Update: On Thursday evening, Governor Ralph Northam amended his executive order, adding the City of Richmond and County of Accomack to the “Phase Zero Jurisdictions,” where the phase one reopening of businesses is delayed. His amended order also clarified: the three Phase Zero Jurisdictions also include “all towns and political subdivisions contained therein.”
Gov. Ralph Northam’s order exempting the Northern Virginia region from reopening tomorrow is confusing some business owners and town leaders in western Loudoun.
On May 8, Northam announced that all Virginia localities would be allowed to cautiously reopen for business this Friday, May 15. On Tuesday, Northam issued another order exempting the Northern Virginia region from reopening so soon. According to the order, local leaders on May 9 “from the Counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William, and the Cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas, Manassas Park, as well as the Towns of Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg, and Vienna (Northern Virginia Region) requested to remain in Phase Zero.”
That’s confusing some western Loudouners, seeing that it does not list any Loudoun town other than Leesburg. The order’s actual directive also establishes that Northam grants “the Northern Virginia Region’s request” to delay reopening, but lists no specific locality.
Middleburg Mayor Bridge Littleton said he received calls from three business owners seeking clarification on the order and asking if they would be allowed to reopen on Friday, since Middleburg was not listed. Littleton said he clarified the order for those business owners.
“[Northam’s order] absolutely applies to every single town in those four counties,” he said.
Littleton said Northam should re-issue the order with explicit language to clear up the confusion among the unlisted Northern Virginia towns.
Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser said on Thursday afternoon that the Town Council is seeking guidance on an interpretation of the order from Town Attorney Sally Hankins.
Aside from confusion stemming from the order’s language, some town leaders are backing up their thoughts that their towns should reopen sooner than later with facts surrounding the number of COVID-19 cases in western Loudoun.
Northam’s May 12 order establishes that the Northern Virginia Region “is substantially higher than the rest of the Commonwealth in percentage of positive tests for COVID-19,” with about a 25-percent positivity rate compared with the rest of the Commonwealth’s 10-percent rate.
“In the last 24 hours, the Northern Virginia Region reported over 700 cases, while the rest of the Commonwealth reported approximately 270. On any given day, 70% of the Commonwealth’s positive cases are attributable to the Northern Virginia Region,” the order reads.
But some town leaders say those numbers don’t correspond with the numbers that specifically western Loudoun is reporting.
Purcellville Town Councilman Joel Grewe said Tuesday night that it didn’t made sense for Loudoun County to remain shut down while the rest of the Commonwealth opens back up, since, he said, there have been only 20 COVID-19 cases in the 20132 ZIP code, which encompasses a 96-square-mile area. He said there are many more cases of people suffering from the crisis in other ways, such as economically and mentally.
“That is a relatively speaking low density number of cases, it’s nothing like Fairfax, it’s nothing like Alexandria or Arlington,” he said. “We aren’t the same thing.”
Councilman Chris Bledsoe said the best way forward would be for town leaders to talk to County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) about the “very clear differences between western Loudoun [and eastern Loudoun].”
“I feel for the businesses, I think they’re hurting,” he said. “Anything we can do to try to promote that, push that and get them up to speed … we should definitely advocate for that.”
Town Manager David Mekarski reiterated what Loudoun Health Department Director David Goodfriend and other health officials have previously stated—that the county isn’t ready for cautious reopenings because it’s not meeting bench testing criteria and because it’s not seeing a downward trajectory in positive cases over a 14-day span.
Grewe pointed out that the Loudoun County Health Department isn’t a department of the county government, but that it actually is a part of the Virginia Department of Health, which has been “questionable over the last several weeks over its ability to accurately get good data to citizens.”
Grewe said VDH has “not done a good job of explaining clearly and cohesively” why and how it’s been testing for coronavirus and that the department is now on its third version of metric reporting.
“They don’t tell anyone how it’s happening,” he said. “Every time that happens, it degrades a community’s ability to trust the data that is functionally imprisoning them.”
Grewe said he has heard from many people who have said that by trusting their federal, state and local elected leaders, they’re giving up their freedoms, businesses, savings and “huge amounts of mental health and pain.”
“That trust is something we’re burning really fast,” he said. “The longer we keep us all locked down, the more of that [trust] we spend and that bank account is running toward negative territory really fast.”
Councilman Ted Greenly said he was still on the fence about whether or not he would support an interpretation of Northam’s order that omits Purcellville from a reopening delay, but that it would be a decision elected officials, such as himself, are obligated to make.
Mekarski said that when Purcellville does reopen, it will be difficult for the town government to enforce a 50-percent capacity mandate at retail businesses, since the town does not have a code enforcement department. He said the town Police Department will need to handle enforcement instead.
“It’s almost untenable,” he said, adding that the town might as well reopen at 100 percent capacity because of those enforcement issues, although he did acknowledge that the pandemic is “deadly” and that reopening could cause more adverse economic affects if the virus is spread further by reopening.
“It is a hard balancing act between the impacts of closure and the economy and the impacts in terms of health and safety,” he said.
Mekarski said Northam was adamant in a conference call last week that he doesn’t want towns and counties to have different reopening standards because that would encourage residents from one jurisdiction to travel to another to take advantage of opened businesses, which could create COVID-19 hotspots.