“It’s not about a date, but about the data.” That was the advice that Dr. Reuben Varghese, Public Health Director for Arlington County, provided to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s Board of Directors during an electronic meeting last month. The issue, of course, was Covid-19 and its effect on the region’s economy. On Monday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam repeated that mantra when he announced the extension of his Executive Order to May 14 for a possible phased re-opening of business and retail services in the Commonwealth.
The governor also noted that he would seek to re-open the Commonwealth as one entity, rather than doing it piecemeal, jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Depending on the size of the jurisdiction, the amount of data may be different, but the facts should be the same: does an honest analysis of the statistics indicate that re-opening can be supported safely? Even with phased re-openings, the same best practices being used now must continue – frequent handwashing, cough protocol, stay home when ill, social distancing, and yes, face masks.
A question I get asked most frequently is “why can’t Fairfax County require masks like they do in Maryland?” The answer rests on the differing legal structures that underpin the Old Dominion and the Old Line State. In a nutshell, Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, wherein all authorities are reserved to the state unless expressly permitted to localities via legislation enacted by the General Assembly. In Maryland, a home rule state, localities retain authorities inherent to them unless expressly prohibited by state legislative action. That’s why Montgomery County can mandate certain practices to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but Fairfax County cannot. Since Governor Northam only recommended the wearing of face masks, the county cannot be more restrictive. Attempts by Virginia counties to ease the Dillon Rule, which harkens to an 1865 Iowa court ruling, via General Assembly action have failed repeatedly.
There is good news, however, in a couple of areas. The “Purple Can Club” for glass recycling is returning to the Mason District Governmental Center and other Fairfax County locations. The popular program was suspended in early April due to lack of support staff to manage the weekly placement and emptying of the big purple dumpsters. The program has re-started, and will accept glass bottles and jars. Please remember to social distance, though. The purple dumpster site is for gathering glass, not people!
Covid-19 cases have been reported by the Health Department, aggregated by three-digit ZIP Codes, but that is about to change. The Virginia Health Department (VDH) plans to release Covid-19 data by five-digit ZIP Code for the entire Commonwealth, but the information also must be allocated by jurisdiction boundaries. Some ZIP Codes cross city/county lines; Mason District is a good example, which shares a few ZIP Codes with the City of Alexandria and Arlington County. Case data needs to be accurate, and protect patient information according to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), so a little extra time may be necessary to meet the legal requirements of state and federal law.
A little extra time also was necessary for marking up the county’s FY 2021 budget. As I reported earlier, public hearings about the budget were delayed two weeks, while the proposed budget was revised and rewritten. The Board of Supervisors heard testimony, by telephone and video, from more than 100 people last week; moved the mark-up session to this past Tuesday, and will vote to approve the budget next Tuesday, nearly two weeks later than usual. The mark-up package was approved by a vote of 9 to 1, and I anticipate that final approval will be the same. Kudos to Board Chairman Jeff McKay, who also chairs the budget committee, for his masterful leadership in navigating the budget process in a most unusual and unique time.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.