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Richmond-area businesses brace for economic impact from coronavirus

The phone lines have been busier than usual this month at Henrico County-based Allianz Partners.

Employees at the company, which operates businesses that provide travel insurance and international medical assistance, has been fielding about 50% more calls from travelers over what it normally sees.

The reason: Travelers are concerned about the coronavirus that has sickened tens of thousands in China and other countries and raised fears of a global outbreak.

“I think it is fair to say the publicity about the coronavirus has elevated our business,” said Dan Durazo, a spokesman for Allianz. “People are thinking more about travel insurance as they book trips, and we are receiving calls.”

Allianz is one of many businesses in the Richmond region and in Virginia that are seeing — or expect to see — an economic ripple effect from the spread of the coronavirus.

Shipments of products from China — a manufacturing powerhouse and the hardest hit by the virus — already have been delayed. Travel has been restricted. There has been a boost in demand for some products and services, including medical masks.

***

Evergreen Enterprises, the South Richmond-based global home decor business, has been affected by the manufacturing shutdown.

The company operates a plant in Ningbo, China, a city outside Shanghai, and it contracts with other plants elsewhere in China.

Evergreen’s factory, which has about 250 employees, was closed for two weeks in February. About 50% of the employees are now working, and the company hopes the remaining staff will be back in the next couple of weeks, said Ting Xu, the company’s co-founder and chairwoman.

The production shutdown means about 5% to 7% of its products likely will see shipping delays by about 45 days, she said.

“We are working through this and we think we are better than the average Joe because of our dedicated staff and our response time,” Xu said.

Evergreen designs, manufactures and distributes more than 10,000 home decor, sports and garden products and accessories, from cutting boards and coasters to wind chimes and flags.

It has enough inventory in stock to ship to retailers for the next five or six months, she said.

Many of the items that the company makes at this time of the year are for the fall and holiday seasons. That merchandise typically would be shipped from China in the late spring or early summer and be in stores in mid- to late summer. This year, some of those products will be delayed.

Evergreen also is sending hundreds of medical masks to its factory for employees to wear and is checking the temperature of workers three times a day.

Travel from the U.S. to China and elsewhere also has been dramatically cut, Xu said.

“A lot of our employees [in Richmond] normally would be going there now,” she said.

***

The Port of Virginia has experienced a noticeable decline in shipments.

The port said this week that ocean carriers have reported an increase in the number of “blank sailings,” or vessels that were scheduled to sail but are kept idle at ports because of a lack of cargo. Exports from China have been delayed because of quarantines there.

The port reported that coronavirus-related volume losses in February, March and April are expected to total 44,000 import containers. In January, the port handled almost 127,000 container units.

“This is a significant drop in volume and we have had to adjust our revenue forecast accordingly,” said John F. Reinhart, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority. “We also understand that when the situation in China begins to abate, it will take time for volume to recover.”

“As we go forward, our focus will be to continue to deliver efficiency for our customers, partners and stakeholders,” Reinhart said. “In that effort, we’re using this period to fine-tune our systems and perform necessary maintenance in preparation for the recovery of volume.”

***

Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc., the Henrico-based flooring retail giant, warned its investors this week that its business could be affected later this year if the coronavirus continues to disrupt supply chains.

The company obtains nearly half of its merchandise from Asia, and most of that is sourced from China.

Lumber Liquidators said it is “closely monitoring the coronavirus situation including the actions taken by authorities to combat the spread of the virus, which includes extended quarantines and restrictions on travel of both people and goods. The near-term risk is the potential disruption to the company’s supply chain.”

Lumber Liquidators said that it is currently unable to predict the full impact of potential supply-chain disruptions, but it expects that the products it has on hand or already in shipment will help it avoid a financial impact in the first quarter of 2020.

“However, depending on the length and severity of the situation, the company could see a material impact beginning as early as the second quarter, and such impact could continue for weeks or months,” the company said.

***

Owens & Minor, a Hanover County-based distributor of medical supplies, has seen an increase in demand for personal protective products such as gloves, medical masks, isolation gowns and face shields. The company distributes a wide range of medical products to customers in the health care industry.

Owens & Minor has put in place an allocation program to preserve access to those products.

“It doesn’t allow you to order five times the amount of product to the detriment of another customer who might need the product as well,” company spokesman Chuck Graves said. “It is a balancing act. We are trying to preserve supply to all of our valuable customers.”

Graves said most of the company’s supply of personal protective products is made in North America by Halyard Health Inc., a business that Owens & Minor acquired in 2017.

“We have invested some additional resources in manufacturing capacity on the Halyard-branded products, including masks,” Graves said. “We have been ramping up production. It is obviously a very dynamic, fluid situation. We are constantly monitoring the situation. We are in close contact with buyers, industry groups and the government to assess what is needed.”

Another manufacturer of masks, Minnesota-based 3M, reported this week that it was ramping up production of masks at plants in China but also other countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America, as well as the United States, according to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

Even so, global demand is still “exceeding supply,” 3M spokeswoman Jennifer Ehrlich told the newspaper. “3M expects demand for respirators to outpace supply for the foreseeable future.”

The Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia this week warned consumers to be wary of buying masks from online sellers.

Scam artists will use the outbreak to sell low-quality or counterfeit products, the BBB said. Consumers should also avoid falling victim to scam artists claiming to sell products that can cure or test for the virus.

“It’s likely scammers will use the coronavirus as yet another chance to market products falsely claiming to cure the disease,” the local BBB said.

***

Supply-chain disruptions from China can ripple into many niches of the U.S. economy.

For instance, PartnerMD, a Henrico-based concierge medical practice, had ordered about 25 new laptops a month ago. Some of the laptops were planned for use in an office the practice is planning to open this spring in the GreenGate development in western Henrico.

Those laptops are now stuck on a loading dock somewhere in China, said Jack Bretcher, PartnerMD’s chief operating officer.

“We are scrambling to find some interim supply we can use for what our short-term needs are while we wait it out and see how things progress over there,” he said.

The practice also decided to order some of the medical supplies and equipment for its new office earlier than originally planned, to make sure it could get the allocation of supplies it needed, Bretcher said.

***

Allianz has seen some customers cancel trips over concerns about the coronavirus, Durazo said.

Many customers who had trips booked to affected areas such as China have had their trip payments refunded by their travel suppliers or have had change fees waived. Some customers also have filed travel insurance claims.

Allianz sells travel insurance policies to cover costs if travel plans are disrupted or for emergency medical care during travel.

“So if they have to go to the doctor or end up in the hospital, we will pay for that and also help manage their care,” Durazo said. “We will also arrange and pay for them to get home, possibly on an air ambulance.”


Virginia
CAMPAIGN 2020 comes to Richmond
Bernie Sanders, in Richmond, touts 'vibrant' campaign, agenda 'that speaks to the working class'

Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and front-runner among Democrats vying for the presidency, pitched his campaign to a Richmond crowd Thursday as the “strongest multigenerational, multiracial, grassroots movement this country has ever seen.”

“The way we defeat Trump is with a vibrant, energized movement and an agenda that speaks to the working class,” Sanders said to a nearly full room at the Arthur Ashe Center, during a high-energy rally that kicked off with live musical performances.

Sanders’ stop in Richmond is one of three he plans in the state ahead of Virginia’s Super Tuesday primary. Virginia and 13 other states will hold primaries on March 3.

Here and elsewhere, Sanders will seek to build his delegate lead in a crowded field in which he has risen as the top choice for voters to the left of the party’s center.

A Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic primary voters in Virginia, conducted Feb. 13-16, showed Sanders tied for the lead with Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, at 22%, with former Vice President Joe Biden at 18%.

Sanders on Thursday took aim at Bloomberg, decrying the high personal spending that rivals say has driven his quick rise in polls. Bloomberg, who is focusing on Super Tuesday states, did not compete in Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada, but has spent more than $400 million on his campaign to date.

“Bloomberg has every right in the world to run for president, but he doesn’t have the right to buy the presidency,” Sanders said.

At the center of Sanders’ speech, however, was President Donald Trump, who some Sanders critics say won’t be defeated in 2020 should the senator prevail as the Democratic nominee.

“No matter what your political views may be — progressive, conservative, moderate — you understand that he is not somebody who deserves re-election,” Sanders said of Trump.

“The reason the American people are going to reject Donald Trump is they are looking around seeing a reality they don’t like,” Sanders said, citing income inequality and stagnant wages.

The Trump campaign, in response to Sanders’ Richmond visit, said in a statement: “Virginians will reject Sanders’ and the Democrats’ extreme socialist policies and re-elect [Trump] in November.”

On Thursday, Sanders continued to pitch his campaign as a social movement that is energizing young people and the working class more than “any other campaign,” including Biden’s.

“Joe is not going to bring new people into the political process,” Sanders said. “Not going to create excitement among working people.”

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, introduced Sanders, aiming directly at criticism that Sanders “is not electable.”

“I was inspired by the senator and his message to run for office. When they told me Virginia wasn’t ready for a brown person, or an immigrant woman, you came out and proved them wrong,” Guzman told the crowd.

“He has a consistent message of progress. … He is the front-runner!” Guzman said.

“And we are ready to deliver Virginia to Bernie Sanders!” she added to loud cheering.

Dels. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, and Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, who also have endorsed Sanders, attended the rally.

Like Sanders, all three Virginia lawmakers have sometimes stood to the left of their party. In laying out his policy views Thursday, Sanders pitched ideas that he said have been criticized as “radical.”

Sanders promised to deliver on a $15-an-hour minimum wage, universal health care, universal child care and debt-free higher education.

“I don’t think it’s so radical to think working people should live with dignity and security,” he said.

To a riveted crowd in the 6,000-capacity athletic center, Sanders said that if he is elected, his presidency would reform the criminal justice system, legalize marijuana and address the “climate change crisis.”

The March 3 primaries could prove decisive in a crowded nomination fight in which more moderate candidates have split the vote to the benefit of Sanders.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Biden and Bloomberg are scheduled to make stops in Virginia this weekend ahead of Tuesday’s primary, when the state has 124 delegates at stake.

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., spoke in Arlington County on Sunday. Also in the race are Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Tom Steyer, a wealthy activist; and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders holds rally at Arthur Ashe Center in Richmond

Plus
Henrico man guilty of murder, robbery after being caught on victim's Ring doorbell camera

A doorbell rings. A camera flips on.

It captures the next few seconds, the last of Michael E. Halford’s life, as his 4-year-old daughter, who was home sick with a fever on Jan. 2, 2019, looks on.

Two men wait outside of Halford’s South Richmond home. One of the men, Tyell Jackson, tackles Halford and throws him onto the small porch outside the front door, knocking off his own baseball cap.

Another man, who hasn’t been publicly identified, pulls out a gun and fires six shots in quick succession into Halford. He waits, then fires one more round before stowing his gun and instructing his partner: “Find the s---.”

Halford’s body convulses, so the man pulls out his gun and fires three more bullets at Halford.

“Where it’s at? Where it’s at?” the gunman screams as Jackson checks Halford’s pockets.

Just before the two men flee on foot, the shooter gestures toward Halford’s daughter, who can be heard on the video wailing in the background, telling her to go back inside.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Katherine E. Groover showed some of the footage captured by Halford’s Ring doorbell camera to the 12-member jury that convicted Jackson of first-degree murder, robbery and two gun charges on Wednesday. The jury, split in half by gender, recommended a sentence of 38 years.

“The Ring doorbell camera is a big part of this case,” Groover said Thursday.

Both she and defense attorney Edward Nickel agreed that the DNA evidence, which forensic experts extracted from the hat that was dropped at the scene and tied to Jackson, was more important.

Nickel, a former Richmond prosecutor, said that without DNA evidence, the case probably wouldn’t have gone to trial.

He unsuccessfully argued that while his client couldn’t be eliminated as a contributor to the DNA found on the hat, there was a third, more likely but unidentified contributor who could have been wearing the hat that day. Halford’s DNA was also found on the hat, as it was covered in the blood that flowed from the bullet wounds left in his body.

“It was a unique case because it was captured on a Ring video camera. There was really no dispute as to what happened,” Nickel said. “It’s horrible to watch. That was always going to be tough for us.”

Groover said the motive was robbery. Halford’s girlfriend testified at the trial, which went late into Wednesday night, that there was $27,000 in cash in his nightstand — they had counted and sorted the bills into denominational stacks the night before the shooting. All but $6,000 was missing when she checked afterward, she told the jury.

Officers found two $100 bills on the street following the 1:45 p.m. shooting.

“It proves they fled in a hurry, that they dropped some of the money,” Groover said.

Even though Jackson wasn’t the shooter, Groover said he was “just as guilty” being a co-conspirator.

The gunman hasn’t been charged in Halford’s murder, but Groover said he’s being held on unrelated charges and if convicted, could face lengthy sentences.

Jackson was developed as a suspect about nine days after the shooting when he showed up to VCU Medical Center with what he claimed was an infected insect bite, Groover said Thursday. A nurse immediately identified the injuries as fragments from a shattered bullet and called the police. Her testimony was never heard by the jury, though, Groover said, because the bullet fragments were too small to be tested and linked to the shooting.

But the visit to the hospital gave police enough probable cause to get a warrant for Jackson’s DNA, which was later tied to the hat at the scene.

He also resembled one of the men captured in the video footage.

Groover said doorbell cameras have become a common tool in helping to solve crimes. This is the second time where the footage captured by a Ring camera has aided in closing one of Groover’s cases — she had another robbery case closed last year with video.

“It’s hugely helpful to our investigations,” she said, adding that it’s rare now when police don’t canvass a neighborhood for footage after an incident.

Surveillance footage from a neighbor’s home caught the two men canvassing the neighborhood before they even approached Halford’s home.

Less than three months after this homicide, Richmond police announced a partnership with Ring, a company that provides video doorbells and surveillance cameras. The department had joined a new application from the company called Neighbors that allows police to share information with users in specific neighborhoods, and users to send police anonymous tips and videos their doorbells or cameras have captured.

The program was mainly targeted at package thefts, but the department acknowledged its wider use in investigations of other crimes. But the cameras have drawbacks, including privacy concerns and vulnerabilities to hacking.

“As it’s said often, a picture is worth a thousand words,” Chief William Smith said at the news conference. “A video of an incident is worth a million.”

In the extended footage, which was not shown to the jury, Halford’s daughter was seen trying to rouse him. Groover said Halford was not the girl’s biological father but they were inseparable, with him calling her “daddy’s little princess,” according to Halford’s girlfriend, the child’s mother.

The girl looked down at her hands, as if surprised to find them wet with his blood, and tried to wipe it off.

“Somebody needs to call the doctor,” the child could be heard saying.


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breaking
Northam considers issuing new proposal, calling special session to break deadlock on redistricting

Amid a deadlock between House and Senate Democrats, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration is weighing intervening in the process to secure passage of redistricting reform, a key campaign promise now in peril.

Northam is considering sending down his own legislative proposal and holding a special session on the topic, among potential tools to end the schism, a source familiar with the administration’s plans said Thursday night.

Democrats in the House and Senate have spent weeks divided between two approaches to reforming the state’s redistricting process to end partisan and racial gerrymandering. The Senate has backed a constitutional amendment to shift power over map-drawing to an independent commission, while House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and at least a dozen members of her caucus prefer a similar alternative that would not amend the constitution in order to remove expansive legislative power over the process.

The divisions have resulted in a staring contest that has allowed legislation tied to both alternatives to survive in each chamber. On Friday, the House Privileges and Elections Committee is expected to take up the Senate’s resolution calling for the amendment, and it’s unclear if the measure has enough support to pass. The measure, SJ 18, was introduced by Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax; related legislation to enact it was introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth.

Democrats face intense pressure to work through the political schism, given that for years, candidates up and down the ballot have run on promises to end partisan and racial gerrymandering in Virginia. That includes Northam, who has vowed to reject any map of new legislative or congressional districts that is not drawn by an independent commission.

Northam has declined to take a formal position on the two plans. In a December interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he said unequivocally that if the amendment passes, he would support it.

“If it doesn’t, I will continue to advocate for nonpartisan redistricting and that will need to be a piece of legislation that I will pass,” he said. “So I’m committed to making sure that in Virginia, if I have anything to do with that process, it’s nonpartisan redistricting.”

At the same time, he shared some Democrats’ concerns about the possibility under the constitutional amendment of giving the Supreme Court of Virginia the final say.

“I’m not sure that’s the best way to go,” he said in the December interview. “I mean, just look at the makeup of the Supreme Court, whether it be at the state level or the national level. I think not everybody would feel comfortable with that approach.”

The proposed constitutional amendment would shift power over the drawing of districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens. In the event of an impasse, the Supreme Court of Virginia would have the final call.

Most members of the black caucus in the House reject that approach, arguing that it does not guarantee that people of color will have proportional membership on the commission that would draw the maps. Like Northam, they also argue that the court’s final say could expose Democrats to judicial politicking.

Most black caucus members in the House, along with Filler-Corn, are backing House Bill 1256, introduced by Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News. It would set up a similar redistricting process involving a 16-member commission and would guarantee minority representation on the panel without amending the constitution to permanently remove map-drawing powers from the legislature.

That bill is still moving through Senate panels and has not been brought to the floor, a strategy Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said was designed to give lawmakers more time to debate the issue.

The proposed constitutional amendment passed the House and Senate in 2019. In order to take effect, it would have to clear the legislature again this year with no changes in the wording and then gain voters’ approval this fall in a state referendum. Legislative and congressional districts will be redrawn next year following the census.


Local
VCU police investigating stolen student newspapers; charges or school punishment possible

Virginia Commonwealth University police are investigating allegations that members of the Student Government Association removed stacks of The Commonwealth Times, the student newspaper, in an apparent response to an article on the front page about conflict within the student-led organization.

Commonwealth Times news editor Hannah Eason reported Wednesday that she, along with multiple other anonymous witnesses, saw Student Government Association members taking newspapers out of kiosks around campus and that copies of the paper were seen in trash cans and recycling bins.

The incident — which inspired a group of student senators to make plans to impeach the current student president — came after the newspaper published an article reporting that some members of the Student Government Association accused leaders in the organization of harassment and creating a toxic environment.

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the nonprofit Student Press Law Center, said that the trashing of the papers could raise First Amendment issues, with the allegation that student government officials for the university, which has an enrollment of more than 30,000, were attempting to silence the press.

Alexia Guzman, vice president of the Student Government Association, told The Commonwealth Times that the association was a “negative and hostile environment” and that other members and advisers responded poorly and humiliated her because of an abusive relationship she had been in.

“My fellow leaders were talking bad about me because of something that I went through,” Guzman said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “It was heartbreaking.”

Mike Porter, associate vice president for public affairs for VCU, said that VCU will assign a staff member who isn’t affiliated with the student government to work with the students involved on solving the conflict within the association.

Porter also said students may face criminal charges or punishment under the student code of conduct if the police investigation finds they were involved in the removal of newspapers.

“VCU supports its independent student journalists and does not condone censorship in any form,” Porter said.

In a follow-up article about the removal of the newspapers, Eason reported that witnesses identified Breanna Harmon, the Student Government Association president, as one of the people involved in removing the newspapers from kiosks.

A group of seven senators in the student government said in a statement Thursday that they intend to introduce articles of impeachment against Harmon on Monday.

Harmon did not respond to a message sent through the Student Government Association website and declined an interview with The Commonwealth Times.

Guzman said she received both an outpouring of support from some students as well as backlash from others after the article was published. She said she was disappointed that a few members of the Student Government Association were trying to silence others.

“SGA as a whole, one of our core missions is to be the voice for students,” Guzman said. “A few select members in SGA were silencing students — because it’s a student-run newspaper. … I think the whole point of [speaking out] is because we believe the student body deserves to know what’s going on.”

Georgia Geen, executive editor of The Commonwealth Times, said in an interview that no one with the Student Government Association had contacted the paper’s staff about the factual accuracy of the article and that the staff learned that the papers had been removed through a tip on social media.

Since the news of the stolen newspapers was published, the student newspaper staff has seen students speaking up about issues surrounding the student government.

“I think this has definitely reinforced the effect that I know our work has,” Geen said.

She added that it was disheartening to see the work that she and her fellow student journalists put into preparing the newspaper — which they were working on until 3 a.m. — thrown away in an apparent attempt to hide a story. It was the first time the senior had seen this happen in her four years working for the newspaper.

Geen filed a police report, she said, and VCU police are investigating the incident, according to Porter. Geen wasn’t sure of the exact value of the stolen newspapers but said it costs the student newspaper $880 to print an issue, in addition to staff salaries and delivery costs.

Stealing newspapers is a form of censorship that is far too common, according to Hiestand, with the Student Press Law Center. He said that in previous years, as many as 40 instances of stolen student newspapers occurred in a year, though recently it’s been closer to 20.

Last year, an employee at Radford University in Southwest Virginia took student newspapers. There were no criminal charges, but the worker was disciplined by the university, according to a November Roanoke Times article.

“Newspaper theft is kind of the ultimate form of censorship,” Hiestand said.

Hiestand said that university administration responses vary significantly from school to school, with some treating it as a crime and others not taking it seriously.

The allegation that a student government member was involved in the theft of the papers raises additional First Amendment concerns, he added.

“They are treated as government officials. They are taking money that is collected by the university ... charged with allocating that. They are performing a government function,” Hiestand said. “We live in a country where we have a very clear rule against the government interfering with speech activities.”