The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday opposed Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to begin reopening the state on Friday, arguing that the consequences of reopening too early could fall disproportionately on people of color.
The caucus announced its position shortly after Northam told reporters that all but Northern Virginia will move ahead onto a phased reopening starting Friday.
While Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney suggested Tuesday that he was considering requesting a delay of the reopening for the city, Northam said Wednesday that he had not received formal requests from leaders outside Northern Virginia.
Northam said Northern Virginia will remain under a “stay-at-home” order for at least an additional two weeks. Elsewhere in the state, Virginians will remain under a “safer-at-home” advisory, while many businesses now closed will reopen with some safety restrictions.
Northam cited what he termed a sufficient supply of protective equipment and hospital beds, along with a declining share of positive tests and hospitalizations. The state, however, has still not met key testing and contact tracing goals laid out by officials and public health experts. Northam said Wednesday that he believed current capacity would be sufficient.
“Phase One represents a small step forward,” Northam said during a briefing with reporters. “This virus has not gone away and everyone needs to act accordingly. You will be safer at home, unless you need to go out.”
‘Guinea pigs’ for economy
The Black Caucus argued in a letter to Northam that many of the Virginians who will leave their homes at the risk of being exposed are so-called “essential workers,” a substantial share of whom are people of color.
“Under the current plan, and with the already existent racial disparities that this pandemic and economic crisis are perpetuating, we will be creating a situation where black and brown Virginians outside of Northern Virginia will become guinea pigs for our economy,” the letter reads.
In response to the letter, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement: “Governor Northam is deeply appreciative of the Legislative Black Caucus and values their close partnership with him and his administration as we respond to this crisis. He continues to be guided by public health, data, and the CDC guidelines. He is absolutely committed to moving forward in a safe, gradual manner that protects all Virginians, particularly low-income individuals, essential workers, and communities of color.”
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the caucus, said the state faces hurdles before reopening is safe for vulnerable Virginians, including many black and Hispanic workers.
“I think we need to stay focused on increasing testing. I think we need to provide support to businesses with [personal protective equipment]. It’s important for local governments to lay out their plans for how a custodial person, or any other member of their team, would be supplied with PPE,” Bagby said.
While employers will now be required to provide face masks to employees, masks remain optional for customers. Bagby said that exemption puts essential workers at risk.
In the letter, the caucus also argues that “often confusing and inconsistent” guidelines from the Northam administration could put people at risk. The letter cites a directive allowing churches to open at 50% capacity, which may result in large gatherings even as the state bans gatherings of 10 or more people.
“There is not a clear rationale for this 50 percent capacity guidance where other smaller gatherings would be prohibited,” the letter reads.
Northern Virginia, the state’s most populous region, is still reporting a comparatively high number of positive COVID-19 cases among everyone tested each day — about 25% — well above the 10% target recommended by public health researchers to contain the virus. In Virginia, that rate rests at around 15%.
During Wednesday’s briefing a number of Northern Virginia leaders, patched in remotely, took turns thanking Northam for agreeing to their request for a delay and said they hope to begin to reopen the region as soon as they meet certain statistical measures.
Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey thanked Northam for “letting the data, not a date, determine our status.”
Leaders in Northern Virginia joined in a successful request to Northam asking him to delay reopening in that region, in line with guidance from officials in neighboring Maryland and the District of Columbia. The list of localities includes Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties; the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park; and the towns of Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg and Vienna.
More than 3,500 people have been hospitalized by COVID-19 and discharged.
The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, which represents 27 health systems and 110 hospitals, reported Wednesday that 3,544 people have been discharged after fighting the virus, an increase of 144 people since Tuesday. Roughly 1,500 people remain hospitalized, according to the VHHA.
The state Health Department reported roughly 1,000 more cases of COVID-19 in Virginia compared with Tuesday.
The agency said in its daily data report that the total number of cases in the state has risen from 25,800 to 26,746, and more than 900 people have died.
Of Virginia’s 927 COVID-19 deaths, which is 36 more than VDH reported Tuesday, 899 are confirmed to have been caused by the coronavirus and 28 are probable.
Last month, the agency started including probable COVID-19 cases and probable deaths in the state’s overall tally. Probable cases are people who are symptomatic with a known exposure to COVID-19, but whose cases have not been confirmed with a positive test.
The number of outbreaks — defined by the state as at least two laboratory-confirmed cases connected by people, place and time — rose slightly from Tuesday to Wednesday from 275 to 277, the majority in long-term care facilities.
Staff writer Justin Mattingly contributed to this report.
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