The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Mar. 17 to declare a local state of emergency to give the county more flexibility and authority to curtail the novel coronavirus pandemic that has upended daily life in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.
Signed by County Executive Bryan Hill with the full board consenting in a resolution, the local emergency declaration enables the county to apply for emergency disaster funding from the state and federal governments and expands its authority to procure resources to address COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Since the virus was first detected in Virginia on Mar. 7, schools, public facilities, and businesses have closed as public health experts recommend avoiding crowds and physical contact with other people as a social distancing tactic to keep the coronavirus from overwhelming medical facilities.
“The potential impact of the spread of COVID-19 is of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant coordinated local government action to prevent or alleviate the damage, loss, hardship, or suffering caused by the existence of this communicable disease,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said while reading the text of the resolution.
In addition to streamlining funding for the county, the local declaration of emergency is a critical step for small businesses affected by closures and other ramifications of the pandemic, giving them the ability to apply for emergency loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
According to the Virginia Department of Health’s latest update on Mar. 19, Fairfax County has identified 16 presumptive positive cases of COVID-19, including six with unknown transmission routes, meaning their source has not been identified or is still under investigation.
In Virginia as a whole, positive COVID-19 cases surged overnight from 77 cases on Mar. 18 to 94 on Mar. 19 with reported outbreaks in the Peninsula Health District, which is home to the state’s two deaths so far, and the Richmond area.
An outbreak occurs when two or more cases can be traced to a common exposure.
Fairfax County Health Director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu told the Board of Supervisors during its emergency meeting on Mar. 17 that the county’s health department had received information the previous day about 65 tests conducted by commercial labs, all of them negative. Fairfax County has also gotten at least 30 tests processed at the Virginia state lab in Richmond.
While all of Fairfax County’s confirmed cases at that point could be traced back to travel or contact with a known positive case, rather than broadly spreading within the general populace, the still-limited availability of test kits and a testing process with “kinks that need to be worked out” raise questions about whether the existing data reflects the actual reach of the coronavirus, Addo-Ayensu says.
“I cannot prove it, but we don’t have evidence of sustained community spread,” Addo-Ayensu said. “Will that stay like that forever? No, but that’s at least what we have at this time, and that’s why we take a very aggressive approach to our contact tracing when we find a case so we can try and identify anyone who could potentially become a case and infect others.”
As of Mar. 17, the Virginia Department of General Service could test 300 to 400 individuals for COVID-19 at its public health lab and expected to receive additional kits later that day, raising its capacity to about 600 individuals, ABC7 Northern Virginia bureau chief Tim Barber reported.
As of Mar. 18, the state lab was processing 65 COVID-19 tests, not including tests by private labs, and Virginia had 2,000 intensive care unit beds with access to ventilators and respiratory support equipment, according to Virginia State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver.
Virginia has six regional healthcare coalitions that can deploy an additional 400 ventilators if necessary, and the state can also work with private vendors and call on national stockpiles to obtain more supplies.
While tests have been becoming more available daily, there is still a national shortage on many supplies critical for collecting samples and performing tests, so Virginia’s state lab is screening individuals based on their travel history, symptoms, and contact with known cases to determine who to test, according to Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services director Denise Toney.
“The highest-risk patients need to be our focus right now for testing,” Toney said.
State officials say they are working to procure as many supplies as they can to distribute to localities in need, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has been in contact with the National Guard to ensure they are ready to potentially deploy to help add capacity, equipment, and staffing at hospitals, though as of Mar. 18, the governor had not yet taken that action.
Since declaring a state of emergency on Mar. 12, Northam has stepped up Virginia’s efforts to enforce social distancing to combat the new coronavirus and to assist residents and businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic.
Northam declared a public health emergency on Mar. 17, ordering all restaurants, fitness centers, and theaters to reduce their capacity below 10 patrons or close, though food establishments can provide carry-out options.
Violations of the mandate, which conforms to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that the public avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people, can result in an operation permit suspension and criminal misdemeanor charges.
Northam limited non-essential public gatherings of more than 10 people. Medical facilities, bus and train stations, airports, grocery stores, pharmacies, manufacturers, and distribution centers are among the services viewed as essential and, therefore, excluded from the rule.
Northam also urged adults 65 or older and people with chronic health conditions, such as heart and lung diseases and diabetes, to self-quarantine, since health experts believe they are at more risk of severe illness if infected by the novel coronavirus.
“Public health relies on every individual using common sense and making responsible decisions,” Northam said. “We can and will get through this difficult time, but we must work together to do so.”
On top of practicing social distancing, Addo-Ayensu says the most important action individuals can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses is to follow healthy hygiene habits, including covering coughs and sneezes with a sleeve, washing hands with soap for 20 seconds or using sanitizer, avoiding face-touching, and staying home when sick.
Recognizing that closing schools until at least Mar. 27 and other actions to curb the coronavirus are having a significant economic impact, especially on low-income workers who may already be struggling, Northam opened unemployment benefits to individuals whose employer reduces or stops operations due to COVID-19 and told the Virginia Employment Commission to waive the one-week waiting period for applicants to get benefits.
Virginia has activated regional workforce teams to support affected employers, guaranteeing that they will not face financial penalties for having more workers request unemployment benefits.
The governor also authorized rapid response funding for still-open employers that can be used to clean facilities and support emergency needs.
The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles has closed its 75 offices and all mobile units to the public, encouraging people who need to renew a license or vehicle registration to do so online. Anyone unable to get online to renew a license or registration that expires before May 15 will be given a 60-day extension.
A judicial emergency granted by the Supreme Court of Virginia suspended all non-essential, non-emergency proceedings in district and circuit courts, including new eviction cases for tenants unable to pay rent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, from Mar. 16 through Apr. 6.
Non-exempted court deadlines have been extended by 21 days.
On Mar. 16, the State Corporation Commission directed electric, natural gas, and water utilities to suspend service disconnections for 60 days to provide relief for customers financially affected by COVID-19.
Dominion Energy, Washington Gas, and the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative had already announced that they would suspend disconnections, with Washington Gas also waiving late fees and NOVEC suspending associated penalty fees for 60 days.
Some telecommunications companies, including Verizon, Comcast, and Cox, have pledged to not terminate services to any residential customer or small business unable to pay their bills, to open WiFi hotspots, provide unlimited data to customers at no added charge, and expand access to internet for low-income individuals by offering free trials.
During the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors emergency special meeting on Mar. 17, McKay acknowledged general frustration in the community about the lack of definitive answers on some issues related to the coronavirus.
“We would like to answer every question, but it’s an ever-changing situation,” the chairman said, noting that the county was preparing plans for handling childcare challenges only for them to be upended by Northam’s directives on crowd sizes.
While the county board does not have the authority that the D.C. mayor, for instance, has to close businesses and impose quarantines, Fairfax County is working to provide assistance to vulnerable individuals, according to McKay.
Fairfax County Neighborhood and Human Services can provide access and referrals to assistance with food, shelter, employment, and other needs, and Health and Human Services is developing a plan to support the county’s homeless population.
The sheriff’s office is working to suspend home evictions temporarily, and the Department of Tax Administration has extended the deadline for seniors and people with disabilities to apply for real estate and vehicle tax relief to June 1.
With the goal of keeping the government open and safe, Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill says he has directed agencies to shift resources to core functions and to implement their telework plans to balance employees’ health and safety with residents’ needs.
Boards, authorities, and commissions have been instructed to indefinitely postpone any planned meetings unless they involve time-sensitive activities, and the county government is encouraging residents to conduct business online when possible.
Fairfax County closed its senior centers and adult day health care centers on Mar. 16 until further notice, though meal delivery service is available to registered participants who want it.
The county also shuttered all public libraries and park authority facilities, including golf courses, historic sites, equestrian facilities, preschools, and recreation, nature, community, teen, visitor, and resource centers, from Mar. 16 to Mar. 29.
The Fairfax County Park Authority has canceled all events, classes, programs, and permitted use of athletic fields, parks, historic sites, and picnic shelters during those two weeks. Outdoor parks and trails remain open, but visitors should stay at least six feet away from other people and avoid large gatherings and group activities, as recommended by the CDC and other health officials.
Fairfax County Public Library has closed its 22 full-service branches until Mar. 29 and canceled all library-sponsored programs and meeting room bookings through Apr. 12.
“This was a difficult decision to make as we know how much people rely on their libraries to support their educational, entertainment, and recreational needs,” the library system said on Mar. 16. “However, libraries are a hub of community activity with some branches drawing thousands of visitors per day.”
Some staff remains on-site to support phone and online reference, and the library is working on implementing a curbside pick-up option.
FCPL has suspended overdue fines, extended due dates for physical materials by 30 days and hold pick-up days by 10 days, stopped accepting donated materials through Mar. 29, and ceased processing new interlibrary loan requests, though existing requests are still in production.
The county says some closed community facilities may be used as meal distribution centers if necessary, and their status will be continuously reevaluated as the coronavirus crisis unfolds.
The Fairfax County Animal Shelter also announced on Mar. 16 that it has modified its operations effective immediately, canceling shelter tours, workshops, group meetings, events, and a low-cost rabies vaccination clinic that had been scheduled for Apr. 5.
In addition, the shelter is not accepting in-person donations or selling dog licenses on a walk-in basis, though online options are still available in both cases. People can make appointments for stray pet pick-ups and returns, pet surrenders by owners, and adoptions.