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F.C. Council Plans Next Steps With Statewide Reopening Looming

CITY OF FALLS CHURCH MAYOR David Tarter reviews some of the reopening measures laid out by city manager Wyatt Shields during Monday’s City Council work session. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields announced to the City Council during its online work session Monday night that a local business reopening group has been formed to help the City craft and execute its response to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s tentative plan to begin a measured Phase 1 reopening of some business activity in the state by the end of next week.

This comes even as Covid-19 infections continue to rise in this region, with numbers not expected to peak until May 25, according to Fairfax County Health Department officials.

Shields told the News-Press Tuesday that he assigned key members of the City staff to the group with the purpose of being prepared to help businesses as they transition to the governor’s Phase 1 reopening. The team is composed of Economic Development Office chief Becky Witsman, fire official Henry Lane, emergency manager Joe Carter and building official Doug Fraser. Shields indicated that he might add more from the private sector.

Northam’s May 15 target for initial openings, however, remains subject to data about the progress of the pandemic and according to a report from F.C. Public Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan to the School Board Tuesday night, his latest briefing from Fairfax County Health Department officials indicated that “we are continuing to climb the curve” of new cases of infections by the Covid-19 virus. Falls Church is covered by Fairfax County’s Health Department.

Noonan said that the best estimate of health department officials now is that the pandemic will peak in this area around May 25, and it will take several months for it to tail off as long as basic preventative measures remain in effect.

Shields briefed the City Council Monday on the governor’s plan outlined Monday afternoon that began with an extension of his Executive Order 53 for another week from May 8 to midnight May 14. He said a “basket of gateway criteria” inform the move to a Phase 1 reopening, in adherence with federal guidelines.

The guidelines include 14 consecutive days of a decline in new Covid-19 cases as a percentage of daily tests, as well as declining numbers of hospitalizations, intensive care admissions, ventilator uses and deaths. It also includes provision of adequate personal protective equipment, contact tracing and increased testing (there are now 6,000 tests given daily in the state, with a short-term goal of 10,000).

While there are currently no dates set for Maryland and Washington, D.C. to follow suit, the plans are similar in those neighboring regions and Northam stressed that he reserves the right to change the reopening date based on data results. Plans to reopen certain businesses, including restaurants, barber shops, hair salons and book stores, however, will commence with major “social spacing” provisions and no more than 10 persons assembled in any one space at a time.

Rather than a mandate, the quarantining at home policy will be rebranded as “Safer at Home,” especially for more vulnerable populations, and face coverings in public will be “recommended” and urged to be more prevalent than presently.

These Phase 1 measures will be in place for two to four weeks, depending on what the data shows are the results, with a Phase 2 commencing after that allowing for gatherings of up to 50 persons.

Meanwhile, as Council member Letty Hardi pointed out Monday night, there was an uptick in Covid-19 cases in the City of Falls Church reported over the weekend, with 10 more reported cases, five hospitalizations and two deaths.

“There is no doubt that the virus is in the City,” Shields responded, and the approach going forward that will be key is to focus on outbreaks in given areas, a more targeted approach following the data.

F.C.’s Chief Financial Officer Kiran Bawa cautioned the Council that should reopening efforts result in a new resurgence of the virus, and fatality levels rise back, it could delay any economic recovery as “it will take longer to bring confidence levels back.” Forecasts are therefore mixed about the economy going forward as “there are no crystal balls.”

Regionally, Bawa noted, there are similar responses to the sharp economic downturn currently being experienced, with delays in capital projects, hiring freezes and so far no reductions in government labor forces and little tapping into reserves. There is a state spending freeze that, among other things, has put on hold $2 million that had been approved for Falls Church’s Affordable Housing Fund.

But this is all just so far, as there has been a 4.8 percent drop in the Gross Domestic Product in the U.S. in the first quarter (the crisis hitting only the last month of the period) and a 22 to 40 percent drop expected in the second quarter.

Hardi also asked if the area’s popular swimming pools will be open by Memorial Day, and Shields assured her that such pools are among the most carefully monitored by public health agencies at all times, not just under these extraordinary circumstances.

Shields said that while “we have hit the pause button” on all but essential City spending until October, when the situation will be reassessed, Council member Ross Litkenhous objected to the idea that the pause has included spending on neighborhood traffic calming and spot improvement efforts.

“This is not discretionary spending, this is vital public safety needs,” Litkenhous argued.

Plus it was noted that the City’s Housing and Human Services Department has requested an additional $45,000 to meet emergency assistance needs that have arisen from citizens in recent weeks, along with $39,000 in federal assistance.

With the deadline now extended another week to May 15 for applying, so far 40 applications have been received for the Economic Development Authority’s Emergency Mini-Grant Program for Small Businesses set up last week to provide $2,000 grants for qualified small businesses in existence for at least one year in the City with gross receipts from $50,000 to $500,000. A randomized drawing will determine those who will receive the grants once the deadline has passed.