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Legislative Black Caucus has 'grave concerns' about reopening Virginia too soon

Posted at 4:04 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-13 16:10:40-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) expressed its “grave concerns” with Governor Ralph Northam’s planned Phase One reopening of Virginia on Friday following weeks of economic shutdown due to COVID-19.

“While we understand the valid concerns that non-essential business closure and stay-at-home orders have taken a substantial toll on our Commonwealth’s economy, these concerns must be weighed with the substantial negative impacts on many Virginians, especially Black Virginians and Virginians of Color,” the Caucus wrote in a letter to the Governor. “Reopening now will not only increase the incidence of COVID-19 exposure to these workers, who remain unprotected and illsupported, but will also increase the negative economic pressures that they are already experiencing.”

The lawmakers said reopening too soon would create “a situation where Black and Brown Virginians outside of Northern Virginia will become guinea pigs for our economy.”

While most of Virginia will undergo Phase One reopening on Friday, the Phase One reopening in Northern Virginia would take place in two weeks.

“I feel comfortable in allowing Phase One to begin this Friday for most of our Commonwealth,” Governor Northam said at his Wednesday press conference. “As we have discussed in these briefings, moving to Phase One depends on meeting a set of health metrics: an increasing number of tests, a downward trend in the percent of tests that come back positive, a downward trend in the number of COVID patients in our hospitals, the availability of hospital beds, and the availability of PPE. As a Commonwealth, these metrics are trending in the right direction.”

Governor Northam added Phase One reopening does not mean a return to business as usual.

“Phase One will not be like turning on a light switch. We will restrict non-essential retail and houses of worship to 50% of the building’s capacity. Gyms and fitness centers must remain closed, but we’ll allow them to do outdoor fitness options,” he said. “Restaurants must remain closed, but we will allow those with outdoor seating to use that at 50% capacity. We will allow salons and barbershops to operate with strict requirements for social distancing, and face coverings.”

In the letter to Northam, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called the Phase One guidelines “confusing and contradictory.“

“Under Phase One churches are permitted to open at 50% capacity, while observing social distancing, wearing masks, and meeting certain hygiene practice requirements. Yet in some areas of our Commonwealth, there are churches with large congregations -- where even at 50% capacity the result would be massive gatherings of people, where many Virginians would be at risk, even with social distancing and following proper government guidance,” the letter stated. “There is not a clear rationale for this 50 percent capacity guidance where other smaller gatherings would be prohibited.”

Other issues include:

  • A lack of quality childcare
  • Confusion over unemployment and other benefits
  • A lack of PPE in the community

“We request that you respond to these concerns with an equity-focused plan addressing the issues raised prior to moving forward with Phase One,” the lawmakers requested. “We particularly ask for a plan that explicitly considers and confronts current and potential growth in racial disparities, and the needs and safety of underserved and vulnerable populations in Virginia.”

In response to the VLBC's letter, the Governor's Office release the following 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.