Charlottesville officials said Wednesday that Gov. Ralph Northam isn’t doing enough to force residents throughout the state to stay at home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Officials sent a letter to the governor’s office Wednesday morning as the City Council took measures to ensure the local government can remain functional.
Governments across the world are taking measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, which has created a global pandemic.
In letters sent Tuesday, city officials ask Northam to revise his Monday executive order that shuttered restaurants and restricted public gatherings to mirror stricter shelter-in-place style orders issued in New York, California and Louisiana.
“COVID-19 is spreading rapidly throughout our nation as over 9,000 confirmed cases of the virus have been reported in America on March 23 alone,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker wrote in the letter, which was sent on behalf of the entire City Council.
“Virginia must take action now to halt the spread of COVID-19 before it results in further illness and death within the Commonwealth,” Walker wrote. “The Council does not believe that this Executive Order’s social distancing measures are sufficient to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia.”
The Thomas Jefferson Health District on Wednesday confirmed 22 presumptive positive cases in the district. Seven of those cases are in the city.
According to data from the Virginia Department of Health, Charlottesville has the sixth-highest instance of coronavirus cases per capita in the state.
The letter sent by Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney and Fire Chief Andrew Baxter is essentially the same as that sent by City Council.
“This is a public health emergency, and we urge you to act immediately to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our fellow Virginians,” Brackney and Baxter wrote.
For example, the Louisiana order, signed by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, allows residents to leave their homes to go to the grocery, pharmacy, medical appointments, take-out, delivery or drive-thru orders at restaurants, care for a friend or family member, walks, jogs, bicycle rides and exercise, providing at least a six-foot distance is kept between people.
However, Northam’s press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, said that Northam’s executive order accomplishes the same measures as those in other states, adding that localities are responsible for enforcing the order.
Northam banned gatherings of 10 or more people and violation of the order is a class-one misdemeanor, which carries up to a year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.
“Regardless of what you call it — a “shutdown” or a “stay-at-home order” — Virginia’s actions are in line with a number of other states that are taking aggressive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19,” Yarmosky said in an emailed statement. “Again, the governor is urging Virginians: stay at home except for essential travel. He looks forward to working with Charlottesville and other localities to make sure this order is enforced.”
City spokesman Brian Wheeler said officials want the governor to have a clearer message.
“The governor’s order in Virginia is a series of separate closure orders, but it does not in any way tell citizens to stay in their residences unless they are performing a specific function,” he said. “The city of Charlottesville believes time is of the essence to make this more clear to Virginians.”
Wheeler said the city has received “several calls” about enforcement, but hasn’t issued any citations.
The city letters were sent shortly before a special meeting Wednesday morning where the council adopted an ordinance allowing it to conduct electronic meetings in narrow circumstances, particularly on the city’s budget.
The ordinance allows the council to hold electronic meetings to conduct business to discuss the state of emergency around the coronavirus pandemic or items related to the continuity of government, such as the city’s budget.
The ordinance also allows electronic public hearings for such continuity-related items. The public can participate in the hearings electronically or submit comments before, during or up to five days after the hearings.
Attorney General Mark Herring provided guidance to local governments about the parameters of electronic meetings on Friday, according to Loudoun Now.
City Attorney John Blair said the ordinance helps “protect everyone’s health and safety.” He noted measures such as broadcasting a webinar and on Facebook Live that are keeping the public involved.
“We’re trying our best to maximize public participation,” he said.
For any measures that require a public hearing, the ordinance allows the city to use all means possible to allow participation.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the situation is evolving each day, but the city is on the leading edge.
“What I’ve seen is most localities trying to strike the right balance between safety and transparency, and I certainly think Charlottesville is on the better side of that equation right now,” she said. “Because this is such a fluid and, as the governor keeps saying, a dynamic situation, both governments and the public are going to have to continually recalibrate what their abilities and expectations and aspirations are.”
Councilor Sena Magill has been participating in meetings electronically since March 10 under an existing electronic meeting policy after exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. Magill and Councilor Lloyd Snook attended a national conference earlier this month where two people later tested positive for COVID-19.
The ordinance officially declares any items that were planned for the City Council, Planning Commission, all boards and authorities as continued for the duration of the emergency.
City panels can still meet, but only if a quorum of members are physically present, essentially placing decisions on hold. Councilor Michael Payne wrote on Twitter that Neighborhood Development Services staff are still working on everything that has already been submitted.
The ordinance allows the city to dive back into its budget process, which was brought to a halt as the pandemic spread.
Earlier this month, the council held a mostly electronic hearing on the proposed $196.7 million spending plan for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1, and the proposed tax rate.
It’s unclear just how much the proposal will change with a possible dip in revenues from businesses closing due to the virus.
A second public hearing is scheduled for April 6, with final approval planned for April 14. It’s unclear if those dates will change. Under state law, the final budget doesn’t need to be approved until June 30.
The next work session listed on the city’s website is 10 a.m. April 7.
Scottsville Town Council will consider a similar electronic meeting ordinance on Thursday, Town Administrator Matt Lawless said during electronic public comment at Wednesday’s special meeting.
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors announced Wednesday night that it will take up a similar measure to Charlottesville’s at a meeting Friday morning.
The agenda includes a discussion item labeled “consider removing ‘From the Public: Matters Not Listed for Public Hearing on the Agenda’ from the Board of Supervisors’ agendas during the COVID-19 emergency and disaster.”