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Town Hall Highlights Local Steps on Coronavirus in Northern Virginia
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Town Hall Highlights Local Steps on Coronavirus in Northern Virginia

“Stay home. Wash your hands.”

At the end of U.S. Rep. Don Beyer’s phone town hall on April 2, he told the 5,371 people tuning in to the call that at the beginning of the one-hour call, there had been 207,000 coronavirus cases reported in the United States and by the end of the call there were 211,408.

The town hall was organized to share information from top officials in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax County, the City of Fairfax and Falls Church about the coronavirus response in each of their communities. Beyer told the first speaker, Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks, that “you are at ground zero. You can’t print money.”

Jinks indicated the city government budget had been approved about six weeks ago, but revenues had taken a big dive since then. “We’ll have to go back and revise it substantially. It will be tight to the end of the calendar year and beyond,” Jinks said.

Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill said his staff is running on fumes after being told to redo the budget in a week due to revenue shortfalls.

“We have 234 cases [570 cases in Fairfax at presstime] in our health district and we are working well with Inova Health Center. Stay home. Wash your hands.”

Hill adds, “We put out a tax relief option for small business and hope to approve it April 14. Food distribution is a huge opportunity. We work with school districts and nonprofits.” Hill continues, “Human services is overrun. We have a 100% increase in SNAP and TANIF. We’re all going to be doing it a little different.”

Jinks said the city is attacking the coronavirus situation on multiple fronts with continuation of essential government services and allocation of resources. “We’re planning, responding, mitigating and working on recovery. Jinks outlined the steps taken by the city in a number of areas.

“The health department is at the front line with contact tracing so that when someone tests positive, we can track it.” Schools have a take-home package for the lower grades and on-line learning, and there is school food assistance at multiple locations. “We’re making sure the food bank is organized and human services is meeting applications for SNAP and other assistance. There is also a lot of business assistance with adjustments on restaurants as the regulations change and then short-term tax relief.”

Jinks continued, ”Parking is also a big issue and with people now sequestered in their homes, we’ve lessened parking enforcement.”

Jinks says the City approved a matching grant of $100,000 to help non-profits meet demands and it has been matched several times over.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz agreed, “Health is our number one issue, and our public health staff has been monitoring this closely for seven weeks. We are working closely with Virginia Hospital Center to make sure they have the protective equipment they need and make adjustments in the room configurations.”

He said there is also a focus on food, providing five school sites with school lunches with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also to the Food Assistance Center. He said they are trying to build a new network that people can call in if they need food. “It will take a while to stand up.”

Schwartz also cited budget concerns. “Despite the $2.5 trillion Federal appropriation, the revenue situation is really bad for Arlington. The Lubber Run Community Center and the Aquatic Center will be postponed six months or more.”

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields says his report is very similar. “The City is a member of the Fairfax County Health District. Communication on health issues is crucial for us, with the Governor, White House, Cong. Beyer.” Shields said they are delivering food to the school system, and gift cards to families. “Because we are smaller, human services has direct contact with every homeless person, every senior, every senior facility. We have a system in place to get them groceries. We’ll be giving a report on our budget Monday night in a virtual meeting.”

Lastly he says, “Our businesses are suffering like everybody’s are. Federal relief is really impactful. We’re making sure they know about it and how to apply.”

Questions from the phone audience

John from Arlington: How much do coronavirus tests cost?

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer: The costs of tests and care were free in the House bill but the Senate only covered the free tests, not the treatment. We need to work on this.

John from Bailey’s Crossroads: Are they ever going to tell us where the cases are by neighborhood? If I’m going to a grocery store with a high incidence, I may want to go to another.”

Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill: I know where most of the cases are in Fairfax. I have 245, but HIPAA regs prohibit the release of that information.

Joshua: What are the next steps in refinancing of student loans?

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer: There was student loan deferral in the recent law that says no student loan payments are due until Sept. 30 with no interest accrued and no involuntary collection. We hope in the next bill to cancel student loans.

Mary from Alexandria: What is Fairfax doing to expand test locations? I was concerned I was coming down with something last week but there were only two sites.

Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill: There are a set amount of test kits, not an infinite amount. Unfortunately if you live in a place not considered high priority…as soon as we get more test kits, we’ll expand the sites.

Christian from Arlington: I’m wondering about future aid packages. I have a lot of friends in D.C. The recent relief package short-changed them because they are defined as a territory.

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer: Many of us walked out of the chamber angry and determined to treat D.C. as all other 50 states. I support statehood.

Alexa from Arlington: I work with an advocacy group for people with disabilities. I see mental fatigue and they can’t go out to get their own groceries. Delivery systems are overwhelmed. Where can I go in the County?

Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill: We do have that ability in Fairfax County coordinated with Neighborhood and Community Services. We have a very robust plan in all delivery areas, so I need to know exactly where.

Harry from Arlington: My wife works for the Arlington County public schools extended day program. Will she get paid for the rest of the school year?

Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks answering in absence of Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz: In Alexandria our plan is to continue to pay permanent employees ... I hope we’ll be able to continue.

Sharon from Falls Church: I am a peer recovery specialist and what I’ve seen is a great increase in need for our services because people can’t get to the therapist or don’t have coverage or have new mental health issues. This isn’t being addressed.

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer: This is an inadequate answer. There wasn't very much in the bill and we have to address it in the future. I agree it is important.

Douglas from Alexandria: My wife is a substitute teacher paid by the hour. If no work, no pay.

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer: Eligibility for unemployment compensation has now been expanded to include part-time workers.

Jennifer from Alexandria: I am a retired Army combat medic and would like to volunteer my services at a local hospital but couldn’t find a place.

Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks: This is not specific to Inova but there will be a great need. FEMA indicated retired medical personnel is exactly who they need. And there is the Medical Reserve Corps in Alexandria for fire and EMS. Email me your credentials and I’ll send them to the right people.

Patty from Fairfax: I would like to know if everyone in Northern Virginia who needs a ventilator will have one and also about contact tracing as we move into recovery.

Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill: We have enough ventilators right now. Fairfax Inova and Arlington Hospital Center are in control. I’ll look up that exact number—734 ventilators at the peak projected for May 20. We’re ok on beds but a little short on [ICU] beds. With regard to contact tracing, I have added seven people to the budget for 2021. In the first case of identified coronavirus, we traced two people from Boston who came to Fairfax and that was done quickly, but the last coronavirus person identified recently took 41 different contacts. COVID-19 will be back again in November-December if there is no vaccine.