By Chap Petersen
Petersen is a state senator from Fairfax County. He is a Democrat.
Schools are closed. Highways are empty. College campuses are eerily silent. Office buildings and shopping malls are shuttered, their parking lots empty. Restaurant and entertainment venues are effectively closed — many will remain that way forever, costing countless families their livelihoods. Most of our population is at home, attempting to work, study, or simply stay sane. Meanwhile, more than 400,000 Virginians have applied for unemployment benefits.
We have striven to do the right thing. To prepare for an influx of COVID-19 patients, Virginia hospitals freed up considerable bed space by postponing non-emergency procedures.
Now our hospitals and health care centers are sitting empty. Emergency room visits have largely ceased. Medical doctors, nurses, and health care workers have been furloughed or laid off due to lack of patients and lost revenue. That doesn’t make sense in a public health crisis.
Currently, there are nearly 6,000 open beds in Virginia hospitals along with 2,200 unused ventilators, which means that only 25% of ventilators are currently in use. These numbers have remained consistent since April 1. Meanwhile, there are 60,000 Virginians who have had non-emergency medical procedures canceled over the past month.
In short, we have halted care on ordinary Virginians, to stop the spread of coronavirus. It made sense 30 days ago. Does it make sense now?
History will judge whether these steps and other measures of “social distancing” were appropriate to confront the coronavirus in Virginia. Perhaps they were; statistics show the Commonwealth has remained largely healthy compared to states such as New York. But it also is possible that these measures now represent an over-reaction, causing irreparable economic damage and weakening the democratic institutions that make us Virginians.
For example, under Title 44 of the Virginia Code, the Governor has emergency executive power to issue orders for the “public safety,” which includes ordering a “quarantine for an affected area of the Commonwealth.”
The “quarantine” section of the Code (Title 32) speaks to isolating sick individuals “in the least restrictive environment necessary.”
The statute also provides for regular “monitoring” of patients to determine “if such persons require continued quarantine or isolation.” Implicit in this regulation is that quarantine measures must be grounded in science and objective fact.
These laws were written to protect the rights of individuals under a quarantine order. But what if 8.2 million people are subject en masse to such an order? Are the protections then waived?
The Commonwealth of Virginia is a constitutional democracy in which all citizens have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The executive branch has the authority to protect us during a public health emergency, but that authority is not unlimited nor is it indefinite.
The governor has shown leadership in enacting his executive orders which saved lives, but these orders must be revisited as the true facts become self-evident.
Any future regulations must be narrowly tailored to achieve their purpose, as our laws require.
The pandemic cannot go on forever, but its legacy will last far longer — if we fail to heed our own laws and freedoms.