Three county supervisors representing western and southern Loudoun, as well the Town of Leesburg, have requested the governor allow their districts to begin reopening despite warnings from health officials.
Supervisors Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) sent a letter to Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday asking him to allow their constituents to begin phase one of his “Forward Virginia” plan.
“Loudoun is in a strong position medically, and a dangerously fragile position economically,” the letter reads. “Please let us start Phase One now. It is time for us to start taking small, careful steps toward restarting our economy. We need to give our residents and local businesses a fighting chance to rescue their livelihoods.
They were the same three supervisors who opposed signing a letter over the weekend requesting that Northern Virginia be allowed to delay its reopening, as the region still has limited testing, limited supplies of protective equipment and more infections per capita than the rest of the state. Northam granted that request with an executive order issued May 8, and while the rest of the state prepares for the first steps of a cautious reopening on Friday, Northern Virginia is still watching for signs that the virus is being brought under control.
Health officials and medical professionals have repeatedly warned political leaders that the virus that causes COVID-19 does not respect political boundaries, and with people commuting among the jurisdictions in the Washington, DC region, elected leaders and administrators have focused on a coordinated response. And while some supervisors argued Loudoun is in a different position than other Northern Virginia localities and should not be included, Loudoun County Health Department Director Dr. David Goodfriend said that’s not the case—while Loudoun is ahead of the region in some metrics, it lags behind in others, such as testing. That was discussed in conferring with other public health officials in the region.
“We didn’t think that Loudoun County was enough of a different experience to say that even though we’re charged with providing recommendations as a region, that I can make a case that Loudoun County was operating differently than the rest of Northern Virginia overall,” Goodfriend said.
Umstattd went farther than the letter in an interview, directly contradicting public health officials by arguing that social distancing has had no effect on the speed at which the virus spreads.
“I personally don’t view this shutdown as having prevented the spread of the virus, but what it has done is it has begun to destroy both livelihoods and small businesses,” Umstattd said. “I don’t think the shutdown is doing much good at all, if you look back at the original statements made by medical experts, they weren’t arguing that we could prevent people from getting the virus indefinitely. They were arguing that that we needed to spread out the number of patients of a longer period of time so as not to overwhelm the hospitals.”
That is a direct refutation of reports to the county Board of Supervisors by Goodfriend, who has repeatedly told supervisors that social distancing has had the desired effect in Loudoun of slowing the rate at which the virus spreads and preventing the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. During those reports he has also advised Loudouners to keep being cautious lest the rate of new infections increase.
“I don’t think it’s made a difference,” Umstattd said. “I think this virus is so contagious, it was going to get to people regardless, because there’s no way not to interact in some way with the larger community. You can have food delivered, but the virus is strong enough that it can last on boxes, et cetera.”
Asked if that means the entire region should reopen immediately, Umstattd said yes.
She laid the blame for the alleged failure of social distancing at the feet of the federal response, which she said has failed to provide adequate planning and equipment. She pointed in particular to the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to disassemble the Global Health Security and Biodefense unit, which formerly oversaw pandemic preparedness. And she said that has led to state and local officials being unable to protect vulnerable populations, such as the elderly.
“When the federal government is incapable of insuring that we have enough medical equipment and enough tests, it is going to be perhaps impossible for the state and localities to fully contain the virus,” Umstattd said. “So that’s what you’re stuck with.”
She also downplayed the virus’ danger.
“What you have done is you’ve failed to protect the vulnerable, largely because of federal incompetence, and you are destroying the lives of people who are not at risk,” Umstattd said. “Even among the elderly, the vast majority are going to survive this if they get it, and then as you go through the younger age groups, a larger and larger majority survives. But they are not protected now, and yet everybody else who is not at risk is being terribly and permanently damaged financially.”