“This is not a potential disaster, this is devastating right now,” Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields intoned to Monday night’s virtual town hall that emanated from an eerily-near vacant Council chambers at the Falls Church City Hall. The event, exercising strong social distancing policies in the midst of the massive, global Covid-19 pandemic that is beginning to sweep through this region, was broadcast over the City’s website, where it can still be accessed, and cable channel.
Shields, F.C. Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan along with School Board chair Greg Anderson and State Del. Marcus Simon were arrayed as moving giant heads, images on the big screen beside the dais, appearing remotely by live video feed, while Mayor David Tarter sat alone in the center of the dais as the only Council member present, the Fairfax Health Department’s Senior Emergency Planner Colin Brody sitting where the City Clerk is usually sitting in front of the dais, and Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester, City Public Information Officer Susan Finarelli and a cable TV technician fiddled with the cranky technology. Way in the back, Council member Phil Duncan sat quietly through the two-and-a-half hour virtual town hall, Councilman David Snyder came in, and that was it, except for this reporter who grabbed his usual front row seat to better photograph the event and report on it.
Finarelli acted as an apt moderator for the event, including the fielding of questions emailed in from anxious Falls Church citizens. Overall an enormous amount of useful and timely information was presented to the public, all subject to the rapidly changing realities of the pandemic.
Eight questions were directed to Brody following his extensive presentation on the parameters of the pandemic, including data on its spread and the do’s-and-don’t the public needs to heed to stem its contagion. He confirmed that there are now two cases of residents of The Kensington senior living facility on W. Broad contracting the virus and that Fairfax County has suffered its first fatality from it. He was asked if it was OK to walk pets in the parks, and he said yes, as long as the six-foot social distancing rule is obeyed. He also said it is “perfectly safe” to order takeout from local restaurants (he noted that 45 percent of Virginians now enjoy dining out as their primary source of nourishment) and that boxes arriving through the mail or deliveries are safe to handle. “This is not a hearty virus,” he said, and its half-life on surfaces is about 6-7 hours (and it ceases to be contagious in an even shorter time).
Questions directed to Noonan addressed the completion date of the new high school (Noonan said that supply chains for the construction could be interrupted), that International Baccalaureate diplomas would be presented this spring even as the IB program’s full evaluation resources will not be brought to bear, that graduation in June “may not the done in the ways of the past” this year, “but we’ll figure out a way to do something special,” the moving spring sports to the fall this year is being considered, with availability of playing fields being a challenge, and with Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to close all schools for the remainder of the academic year, the virtual teaching of students at their homes will need to get more creative. He said virtual classes will continue through the end of this week, then next week will be off for spring break, before new approaches are introduced after that. He said that students with special needs will see their programs “continue with continuity” and that the parents of every student in that program will be contacted with a phone call in the coming week. He noted that, depending on how bad the pandemic gets, some of the system’s buildings might have to be “repurposed” for temporary use for hospital beds.
Noonan broke his presentation down into three areas, continuing instruction, ongoing operations and the community. Playgrounds are closed to the public, the employees, including the hourly-paid employees, are being paid and the schools have enjoyed enormous help from the Falls Church Education Foundation and the PTA. They’ve provided 230 families with food boxes good for two weeks and $50 gift cards that will probably be repeated soon. Noonan said he’s continuing with extensive Tuesday and Friday updates that the public can read on the schools’ website.
Questions directed to City Manager Shields focused on how the City will deal with the expected sharp revenue shortfall from this, and he said the Council will have a 30-day pause on the budget process this spring to better assess where things stand. “This is an incredibly difficult time for the business community,” he said, noting the sales, food and gross revenue taxes they normally pay. This is especially true since Northam ordered all restaurants closed to all but takeout service at the end of today. Shields said he’d like to keep the City parks open so that people can exercise, as long as they are observing the six-foot separation rule. The farmers’ market on Saturdays, even though it is a part of the food supply system, will probably remain closed.
Shields said this is being treated as “a long duration event” and that the City’s primary role is to protect its citizens. He said an “individual tool kit, a community tool kit and an environmental tool kit” have been developed as approaches. The library, community center and playground equipment are all closed and City Hall is to all but building permits and the operations of the treasurer and commissioner of the revenue offices. All City employees who can are working from home, he said. The number of 703-248-5100 can be called to reach the City government, and Shields will send out on line a daily 2 p.m. update.
He noted that over 400 have signed up for the alert.fallschurchva.gov site and that a full page ad was placed in the News-Press last week that is carrier delivered to some 5,000 households.
The county’s Brody gave the public health background to the spread of the virus out of China’s city of Wuhan, where the first case was reported on Dec. 8 last year. The first in the U.S. was Jan. 21, and the first reported in the Fairfax/Falls Church area was March 7. Now, just two and a half weeks later, there are 43 confirmed cases in this area, and one death so far. A fever, dry cough and shortness of breath are the main symptoms of an infection. He said that following an initial infection, it takes 5 to 6 days for an illness to manifest, and medical attention and or hospitalization comes four to seven days after that. He said of those infected, 15 percent percent suffer a severe illness and 2 percent die, a rate equal to the rate of fatalities from the Spanish flu epidemic right after World War I.
In the end, he said, up to 20 percent of the population may become infected, and it comes in waves like the flu, with the spring, fall and winter months the worst for its spread. He said it will take 12-18 months for a reliable vaccine to be developed. The public health policies of containment and mitigation to “flatten the curve” of the rate of increase of infections is about halfway between containment and mitigation so far.
Mayor Tarter opened and closed the meeting with remarks and Councilman Snyder also added some at the end.