Unlike at many peer institutions, Virginia Tech’s visitor parking permits are free and are typically picked up at the Visitor Center.”

The plan recommends the university begin charging for visitor parking, noting among the “major drawbacks with the current Visitor parking permit system” the fact that “Parking is free which can lead to abuse of Visitor permits and a financially unsustainable program.”

The new change will lead to more parking enforcement.

“The university will monitor its parking areas an additional five hours, five days a week given this change,” Owczarski said. “That will take additional resources.”

Initially, the university announced the policy would be in effect on the weekends as well, which prompted an uproar. It later acknowledged that was not accurate.

“It was a communications error, pure and simple, and we apologize for making it,” Owczarski said.

But many remain unhappy, and insist the change will strain public transportation.

On Thursday, Blacksburg Transit announced new rider limits to take effect Aug. 9. Large buses, which can carry 107 people, will be capped at 75, and smaller buses that usually could carry 80 people, will be capped at 55.

“At these levels it is expected that ridership demand can be reasonably accommodated and still provide enough room on the bus for some separation among passengers,” the agency said.

Keri Friedman, a rising 21-year-old senior from Long Island, said they would look into getting a visitor pass for times they need to be on campus. But Friedman may try to find free parking farther away, then take the bus from there.

Friedman said they moved to Christiansburg after being priced out of a Blacksburg apartment and views the new policy as another burden on students and other community members.

“They love to emphasize this whole Ut Prosim thing, ‘That I May Serve,’ but it seems like their wallets are the only ones being served right now,” said Friedman, referring to Tech’s motto.

Virginia looks at prioritizing testing as labs take longer to process COVID-19 swabs

A surge in coronavirus cases elsewhere is causing week-long delays before some Virginians learn the results of their tests.

“What happened last week, as a result of the increase of testing around the nation and pockets of outbreaks here, and challenges with some supply chain logistics, we got to a point that the testing turnaround times were becoming significantly delayed,” said Dr. Parham Jaberi, chief deputy health commissioner with the Virginia Department of Health.

Commercial labs that run about two-thirds of the state’s tests are taking six days and longer to return results. The state’s consolidated lab is taking about three days.

“We realize a lot of this has to do with PCR diagnostic testing, which is a finite resource,” he said.

PCR tests, involving swabs, detect viruses during an infection.

Jaberi said at a meeting Thursday morning of the state’s long-term care task force that the COVID-19 testing advisory council planned later in the day to discuss how to increase capacity and to prioritize tests.

Nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other long-term care providers have been turning to the state to perform point prevalence surveys in which all staff and residents are tested at once. The surveys are required before long-term care providers can begin reopening to visitors.

Virginia expects it will be the end of August before all of these surveys are completed. That date keeps being pushed back.

After a slow start, Virginia has increased testing capacity and has met or exceeded its goal of 10,000 tests a day since the end of May. The Virginia Department of Health reported Thursday that nearly 970,000 PCR tests have been given since the start of the pandemic in March. Initially, tests were very limited, with results taking a week or two, which limited their usefulness both in a diagnosing patients and in establishing who had been exposed during outbreaks in long-term care.

Virginia was able to increase testing as more hospital, university and commercial labs began running batches and as supplies became more available.

But as cases of COVID-19 surge across the nation, commercial labs are becoming taxed, causing delays.

Jaberi said Virginia is competing with other states.

“One of the messages to our federal partners is this is where there is a need for a federal strategy. It would be really helpful,” he said.

Locally, Dr. Molly O’Dell reported this week that the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts haven’t experienced long turnaround times as they rely on Virginia Tech, which set up a lab to support local testing.

In recent weeks, health departments across the state have hosted first-come, first-served testing events. Anyone can drive up and be tested until supplies run out.

This is in contrast to testing events that require people to be pre-screened and for them to have COVID-19 symptoms or to have been in contact with someone infected with the virus.

O’Dell said she is concerned that testing resources be used wisely.

Jaberi said public health officials need to prioritize testing.

“What we really need to think about is the hospital testing capacity that has been growing and may become constrained,” he said. Hospitals not only are testing people with symptoms but those coming in for surgery and other procedures, and inpatients who are being discharged to long-term care.

Many facilities do not want to take patients without negative test results.

Only 26 of 197 skilled nursing homes that responded to a survey by the Virginia Healthcare Emergency Management Program said they would admit a new resident with a pending or positive test result.

Sun shines just enough for record-breaking 23rd consecutive day of 90-plus temperatures at Roanoke

It started slowly, not even 80 degrees by midday. But the sun finally burned through a stubborn deck of mid-level clouds and pushed Roanoke’s temperature to a history-setting mark.

With a high of 91 degrees recorded at 2:59 p.m., Thursday became the 23rd consecutive day at Roanoke with a high temperature of 90 or above, setting a new record for the longest streak of 90-degree days since the start of official weather records in 1912.

The current streak surpassed the 22-day string of 90-degree-plus days from June 23 to July 14 in 1966. No other streak of 90-degree days in Roanoke weather history has been longer than 17 days.

There was little time to spare to break the record on Thursday, as the sun did not fully appear until shortly after noon, when it was only 78 degrees, and was again hidden by clouds shortly after 4 p.m. as numerous thunderstorms approached west and south of the Roanoke Valley.

Despite the heat — or, actually, partly because of it — heavy thunderstorms have rocked the area each of the last three afternoons and evenings. These have not spread rain out evenly across the region, but many locations that were starting to turn dry have gotten needed rain.

After seemingly being on course for the driest July on record with just 0.21 inch through the first 20 days of the month, Roanoke’s official gauge measured more than 2 inches Tuesday and Wednesday for 2.58 total for the month before any additional rain Thursday evening.

With a continued heightened risk of thunderstorms Friday and Saturday, as a weak cold front sinks southward near the region, high temperatures for the Roanoke area are expected to be in the upper 80s to near 90. So the record streak may end soon — or continue by a narrow margin.

If the streak does make it through the weekend, hotter, drier weather with highs in the mid to upper 90s is expected to return next week, as high pressure aloft again expands its influence over our region.

So the record streak could get a lot longer if it can squeak by a couple more days.

Congress defies Trump veto threat on Confederate base names; Kaine, Warner amendments accepted

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday joined the House in defying a veto threat from President Donald Trump to approve defense legislation that would remove the names of Confederate officers from American military bases such as Fort Bragg and Fort Benning.

The Senate approved the annual policy measure, 86-14, a margin that suggests more than enough support to override a potential Trump veto. The House approved its version on Tuesday by a veto-proof margin of 295-125. Now the two chambers will have to negotiate a final version. Both bills authorize $741 billion for the military, including a 3% pay raise for the troops.

The White House said in a statement this week that it supports the overall spending figure but expressed “serious concerns” about the House bill, including the mandate on base renaming.

The Senate accepted an amendment from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to prevent the use of military funds or personnel against Americans exercising their First Amendment rights. Kaine and other lawmakers grew concerned about Trump’s remarks about using active-duty military forces to “dominate” in U.S. cities and stop protestors against police brutality and racial injustice.

“This year, we sent a strong, bipartisan message that military force can’t be used against peaceful protesters,” Kaine said in a statement. “I never would have thought I needed to introduce an amendment to make that clear until recently. We want the military to protect the freedoms we cherish without the president coopting it to infringe on our First Amendment rights.”

The legislation would authorize $240 million in military construction projects throughout Virginia. Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., both pushed for funding for a second Virginia-class submarine after it was excluded from Trump’s defense budget.

The Senate also agreed to Warner’s amendment to have more detailed information gathered on whether military personnel experience or witness extremist activity in the workplace, something he wanted included in response to reports of growing white nationalism.

“Our work to ensure our servicemembers feel safe also extends to their time on-duty,” Warner said in a statement. “That’s why I successfully pushed for a provision mandating reporting on instances of racism and discrimination that our men and women in uniform may encounter while serving our country, and why I’ve been outspoken about giving our military leadership the tools and information they need to combat these destructive biases.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers will work to produce a joint House-Senate bill “that both sides can support and the president can sign.”

The Senate bill “gives our military the personnel, equipment, training and organization needed to implement the National Defense Strategy and thwart any adversary who would try to do us harm,’’ Inhofe said, singling out China and Russia as the top threats to national security.

“By fully investing in our military growth and modernization, we’re restoring deterrence so no country wants to challenge us. I don’t want a fair fight out there, I want to be superior — and this bill does that,’’ Inhofe said.

Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on Armed Services, also hailed the bill, saying it “strengthens our military and bolsters our capacity to effectively defend America from evolving security challenges.’’

The bill invests in integrated technologies and platforms that improve deterrence, Reed said, and “provides our troops with decisive, lasting advantages and powerful, force-multiplying assets.”

Roanoke Times staff writer Amy Friedenberger contributed to this report.