July 1 Brings New Laws, Ends Declared Emergency

After a historic 2021 legislative session—not to mention a historic pandemic—Virginians will be seeing some major changes starting July 1.

Some of those have been much talked about­ and argued over in Virginia for years, such as the state’s decision to do away with the death penalty, the first southern state to do so, or the decision to legalize recreational marijuana.

Others have flown under the radar—figuratively—such as a new law banning the release of balloons, under penalty of a fine of $25 per balloon, or another requiring motorists to change lanes when passing bicyclists.

Yet others are of particular local concern, such as new laws tightening oversight of tolls on the Dulles Greenway, allowing for staggered terms for Loudoun County School Board members, and allowing Loudoun to administer its Health Department locally rather than under contract with the state.

A new law removes the prohibition on covering abortion for health insurance plans sold through a health benefits exchange in Virginia. Another outlaws discrimination on the basis of disability under the Virginia Human Rights Act.

Some of changes that were made on an emergency basis during the COVID-19 pandemic have now been codified into lasting law, including loosened ABC regulations, expanded telemedicine policies and new options for elected bodies to meet electronically.

State of Emergency to End

Virginia’s State of Emergency, in place since March 2020, will be allowed to finally end on July 1, another signpost as the state emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a declaration that would be renewed several times to avoid the automatic time limits on emergencies, as a law typically used for shorter-term disasters such as storms and riots was adapted to the long, grueling fight against a once-in-a-century pandemic.

The end of that emergency will also allow a law to go back into effect making it illegal in some circumstances to wear a mask in public. State law chapter 18.2-422 prohibits people over 16 years old from wearing face coverings “with the intent to conceal his identity.” The law specifically allows masks under “the declaration of a disaster or state of emergency by the Governor in response to a public health emergency where the emergency declaration expressly waives this section.”

While the Northam administration had previously indicated it may need to address that law to allow continued voluntary mask wearing for health reasons, legal experts more recently have said prosecution may be unlikely because of the intent clause of the law.

Marijuana

Virginia’s decision to legalize marijuana came somewhat suddenly. The drug was only decriminalized in 2020, subjecting people with found with small amounts of marijuana to lower penalties. In February 2021, the General Assembly voted along party lines to fully legalize cannabis beginning 2024—which Northam amended to begin instead on July 1, 2021, to which the General Assembly agreed. Adults will be able to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and grow up to four plants per household. Other provisions of the bill, if reenacted next year, will also allow the retail sale of marijuana in Virginia.

That makes the commonwealth the first southern state to legalize marijuana.

But that was not all Virginia’s legislation this year did. The General Assembly also created a variety of new organizations and programs to oversee, advise on and implement Virginia’s new legal framework for marijuana. The law creates the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, the Cannabis Oversight Commission, the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council, the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board and Fund, and the Virginia Cannabis Equity Business Loan Program and Fund, as well as sending support and resources to communities that have been historically and disproportionately affected by drug enforcement.

The state has also launched a website, cannabis.virginia.gov, with information about the new laws, and more informational resources are expected.

Education

While the most attention-getting of state education laws in Loudoun has been one adopted last year requiring protections for transgender students, the state passed many more educations laws this year.

Among those, one bill directs the Department of Education to conduct a review of the ongoing implementation of mandatory computer science standards in elementary and middle schools. A report is due by Nov. 1.

Another prohibits school boards from filing lawsuits against families who can’t pay for school meals, or who have school meal debt.

House Bill 1904 will include cultural competency in teacher, principal and superintendent evaluations, as well as requiring everyone seeking or renewing a license from the Board of Education to receive training in cultural competency, and for those seeking an endorsement in history and social sciences, to complete instruction in African American history. School districts will also have to require licensed employees to complete cultural competency training at least every two years.

That anti-racist work reflects another ongoing battle over teaching students about the structural racism that affects minorities in America—something some conservative groups have fought against.

And a number of bills direct the Department of Education and Board of Education to review and update policies on special education.

Voting

The 2021 General Assembly session was also another year of working to expand and protect voting.

New laws this year entitle disabled voters to curbside voting, permit absentee voting on Sundays if local registrars or boards of election choose to offer it, and outline new procedures for absentee voting. That includes providing voters an opportunity to correct ballots that have been filled out incorrectly in some circumstances, requiring drop-off locations for absentee ballots, and requiring officers of election to begin processing absentee ballots before the close of polls on Election Day, while also prohibiting reporting those results until after polls close.

Another bill prohibits any voting qualifications, standards, or procedures from being imposed or applied in way that impedes the right to vote of anyone based on race, color, or language.

This year also saw a proposed state constitutional amendment setting forth that any person who meets the qualifications for voters in the state constitution shall have the fundamental right to vote. It adds that, upon being released from incarceration for a felony, a person’s right to vote is automatically restored. That must pass again next year to be added to the state constitution.

Gun Safety

A new law this year prohibit people from purchasing firearms for three years after being convicted of assault and battery of a family or household member. Another allows school boards to designate non-school buildings and properties they own as gun-free zones, and another prohibits bringing guns into or within 40 feet of polling places.

ABC Laws

Many of the changes to alcohol laws in Virginia are carried over from pandemic rules designed to help restaurants and other businesses survive. Those include laws that will continue allows restaurants to continue selling cocktails to go, and allowing on-premises wine and beer licensees to continue selling and delivering their products for off-premises consumption.

Another authorizes the ABC to grant special event licenses more often and for longer, renaming that license the “designated outdoor refreshment area” license—“outdoor refreshments areas” having been an important part of the survival of many wineries, breweries and restaurants while indoor gathering was limited or prohibited.

Data Protection

The new Consumer Data Protection Act is one that has two local sponsors, Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33) and Del. Suhas Subramanyam (D-87), and will affect what personal information is stored in Ashburn’s data center alley. The bill outlines restrictions on tech companies doing business in Virginia that deal in the personal data of at least 100,000 people or get more than half of their revenues from that personal data. It gives consumers rights to access, correct, delete, and obtain a copy of personal data, and to opt out of the processing of personal data for purposes of targeted advertising, the sale of personal data, or profiling of the consumer.

But this one that doesn’t go into effect yet—it has a delayed effective date of Jan. 1, 2023.

And dealing in privacy and technology, House Bill 2031 prohibits local law enforcement agencies and campus police from using facial recognition technology.

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