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COLUMN – Where’s the science behind new restrictions?

My office has been helping Virginians in the 59th District with Virginia Employment Commission issues since the beginning of the pandemic.

As of last week, the VEC has resumed issuing payments to customers in a continued claim status that had their claim temporarily halted due to an issue that arose after filing. This means many customers who were waiting for a deputy’s determination because of a separation issue will receive payment. The VEC will be notifying affected claimants by text message and by mail of this development. Additional details can be found at www.vec.virginia. gov/benefits-update.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Dec. 10, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a raft of new restrictions on Virginians to fight COVID-19. While the new rules won’t impact schools or churches, they do put significant restrictions on private gatherings and impose a curfew.

There’s a lot of things wrong with how the governor has handled this, but two things stand out — how the policy was communicated, and then the way the policy was presented.

The governor’s team teased “new restrictions” with no information earlier last week. That’s not a great way to inspire confidence. His team had to quickly get out there and say the restrictions would be “nuanced.” Don’t tease people with information that will impact their lives in a major way. Tell them, or don’t tell them.

Next was the policy rollout. Northam’s team made an emotional appeal — that video from the nurse in Tennessee was powerful. But where they failed was in explaining how these new rules are designed to slow the spread of this virus.

We have speed limits for a reason. Driving too fast on roads that aren’t designed for it can cause accidents and kill people. We have food and drug regulations for a reason. You must prove a new drug won’t harm people before you can put it on the market. Now we have these new COVID rules because, well, he hasn’t said why, other than “to slow the spread.”

Northam and company continue to talk about “following the science.” What we need to see from the governor is just that, the science. If you’re going to institute a curfew, which is a restriction of civil liberties, we need to know how this is going to help. Is COVID spreading in major parties after midnight? Is the virus more prevalent in the dark? What makes midnight to 5 a.m. so important?

What we heard from the governor was “nothing good happens after midnight.” That’s good advice from a parent to a teenager, but it’s not a sound basis for making policy. He also said it was about “messaging.” Governor, with all due respect, we don’t restrict people’s civil liberties for “messaging.”

People are angry, but they’re not stupid. If he tells us that the science shows the virus spreads primarily at certain events, or with certain activities, then there is no doubt that Virginians will avoid that. If you show them the evidence that certain activities spread COVID, they’ll stop doing those things. They don’t want to get COVID. But we’re not seeing that from this governor. We’re just getting platitudes when we need data. Instituting a curfew will stop the spread of COVID by “fill in the blank.” The governor and his team haven’t filled in the blank, and they need to quickly if they want people to follow these rules.

Let me be 100% clear. I know COVID is serious. That’s not in question. Members of House GOP staff have buried family members killed by this disease. I will continue to wear a mask to be respectful of others with elderly family members and our health care workers.

Our governor must stop stepping on our civil and religious rights, and our businesses need to open back up to revive Virginia’s economy.

Last month JLARC completed its study into the possibility of legalizing recreational marijuana sales in Virginia. The report was lengthy but boiled down to two fundamental findings — the state could make a huge amount of money by taxing the sales, and numerous legal and public health changes would need to be made.

On one hand, legalizing marijuana would bring a black market activity into the light and end racial disparity in how police enforce marijuana laws. Virginia could raise a ton of revenue through legalization. JLARC found that revenues would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars in just five years.

On the other hand, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and any actions taken by the commonwealth could be undone by the federal government in one stroke. Allowing legal sales to adults will harm communities of color disproportionately, as states with legal sales have seen the lion’s share of their dispensaries open in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Truly private sales would be hypocritical, since the commonwealth continues to hold a monopoly on retail liquor sales, ostensibly for public safety reasons.

Unfortunately, it is a possibility that any legislation that is brought forth in the 2021 session on marijuana legalization will not get the deserved and needed discussions, and I fear will be rammed through as legislation did in the virtual special session.

Recently we learned that the Virginia Parole Board had authorized the release of Gregory Joyner. On May 5, 1988, Joyner took the life of 15-year-old Sarah Jamison. After what he claimed was consensual sex, he strangled her to death. He then buried her body in a wooded area not far from her parent’s home.

In 1989 he was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted rape, and sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years.

“Gregory Joyner not only took Sarah Jamison’s life in a horrific way, he devastated her family, her friends and every person impacted by her life,” House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said. “He stole her entire future, and now the Virginia Parole Board is going to afford him what he robbed from her. The man who killed Sarah has his life back, yet this family will never have Sarah again.

“This board has already been found to have violated both law and procedure in letting such killers walk free. They stand for the interests of violent criminals, not victims and their families. It has become increasingly clear that the Northam administration and the House Democratic caucus not only condone these actions but also intend to continue to help hide the illegal and unethical behavior of this parole board,” Gilbert said. “The best time for Gov. Northam to have fired this board was when they released their first unrepentant killer. The second-best time is right now.”

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