Mayor: Richmond may not join Phase One reopening unless state provides more support
Mayor Levar Stoney says black residents being disproportionately affected by coronavirus.
Update, May 14 at 6:15 p.m.: Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the city of Richmond and Accomack County will delay Phase One of the reopening plan by two weeks, joining localities in Northern Virginia.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has said that the city may not join Gov. Ralph Northam’s Phase One reopening plan on Friday unless Northam’s administration can provide proof that the city’s COVID-19 percent positivity — or the total number of tests conducted in the city that come back positive for COVID-19 — is decreasing, according to a letter Stoney sent Northam Wednesday requesting additional data and increased testing.
On Monday, the Richmond City Health District director requested data from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) for the number of COVID-19 tests that have been conducted in Richmond thus far. As of Wednesday, the city had yet to receive the information, according to the letter. “Moreover, the data we do have, specifically positive case count, indicates that Richmond’s number of individual cases has doubled in the past two weeks,” Stoney said in his letter.
Although Stoney hopes the increase is in part due to expanded testing, he wrote, he cannot confirm that the percent positive ratio is moving in the “right direction” without further confirmation and data from VDH.
“If this data cannot be provided, then I cannot justify risking the health and safety of the residents of the city of Richmond by moving forward with Phase One,” the mayor wrote.
He also requested that the governor increase testing in Richmond, especially in areas of the city where people are more likely to contract the virus, which include zip codes with persistent social and economic hardship.
“To be clear, I want to reopen our city,” Stoney wrote. “However, we should only take that step when there are adequate protections for our most vulnerable communities.”
Stoney cited the disproportionate number of African American, Hispanic and Latinx people who have been affected by the virus as his key argument for keeping the city closed. Sixteen of the 18 deaths in the city have been among African Americans, the mayor said. Additionally, Hispanic and Latinx Richmonders account for 23% of Richmond’s COVID-19 cases — despite those groups making up only 6% to 7% of Richmond’s entire population.
Stoney also urged the governor to require all Virginians to wear face coverings in public spaces or when visiting essential businesses, which include grocery stores. “We must do everything in our power to protect our essential workers, and each other from spreading COVID-19,” Stoney wrote, observing that Connecticut and New York have such requirements in place.
Expressing similar concerns about the pandemic’s impact on African Americans, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) also sent a letter to Northam Wednesday stating that its members strongly oppose the governor’s plan for Phase One to start on Friday.
“As we’ve written to you before, the current pandemic and economic crisis in our county and commonwealth is hitting black communities and communities of color the hardest,” VLBC Chair Lamont Bagby said in the letter. “Implementing Phase One without properly addressing [these] issues will lead to chaos and confusion, resulting in Virginians who have already fallen through the cracks of our system to only fall deeper. Many Virginians, especially black Virginians and Virginians of color, will be faced with a false choice: either go back to work under unsafe working conditions, putting themselves and their families in danger, or risk losing income and possibly unemployment benefits that are essential to meet basic needs.”
Phase One of Northam’s Forward Virginia plan for reopening businesses is set to begin this Friday in all regions of the state except Northern Virginia, which has delayed its reopening by two weeks due to its much higher prevalence of COVID-19 cases.
Under Phase One, nonessential retail establishments will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity; restaurants and breweries will be allowed to offer outdoor dining at 50% seating capacity; personal grooming establishments will be able to operate by appointment only; exercising strict social distancing and face coverings will be required; and other businesses can reopen with additional precautions taken.
Through an executive order released Tuesday, Northern Virginia localities will delay Phase One until May 29.