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F.C. Declares Local Emergency in Response to Coronavirus

THE MARQUEE AT THE ICONIC State Theatre, looming over an empty Falls Church street, displays an encouraging message to passersby as the City, and the country, hunkers down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. (Photo: J. Michael Whalen)

Schools Closed Until April, City Workers Sent Home, Governor Requesting Small Business Emergency Loan

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields, in an exclusive interview with the News-Press Wednesday afternoon, confirmed that the City and City schools are in full-scale mobilization to adhere with “social distancing” and other key elements aimed at stemming the spread of the deadly airborne coronavirus. It includes sending all employees at City Hall to work from home with the exception of key law enforcement, public works and skeleton staff in the Treasurer, Commissioner of Revenue and building permit offices.

In another late-breaking development yesterday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s Office of Commerce and Trade, in response to an inquiry from the News-Press, reported that the governor is submitting a request to the federal Small Business Administration to qualify small businesses in the state to receive assistance through the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

Decisions at Falls Church City Hall yesterday have included canceling the town hall meeting scheduled for Sunday and to hold a “virtual” town hall meeting with City Council members Monday night that the public can watch online and call in questions. A decision on the status of the Farmer’s Market scheduled Saturday was scheduled to be made this (Thursday) morning.

Shields told the News-Press that, in fact, a pause in the City Council deliberations over the entire Fiscal Year 2021 operating budget, originally scheduled to be approved in late April, will be taken not only because of the difficulty of meeting the requirements for adequate public input into the process, but also because the current crisis will require a significant revision in revenue expectations.

Taking the extraordinary step of casting an official vote during a work session Monday night, the Falls Church City Council issued a formal Declaration of Local Emergency in response to the pandemic caused by the coronavirus and its COVID-19 disease. “The City of Falls Church is facing and will continue to face dangerous conditions of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant coordinated local government action to prevent or alleviate the damage, loss, hardship or suffering threatened or caused thereby,” the declaration stated.

“The condition of extreme peril of life and property necessitate the Proclamation,” it read, authorizing that “during the existence of said emergency, the powers, functions, and duties of the Director of Emergency Services and the Emergency Services Organization of the City of Falls Church shall be those prescribed by State law and the ordinances, resolutions and approved plans of the City in order to mitigate the effects.”

Falls Church Mayor David Tarter introduced the proclamation at the opening of last night’s work session and said of the declaration that “it follows actions by the federal and state governments and will provide maximum resources and flexibility to respond as quickly and fully as possible to this emerging crisis.” Tarter’s statement was videotaped and posted on the City’s website and at other online locations.

“As of tonight,” Tarter reported in the statement, “We have no known cases of coronavirus in the City of Falls Church, but there are a growing number of cases in Northern Virginia,” adding, “This situation presents significant difficulties for our community. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are most vulnerable to the virus, but all of us, hourly workers, local businesses, the self-employed, parents and children will all face challenges. Falls Church must pull together for the health and future of all our treasured citizens.”

The City Council declaration came hours before Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced additional steps to help Virginians impacted by the novel coronavirus, stop the spread of the virus in the commonwealth and protect public health. “Everyone must play a role to help flatten the curve and mitigate the spread of this virus, and that starts with social distancing,” Northam said Tuesday. “We know this will be a hardship for many businesses, and we are assisting workers affected by closures. Public health relies on every individual using common sense and making responsible decisions. We can and will get through this difficult time. But we must work together to do so.”

Falls Church Public Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan, who, in conjunction with Arlington County Public Schools, closed down the City’s school system until April 14 last Friday, also issued a lengthy memo Tuesday posted on the schools’ website in both English and Spanish. The memo, directed to the school community, including teachers, staff, students and parents, reported on last weekend’s successful efforts to bring school lunches normally provided at the City’s schools to students at their homes. He also cited the fundraising efforts of the Falls Church Education Foundation providing $17,000 in emergency assistance to this task through its Family Assistance Fund.

That assistance came in the form of $50 per student grocery gift cards that were also provided to designated hourly staff in the school system.

Mayor Tarter, in his statement Monday, cited the recommendations of health experts to maintain a social distancing of six feet from others, to practice good hygiene by washing hands frequently. not shaking hands or making other physical contact, and staying at home if feeling unwell.

An extended discussion among F.C. City Council members preceded the unanimous vote noting that the President earlier in the day called on citizens not to gather in groups of over 10 people, a number that began at 100 a couple days ago, and adjusted to 50 just Sunday. But it was affirmed that this policy is a recommendation, not a mandate, at least for now. Still, it was noted that Falls Church businesses have begun to simply shutter until the emergency passes, with Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Thompson Italian restaurants cited along with the Ireland’s Four Provinces, that paid an ultimate sacrifice by closing for St. Patrick’s Day Tuesday (an up-to-date list of City and area restaurant statuses is available here).

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields reported that City officials have gone door-to-door to look in on senior citizens, in particular, noting that there was a meeting with all City employees with leaders of the Fairfax County Health Department Monday to share information about the virus and its highly infectious nature. Another City Hall-wide meeting was held Tuesday to discuss the City’s response and whether some at City Hall will be assigned to work offsite. Teams have been formed in charge of vulnerable populations in the City, remote work, service counter operations at City Hall, human resources and long-term planning. Another tasked with public meetings is planning this weekend’s scheduled town hall on the City’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget that will be available to watch live online.

“This is a very stressful time that we’re in, and our focus is to be gentle and kind with one another, to display empathy toward those who are reacting to the tension,” Shields said.

Councilman David Snyder urged a focus on the medical evidence, facts and science. This crisis will not be without costs to businesses and employees, and the harm to humans will be serious, he said, plunging the economy into a recession if not a depression. He said the choice in many cases may be between closing or adjusting to the crisis.

Councilman Ross Litkenhous offered that the Council may play a role in mitigating the economic impacts by urging a deferral of rent payments by landlords, who in turn, could receive a deferral of real estate taxes. He noted that two months of business can provide an entire year of profitability for many small businesses. He suggested the City develop a single phone number for citizens to call into during the crisis for information and support.

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Council member Letty Hardi suggested that work be done to urge landlords to avoid evictions of tenants during the crisis. “We’ve got to look out for the little guys,” she said.

Shields said that while a lot more tests for the virus are being made available, mass testing is “not imminent” and criteria remain strict for getting one. Late Tuesday, the report came of the first drive-through testing capability in Northern Virginia at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington and the Kaiser Permanente in Tysons.

Shields said that current plans are for the City’s parks to remain open (even as the community center and library are now closed).

Councilman Phil Duncan suggested converting the community center and Winter Hill center can be used for shelters to help citizens address the crisis, and Councilman Dan Sze noted the increasingly drastic steps taken in places like New Jersey, like its 8 p.m. curfew, and the “shelter in place” edicts in seven San Francisco Bay Area counties.

Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly asked for the situation in the jails, and the impact of closing the City’s homeless shelter three weeks early.

Governor Northam, in his statement Tuesday, stipulated that steps are being taken at the state level to help citizens deal with the consequences of the steps being taken to limit the spread of the virus. They include the following:

• No waiting for unemployment benefits. Northam has directed the Commissioner of the Virginia Employment Commission to waive the one-week waiting period to ensure workers can receive benefits as soon as possible.

• Enhanced eligibility for unemployment. Workers may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits if an employer needs to temporarily slow or cease operations due to COVID-19. If a worker has been issued a notice to self-quarantine by a medical or public health official and is not receiving paid sick or medical leave from their employer, they may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits. In addition, a worker may be eligible for unemployment benefits if they must stay home to care for an ill family member and are not receiving paid family medical leave from their employer.

• Fewer restrictions. For individuals receiving unemployment insurance, Governor Northam is directing the Virginia Employment Commission to give affected workers special consideration on deadlines, mandatory re-employment appointments, and work search requirements.

Moreover, according to Supervisor John Foust of the neighboring Dranesville District of Fairfax County, the governor has “activated regional workforce teams to support employers that slow or cease operations such that they are not financially penalized for an increase in workers requesting unemployment benefits and is authorizing rapid response funding, through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, for eligible employers to remain open during this emergency, with funds available for cleaning facilities and supporting emergency needs.

Sally Cole, executive director of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, provided a list of things her organization is doing to help local businesses, including referencing Councilman Litkenhous’ push to defer rents by providing incentives for property owners. She said she participated in a conference call with other Chamber leaders in the state about access to federal loans through the Small Business Association and said that progress on that will depend upon support from the governor. She said she’s working to make sure Falls Church gets included in any area relief plans.
While practicing social distancing, a list of volunteer opportunities for citizens wishing to help includes the following:

1. Signing up for school meals distribution support

2. Donating directly to services helping families in need, such as the F.C. Education Foundation’s Family Assistance Fund. According to Debbie Hiscott and Cecily Shea of the FCEDF, donations can be made directly through www.fcedf.org by clicking on “Donate Now.”

3. The National Domestic Workers Alliance points out that we especially need to “take care of the people who care for us.” Nannies, housekeepers, and care workers are among the hardest hit by the pandemic and its effects on employment. Those who employ care workers and other support providers are urged to make sure that they are paid through this crisis to help them continue to take care of their own families and yours.

4. Support small businesses and family-run restaurants. Many small businesses do not have the resources to weather long-term closures. Purchasing gift cards and takeout meals and otherwise supporting their efforts can be vitally helpful.

In his communique Tuesday, FCCPS Superintendent Noonan stated that school days that are missed during the shutdown will not need to be made up. Additionally, there are some days “in the bank,” so if buildings must remain closed there is some flexibility.

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He added, the SOL, AP and IB testing timelines remain uncertain. “If we are back in school and taking SOL exams, we will exercise the latest assessment window possible, but within our defined school year, to ensure we have the best opportunity for success,” he wrote, adding, the “Virginia Department of Education is actively seeking waivers from the U.S. DOE and we have been reassured by the State Superintendent that we should not worry about SOL testing at this point.”

He stated that graduation is still planned for June 10, but that if this changes due to circumstances from COVID-19, that will be communicated as soon as possible. To date, it has not been contemplated to extend the school year and June 17 will remain the last day of school.

He said that the principals at Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson were slated Tuesday to send out a communication about plans to keep the learning going and yesterday Henderson and Mason principals were slated to send a similar document.

School sites will remain closed for cleaning and maintenance. If, however, a student must get something from a locker or classroom, they are advised to contact their school principal to make arrangements as of yesterday.
Student families with any food and nutrition or other needs during this time can reach out to your school’s social worker via email or phone. Their contact information can be found on our FCCPS website individual school websites.

The school system will be communicating about supporting special education students, students with 504 plans, and our ESOL students, Noonan added. Student case managers will be reaching out directly to families for details on the support that will be provided.

The School Board work session scheduled for Tuesday night was postponed until next Wednesday, March 25, and to ensure compliance with the open meetings laws, that meeting will be streamed on YouTube. Those wishing to speak at upcoming regular School Board meetings, can contact Marty Gadell at gadellm@fccps.org.

Noonan said he will provide thorough updates every Tuesday and Friday.

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