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We must do better for Virginians who are hurting

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed Executive Order 61 in an effort to ease some of the restrictions he put in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But the new order doesn’t take into account vast regional differences in how the virus has impacted Virginians, and the governor seems to be floundering in his response.

At one point he said Virginia would not open on a regional basis but then reversed course and said local governments could lift restrictions at their own pace.

Northern Virginia is nowhere near ready to reopen Friday when the governor plans to begin lifting shutdown restrictions, the region’s top elected officials said Sunday, citing the continuing increase in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

In a joint letter, the elected leaders in northern Virginia’s five largest jurisdictions — representing nearly 2.4 million residents — told Northam they are unwilling to lift restrictions in place since late March.

Testing to identify and isolate hot spots and stamp out the virus is critical. Testing for this virus is key to getting Virginia back to work. Unfortunately, the governor’s team seems to still be behind the curve on testing, only beginning to truly assess what Virginia’s capabilities and needs are in the past few weeks.

Virginia is failing to test for COVID-19 as much as it should. Gov. Northam says that the problem is a lack of resources from the federal government, but the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports Virginia isn’t using all of its available capacity.

At first, Gov. Northam blamed the Trump administration for not getting Virginia the resources needed to conduct tests. Then we learned that Virginia has testing capacity sitting idle. The governor then said we lacked the swabs and other testing materials. Yet other states have managed to obtain these resources. Something is fundamentally different, and possibly wrong, with the way Virginia’s testing is being handled. Virginians deserve answers, and they deserve them now.

Virginia ranks 50th in the nation for testing.

The governor has rolled out his plan for reopening Virginia. Phase 1 of the opening plan lifts some restrictions, but not all of them.

Gatherings of more than 10 people are still banned. Businesses that had been restricted to 10 people or fewer will be allowed to

reopen with 50% of their rated capacity. Personal grooming businesses such as barbershops and salons may open with strict social distancing, cleaning, and by appointment only. Restaurants that have outdoor seating may serve customers at 50% of their outdoor capacity. Churches may resume indoor services at 50% capacity. Gyms may open to provide outdoor classes only. Beaches remain closed for all activities except for exercise and fishing.

Overnight campgrounds remain closed. Telework is still encouraged for all who are able to do so.

Members of his reopening advisory panel were reportedly “blindsided” by his announcements last week that gyms would only be able to operate outdoor classes and restaurants and beaches would remain largely closed.

It remains to be seen just whose advice the governor is listening to. That must change immediately so we can get good data on the road to reopening our economy.

Virginia is slow in processing claims for unemployment and my office is getting numerous calls for help with the online and phone Virginia Employment Commission systems. We can and must do better for Virginians who are hurting.

Gov. Northam’s initial decision to hold the rest of the state hostage to certain northern Virginia localities was misguided.

The administration must be more transparent about deaths in our elder care facilities. Corporations do not have a right to privacy, and families need information to protect their loved ones.

The damage being done to lives around the commonwealth is incalculable. Virginians have learned from this experience and recognize the necessary precautions they should take when in public.

If Gov. Northam will give Virginians the chance, we can and will get back to work in a way that protects employees and customers.

My office is continually monitoring the situation and will continue to provide you with updates as we receive them. I encourage you to sign up to receive emails from my office and follow my Facebook page as I am frequently updating both with resources and links to important information.

DEL. C. MATTHEW FARISS represents Buckingham in the Virginia House of Delegates. His email address is DelMFariss@house.virginia.gov.