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Robert E. Lee statues, Confederate busts removed from Virginia State Capitol

The statue of Robert E. Lee and busts of others who fought for or governed the Confederacy were quietly removed from the Virginia State Capitol Thursday night and early Friday morning at the direction of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn.

Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, ordered the Lee statue and other sculptures be taken from the Old House Chamber, saying, “Virginia has a story to tell that extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants.”

“The Confederacy’s primary objective in the Civil War was to preserve an ideology that maintained the enslavement of human beings,” Filler-Corn said in a statement Friday morning. “Now is the time to provide context to our Capitol to truly tell the Commonwealth’s whole history.”

Filler-Corn had authority by the Virginia Constitution and the rules of the House of Delegates to remove the statues, according to her office.

The removal of the statues began Thursday evening and ended about 4:30 a.m. A professional conservator supervised the removal. The statues from the Capitol building were all taken to storage.

“Those who fear the scrutiny of their judgment and challenges to their authority execute consequential decisions in the dead of night,” Senate Republican leaders, including Mark Obenshain of Rockingham, Bill Stanley of Franklin, and Steve Newman of Lynchburg, said in a statement. “Speaker Filler-Corn’s unilateral decision to remove multiple historic artifacts and sculptures from Virginia’s Capitol, eschewing any opportunity for public input and usurping the Capitol Square Preservation Council, is emblematic of the arrogant and unaccountable stewardship of the General Assembly we have seen emerge under the Democrat majority.”

The other items were positioned around the room. The busts removed honored Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president; Gens. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Joseph Johnston, J.E.B. Stuart, and Fitzhugh Lee, who was Robert E. Lee’s nephew and served as a Virginia governor; Navy officer and oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury; and Alexander Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy. A plaque recognized Thomas Bocock, former speaker of the Confederate States House of Representatives.

The Lee statue stood at the entrance to the Old House Chamber, which mainly serves as a museum to visitors. Virginia delegates voted there to secede from the Union in 1861. The bronze Lee statue was situated where Lee accepted command of the armed forces of Virginia from Gov. John Letche. The Confederate Congress met in the building during the Civil War.

“Generations of Virginians, Americans and visitors from around the world have been greeted by these imposing symbols of treason and white supremacy for far too long,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

Most of the statues removed were put up decades after the Civil War, during the era of Jim Crow segregation, as part of an effort to glorify the cause of the Civil War as being about states’ rights rather than the expansion of slavery.

The Lee statue was approved in 1928 with the help of then-Gov. Harry F. Byrd, later the architect of Massive Resistance, a set of policies that aggressively pushed back against racial integration of public schools following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, called the decision to remove the Lee statue “perplexing, given the fact that the Lee statute in the old House chamber literally marks the spot where Lee accepted his general’s commission, setting off some of the most historic and tragic events in our nation’s history.”

“Unlike the Lee monument on Monument Avenue, this statue is a historical marker,” Gilbert said, referring to the towering monument in Richmond that Gov. Ralph Northam is trying to have removed.

Filler-Corn has asked Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to chair a newly formed advisory group to the speaker to examine items under House control and to advise the speaker on any possible future actions related to historical artifacts.

The advisory group will be made up of a bipartisan group of House members, historians and community leaders from across Virginia. It will advise Filler-Corn of whether there are other actions to take on House-controlled artifacts in the Capitol, putting up additional historic artifacts and historic context in the House-controlled areas of the Capitol and what will be done with the removed Lee statue and Confederate busts.

“The artifacts at the Capitol are a painful reminder of the deep-rooted wounds of slavery and 401 years of oppression. These Confederate artifacts are constant reminders of individuals who had no intentions of guaranteeing justice, equality and equity for all,” McQuinn said in a statement. “I am proud of Speaker Filler-Corn for taking this action to not only remove these hateful symbols, but also create a process to make sure our State Capitol reflect our ideals.”

Gilbert said the Capitol building served as the Confederate Capitol, “a fact that should no doubt force the speaker’s new advisory group to recommend that it be razed to the ground.”

Northam’s spokeswoman said the governor is focused now on removing the Lee statue on Monument Avenue before turning his attention to working with the “General Assembly on next steps for the Capitol Grounds.”

Outside the Capitol on the grounds are statues of Byrd, Stonewall Jackson and William Smith, a former governor and Confederate brigadier general.

The Byrd statue drew attention earlier this year when Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, filed a bill as part of a stunt to challenge Northam to remove that statue if he wanted other statues taken down.

Democrats liked the idea, but found the manner in which Walker proposed it to be insulting. Walker withdrew his bill. Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, has said he plans to file a bill during next year’s regular General Assembly session to have the statue brought down.

The removal of the statues comes as localities are considering the removal of Confederate monuments in public places as part of the commonwealth’s reckoning with Confederate symbols. New Democratic majorities in the House of Delegates and Senate this year authorized local governments to remove monuments memorializing the Confederacy.

People protesting racial injustices and police brutality in recent months have focused attention on Confederate monuments and other figures who supported racist policies by spray-painting and toppling them. The monument to Robert E. Lee in Roanoke got knocked down Wednesday night, just a couple of weeks after the Roanoke City Council took the first step toward having it lawfully removed.

Later Thursday, the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol set in motion the process to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Statutory Hall. The newly formed commission will recommend to the General Assembly which person should replace Lee and what to do with the Lee statue, which now resides in the crypt of the nation’s Capitol.

“It never represented every Virginian, nor did it tell the full and true story of Virginia,” Northam told the commission. “We can do better, and we need to do better.”

The commission heard public comments from people for and against removing Lee’s statue. Sue Anne Boothe of Floyd submitted written remarks, urging the commission not to remove the statue of Lee, whom she described as “a man of great moral and honorable character.”

“I believe that Robert E. Lee is an appropriate representative of Virginia,” she wrote. “He was an outstanding man who served the country and Virginia.”

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill earlier this week to remove the statues of Lee and other Confederate leaders from the U.S. Capitol. The bill directs the Architect of the Capitol to identify and eventually remove at least 10 statues honoring Confederate officials, including Jefferson Davis.

All of the Democrats in Virginia’s delegation voted in favor of the bill. Reps. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt, and Rob Whittman, R-Westmoreland, voted against it. Reps. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson, did not cast votes.

“Instead of working to enact bipartisan police reform following the tragic killing of George Floyd, Speaker Pelosi seems to be more focused on the statues in the U.S. Capitol,” Cline said. “So long as the Capitol statue selection process is made by each individual state, the decision to remove Robert E. Lee from the Capitol Complex should remain Virginia’s to make — not Congress’ and not Nancy Pelosi’s.”

The bill has been sent over to the Republican-controlled Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.

Each state has two statues in Statutory Hall, and Virginia’s other contribution is George Washington. Lee’s statue is located in the crypt of the Capitol.

The entire process for the Virginia commission to remove and replace the Lee statue is expected to take a couple of years.

“These statues are divisive, they glorify a racist and painful time in our history, and it is past time we stop honoring the confederacy,” Northam said.

Always rocky, China-U.S. relations appear at a turning point

BEIJING — Four decades after the U.S. established diplomatic ties with Communist China, the relationship between the two may have reached a turning point.

Tensions have reached new heights on what has always been a rocky road, as the ambitions of a rising superpower increasingly clash with those of the established one. China ordered the closing of the U.S. Consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Friday, in rapid retaliation for the closing of its consulate in Houston.

Two weeks ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked aloud if relations could stay on track. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an answer: The time has come to change course.

“The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” he said in a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Southern California. “We must not continue it. We must not return to it.”

It was Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the first by an American president since the Communists took power in 1949, that upended a Cold War paradigm and paved the way for the normalization of relations in 1979.

The United States had been a close ally of then-Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek in World War II and for three decades recognized Taiwan as the government of China after Chiang fled there when he lost control of the mainland in 1949.

Relations between Washington and the Communist government in Beijing began to thaw in the 1970s, as China’s ties with the Soviet Union deteriorated and leader Mao Zedong sought a counterweight to its more powerful neighbor.

A new leader, Deng Xiaoping, visited the U.S. in 1979 after the establishment of diplomatic ties, smiling in photos as he tried on a cowboy hat in Texas. The Houston consulate that is being shut opened later the same year. It was China’s first in the United States.

Setting aside political differences, the U.S. and China promoted economic, social and cultural ties that were briefly interrupted a decade later by China’s military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Economic links grew exponentially in the following years, with heavy investment by U.S. businesses in China and an accompanying Chinese trade surplus that has reached $350 billion annually.

The relationship was punctuated by bouts of tension. The U.S. continues to support Taiwan militarily, and the Clinton administration sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in 1996 after China fired missiles toward the island.

In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided over the South China Sea, a vital shipping lane in the Asia-Pacific region. China detained the U.S. crew for days after its plane made an emergency landing at a Chinese base.

As China has grown into the world’s second-largest economy, behind only the U.S., it is increasingly viewed as a competitor, both economically and militarily, and a potential challenger to the Western-led democratic model that has dominated the post-World War II era.

Election-year politics in the U.S. are fanning the flames, as President Donald Trump appears to be using friction with China to drum up support among his base. Whether or not he is reelected in November, underlying differences will remain.

“We are looking at a structural change in the relationship, which will continue even if Trump does not get a second term,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Militarily, American and Chinese warships often jockey for position in the South China Sea. Economically, the U.S. is leaning on its allies to exclude Chinese telecom leader Huawei from their mobile networks, raising the specter of cybersecurity. On human rights, the U.S. is imposing sanctions over Chinese policies in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Tougher U.S. views on China have now been “baked into the system,” Tsang said.

Pompeo’s speech was the latest in a series of sharp criticisms aimed at China by Cabinet-level U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General Bill Barr.

Although Trump earlier played up what he called a warm relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, communication between the sides has fallen to new lows.

“The kind of engagement we have been pursuing has not brought the kind of change in China that President Nixon hoped to induce,” Pompeo said. “The truth is that our policies – and those of other free nations – resurrected China’s failing economy, only to see Beijing bite the international hands that fed it.”

Chu Yin, a professor at the University of International Relations in Beijing, said Americans who advocated engagement are disappointed that China’s economic growth and the emergence of a middle class has enhanced the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party rather than sparking democratic change.

Trump’s domestic political strategy has added some explosive elements to the structural problems in the relationship, he said.

“China will not take Pompeo’s speech seriously. It is the last cry of a lame duck,” Chu said. “China wants to have dialogue with a U.S. politician who is more commensurate with the status of a major country.”

He declined to forecast the future, saying: “Let us be more patient at this turbulent time.”

As COVID-19 infections rise in Virginia, contacting affected people slows

As the pace of COVID-19 cases continued to rise this week in Virginia, public health workers struggled to keep up with notifying people and tracing their contacts, according to state data.

The Virginia Department of Health’s weekly update on contact tracing showed that investigators were able to contact 74% of people within 24 hours of a positive test result, a drop of 4 percentage points since last week.

Contract tracers were unable to reach 18.6% of people who might have been exposed to someone with the virus, a rise of a percentage point.

The Health Department has been adding contact investigators and tracers to track the disease and monitor people with the virus. On Friday, 8,757 Virginians were under public health monitoring, or 1,114 more than last week.

Dr. Molly O’Dell, who is leading the pandemic response for the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts, said earlier this week that her staff couldn’t have done all that they have without the help of volunteers with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps.

“I see help coming, and that’s good. We are onboarding six new disease investigators tomorrow, so I’m really excited about that for my staff,” she said. “We’ve been running two shifts a day of workers and MRC volunteers. They have just been investigating machines.”

Public health officials have said a shortage of bilingual investigators and tracers has hampered efforts, since the Hispanic population has been disproportionately affected by the virus.

Before Virginia relaxed restrictions on businesses and public gatherings, the daily count of new cases of the coronavirus averaged between 525 and 550. The seven-day average is now 990 with 1,127 new cases reported on Friday.

The case count graphs on the Health Department’s website show the state surging toward a second peak. The first one was hit on May 31, when the seven-day average of cases stood at 1,195.

Case counts were driven then by heavily populated Northern Virginia. That region is now reporting fewer than 200 cases each day. The Eastern region, which includes Virginia Beach and Norfolk, is now leading the case counts, with Southwest Virginia also experiencing a surge in cases.

The department added 13 deaths on Friday, increasing the total to 2,067 Virginians who have lost their lives due to the coronavirus. Four of the people added Friday had lived in Southwest Virginia.

Afraid of touching objects amid COVID-19? This Virginia Tech professor has a solution

Since earlier this year, William Ducker has not liked going to the supermarket and navigating a shopping cart around the aisles.

“Everybody is very worried about touching communal objects, and I’m one of those guys,” said Ducker, a professor at Virginia Tech.

But unlike everybody, Ducker’s field of expertise made him realize he could alleviate that worry.

“I’m a surface chemist. ... I look at surface coatings,” he said. “I thought I could fix this problem.”

So Ducker and a team of graduate students at Tech created a liquid coating that destroys SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, when the coating solidifies on everyday items such as doorknobs and pens.

The thin layer of copper-based coating retains its virus-disabling property for at least six weeks, meaning such surfaces would no longer need frequent cleanings. Ducker says he thinks the coating could be effective for years, but is only confident about a few weeks because the coating has only existed for that long.

Last week, Ducker and colleagues became one, if not the first, team to publish an academic paper showing that such a coating is effective against the new coronavirus. “A Surface Coating that Rapidly Inactivates SARS-CoV-2” appeared July 13 in “ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces,” a journal published by the American Chemical Society.

The surface coating is made from particles of cuprous oxide, which can be made out of recycled copper pipes and wires, bound with polyurethane, a varnish commonly used to finish wood.

Although previous research has established cuprous oxide as effective against viruses, SARS-CoV-2 is a novelty. While conducting a Google Scholar search on the longevity of the virus on surfaces, Ducker came across the research of Leo Poon, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a leading expert on emerging viruses.

Ducker emailed Poon: Would he be interested in testing the new coronavirus on his coating? Poon replied about 20 minutes later, and they began a collaboration.

“Honestly, I was unbelievably excited when Poon said he agreed to test it,” Ducker recalled. “And then after we found out it worked, oh my God, I was just so excited. I think this is just such a great thing.”

After about an hour on glass or stainless steel painted with the coating, the effectiveness of virus samples was reduced by about 99.9% on average, the paper says.

Poon’s team put bits of SARS-CoV-2 in little drops that mimic a respiratory droplet — which is how COVID-19 spreads — and plopped them on the coated surfaces. After varying periods of time, they lifted off the droplets and measured their viral communicability by attempting to infect a monkey kidney cell, a standard mimic of a human cell.

After being exposed to the coating, droplets could no longer infect the monkey cell, Ducker said.

Poon did not respond to two emails seeking comment for this story.

Swapan Ghosh, a polymer scientist in India who has developed a silver-based anti-viral coating, said the novelty of the paper lay in the experiment’s ability to test it on SARS-CoV-2.

“It’s good work, because in this pandemic, it’s very diligent work, so I appreciate it,” Ghosh said.

Ghosh questioned whether the surface coating would work in the dark, since light activates the antiviral properties in cuprous oxide. He also wondered whether the toxicity of the copper elements should be measured.

Ducker agreed testing the coating in the dark would be interesting, but doesn’t foresee that happening because the experiments are done in high-level biological safety labs that make such a test tricky. He also said since not many people will touch surfaces in complete darkness, the practicality of such a test is limited.

And while copper compounds are generally safe for humans — think about handling pennies — Ducker’s paper notes that cuprous oxide can harm marine life. Specifically, he noted adverse effects on the reproduction system of a certain type of mollusk.

“There aren’t a lot of mollusks growing on people’s doorknobs, so that’s not that big a problem,” Ducker said.

The surface coating remains effective even after being treated with disinfectants, the experiments found. And while one cannot distinguish by touch between a plain pen and a pen coated in the material, Ducker said, its coppery appearance signals to people that it’s safe to touch.

“The actual product, I think what I’m after, is people being and feeling safe,” Ducker said, which is why he wants to call the material SafetyCoat. “That was always my objective.”

And he foresees widespread application. He has tested the surface coating on a shopping cart handle, a pen and a credit card reader “Enter” button, among other everyday objects.

“It’s not just like an esoteric thing where there might be a doorknob across the president’s office that has a coating. We can apply this everywhere,” Ducker said.

A university spokesman said Friday there are no current plans for Tech to use the coating as part of its cleaning regimen when campus reopens next month.

For now, Ducker is focused on looking for investors who could help bring the surface coating into the mainstream.

“I definitely want to mass produce it,” he said. “I want it all over the place.”