Legal Aid Justice Center Statement On the Proposed Re-opening of Virginia
Governor Northam’s jaw-dropping announcement on Monday, reiterated today, that Virginia could be partially re-opening for business as early as May 15 is reckless and cruel.
A partial reopening on May 15 is reckless for the following public health reasons:
- Virginia’s testing rate for COVID-19 is one of the worst in the country. The Commonwealth ranks 48th among states.
- Virginia does not yet have an established system for contact tracing, a method other countries have successfully used to slow spread of the virus absent a vaccine. (We learned today that we do not even know how many people are employed in the state to do contact tracing, nevermind whether they speak Spanish or other languages.)
- Due to asymptomatic presentation, infection rates are likely to be far higher than reported, particularly in congregate settings, such as assisted living and long-term care, group homes, adult and youth jails and prisons, and other forms of detention, some of which are not being tested at all.
- Without a vaccine or contact tracing, we are relying solely on herd immunity, which means that 70% of people will get the virus.
A partial reopening on May 15 is cruel for the following humanitarian reasons:
- Due to systemic racial inequities, infection and death rates are highest in Black and brown communities. In our state capital of Richmond, 15 of the 16 deaths from COVID-19 were Black residents. In Fairfax County, while only 17% of the population is Hispanic, 56% of all confirmed cases are Hispanic.
- If the courts follow the Governor’s guidance, dockets will be swarmed by landlords clamoring to evict tenants and debt collectors seeking to garnish people’s wages and stimulus checks.
- Imprisoned people, including youth, will be asked to endure the psychological torture of isolation, the only form of social distancing possible in jail and prisons, in an attempt to protect them as the virus rages through these facilities at even higher rates than the general population.
- Poultry processors and farmworkers will go on working in unsafe conditions with no social distancing, sacrificing their lives just to keep the price of meat and vegetables low.
- As non-essential businesses reopen, many low-wage workers will be presented with a Hobson’s choice: go to work, risking illness or even death, or prioritize health and safety and lose employment, which means losing unemployment and possibly health care benefits, and a risk of losing housing, utilities, and the ability to care for family.
- With schools closed and the pandemic limiting Virginia’s already scarce supply of high-quality, affordable childcare, parents will be faced with more impossible choices and trade-offs between caring for the daily needs of their children and providing for the economic security of their families.
- These impossible choices will often fall heaviest on Black and brown Virginians—those who provide childcare, stock the shelves of retail stores, serve meals in restaurants, and work the floors of factories.
Even prior to this pandemic, Virginia has been failing on every measure that really matters: Nationally, we are ranked #43 for steps taken to protect people from losing housing, #40 for state funding per student for K-12 education, and dead last on worker-friendly labor and employment policy.
But yet the Commonwealth was ranked #1 for business in 2019.
And we fear that is the measure that matters most to policymakers.
We stand in solidarity with community leaders who have implored Governor Northam to resist corporate pressure to jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of low-wage workers, confined populations, and communities of color. Until we can reliably deliver basic public health protections and care—especially to marginalized communities—and take aggressive steps to minimize the cruel and inequitable effects of the pandemic, Virginia must stay closed for business. There is no acceptable margin of lives lost or families devastated that justifies prioritizing economic pressures over the health and safety of people, especially when Black and brown Virginians would bear the brunt of this deadly calculation.