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Virginia
Northam bans large events; attendee of program at VCU tests positive for COVID-19

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a statewide ban on all events over 100 people on Sunday as officials announced closure of all public buildings for two weeks in the Peninsula Health District, where the state’s first death from the coronavirus was reported.

In the Richmond region, all government offices and facilities in the city and the counties of Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover and Henrico will be closed Monday for planning and cleaning, according to an announcement Sunday from the office of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

Also on Sunday, Virginia Commonwealth University confirmed that a person who attended a program at VCU’s Larrick Center on March 5-6 has tested positive for COVID-19. The individual is not an employee of the university or its health system and is self-quarantined at home.

In a news release, VCU officials said the Virginia Department of Health has indicated that the risk to program participants is low, but that the department is reaching out to those who may have been in contact to inform them.

In announcing the ban on events over 100 people during a news conference Sunday afternoon, Northam said: “If you are planning an event with several people, you should cancel it, period.”

He said the state is not to the point of calling for a mandated quarantine, but he urged residents to avoid bars, restaurants, churches and any other social gathering and to stay home as much as possible.

Despite the warning, he said the ban will not affect the operations of businesses across the state and will only extend to events outside of normal daily life such as parades, festivals or events.

“It does not mean normal operations at airports, offices, hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores or other retail establishments,” Northam said. “What we are trying to achieve here is the kind of social distancing that experts tell us is critical to stopping the spread of the virus.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday recommended that organizers cancel or postpone events consisting of 50 people or more nationwide for the next eight weeks.

State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver was on hand at Sunday’s news conference and reiterated the additional restrictions for the Peninsula Health District because of a clustering of cases there. Public buildings will be closed through March 30 in the district, which covers Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg, James City County and York County.

The state’s first death from the coronavirus occurred in James City and was reported on Saturday. The man was a hospitalized patient in his 70s who acquired the virus through an unknown source, the Virginia Health Department said.

The Peninsula cases are considered a cluster because all but one were associated with the same two contacts. In Fairfax County, by contrast, more total cases have been reported as of Sunday, but they all came from different sources, Oliver said.

Virginia officials still are investigating the James City death, but so far have not been able to determine how the man was initially exposed.

“We were unable to find any source of exposure and it’s that case that makes us concerned for the likelihood of community spread,” Oliver said.

Officials said they are working on containment and tracing the 284 contacts the patient may have had after infection.

As of Sunday evening, 45 people had tested positive in Virginia for the coronavirus.

The four new cases announced on Sunday were spread over Alexandria, Arlington, Prince William and Virginia Beach, which all had at least one case already.

Officials said the state currently has the capacity to test from 370 to 470 individuals, with more test kits on the way, and private entities in the state have now added to the state’s capacity.

Northam suggested that businesses engage in social distancing practices, such as spacing out customers eating in restaurants.

Northam said there can be a reforecast of the final budget before signing if needed but he does not anticipate the state legislature needing to meet again to pass relief legislation before the scheduled session next month.

“We’re watching very closely how the economy is doing and, certainly, if we need to take action, if I need to have the legislature back here sooner than reconvened session, we will, but I don’t anticipate that right now,” Northam said.

On Saturday, state health officials announced Chesterfield County’s first positive test for the coronavirus, a man in his 60s who was said to be doing well and is isolated at home.

A Virginia Department of Emergency Management employee tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday, according to a release from the department.

“VDEM leadership has made appropriate notifications to others who may have also been exposed, and is currently working closely with the Virginia Department of Health,” the agency, which is based in Chesterfield, said in a news release.

“VDEM has ensured that all employees are aware of the necessary precautions and preventative measures, as well as the steps necessary in the event of a possible exposure.”

Certain designated employees will report to work to ensure public safety and health will be unaffected.

The Chesterfield and Colonial Heights circuit courts, general district courts and juvenile and domestic relations district courts will be closed to the public Monday with limited access through March 30.

All child support, civil custody and visitation and criminal cases in which the defendant is not incarcerated have been continued, and witnesses subpoenaed for these cases are excused. Criminal cases for adults and juveniles who are incarcerated, bond hearings, protective orders and abuse cases will resume on a limited basis starting on Tuesday.

Riverside Health System also announced Sunday it will suspend all routine visitations in its network of hospitals until further notice.

The five-hospital network consists of Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, Riverside Doctors’ Hospital Williamsburg, Riverside Walter Reed Hospital in Gloucester, Riverside Tappahannock Hospital and Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital in Onancock.

The YMCA of Greater Richmond also announced Sunday it would suspend child-care services starting Monday. A release from the organization said it would not charge participants for the weeklong hiatus and that it would not be closing any of its facilities as of now.

All youth sports, swim meets and Adventure Guides program events have been postponed through April 18 as well.

Henrico County released details for its student meal sites during the cancellation of classes, according to a release from the school district.

Beginning on Tuesday, six sites will open from 11 a.m. to noon to distribute to all students and anyone under age 18. The release also said the program’s hours and locations may be expanded, depending on demand.

School officials also announced it will be accepting donations beginning Monday for Henrico families in need to supply students and families with additional food and supplies on weekends. Donations will be accepted at the New Bridge Learning Center from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Monday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the rest of the week.

snorthrop@timesdispatch.com


DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/TIMES-DISPATCH  

Tiffany Pierce of Petersburg helped her daughter, Alissa Barber (not pictured), a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, remove her belongings from her dormitory room on Sunday as the university moves classes from in-person to online to help prevent spread of the coronavirus.


Local
A GRTC bus route is launching Monday along the Jefferson Davis corridor in Chesterfield

A bus line launching along the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor Monday fills a long-debated void with service that three in four residents polled last year said would benefit the community.

The new GRTC Route 111 bus line will run 7.6 miles, from just north of the Chippenham Parkway interchange to John Tyler Community College in Chester. The expansion is unlike anything Chesterfield County has seen in the three decades it has held a 50% stake in the transit company.

Chesterfield officials have historically declined to allocate funding for more than a few bus routes in its suburban jurisdiction. One of the county’s representatives to the GRTC Transit System board cited an increase in the number of Chesterfield’s poor among factors driving the change, championed by transit activists, academics and business leaders.

“Chesterfield in general has seen its poverty rate increase. And lower-income residents tend to congregate around Route 1,” said GRTC board member Gary Armstrong. “They need access to more services.”

Studies published by Virginia Commonwealth University and the Greater Washington Partnership amplified the call to improve transit access in the region toward the end of 2018, about six months after GRTC launched a bus rapid transit line in Richmond.

Both reports noted that a lack of service in Chesterfield limited low-income residents’ access to jobs. Many live along the strip of Jefferson Davis that Route 111 will serve. About one in three respondents to a survey last year conducted by county consultants said they would likely use buses if they were available; nearly three in four said having bus service in the corridor would be good for the community.

The line will operate every 30 minutes, Monday through Saturday, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday. The one-way fare is $1.50; it’s $1.75 for a ride with one transfer. Chesterfield will match a $2 million Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit grant with $500,000, which will support the service for a two-year trial period.

Chesterfield Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Leslie Haley said county officials will be closely watching to measure its use.

“We’re going to continue to study it to see whether it’s serving the needs of residents,” she said. “We need to be intentional with a bus line that meets the needs of the corridor.”

The Greater Washington Partnership, a consortium of CEOs stretching from Richmond to Baltimore, includes Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II. Farrell was one of three corporate leaders who oversaw the Capital Region Blueprint for Regional Mobility.

The partnership report found that 28% of people in the Richmond region and barely half of low-income households live within a quarter-mile of a bus stop, resulting in “clear disparities” by income and race. The report recommended that GRTC work with Chesterfield leaders to expand reliable fixed-route service in the county.

The VCU Center for Urban and Regional Analysis report credited the new Pulse bus rapid transit line, which travels through downtown Richmond between Willow Lawn and Rocketts Landing, and a recent expansion of service in Henrico County, with creating better access to jobs in the region.

But it found that some areas, particularly in the city’s East End and communities south of the James River, lack adequate access to transit and jobs.

Jefferson Davis Highway, Hull Street and Midlothian Turnpike outside Belt Boulevard, according to the report, still had some of the “lowest connectivity to public transit services” in the area, complicating economic disparities.

“This is probably just as important as the Pulse or the new bus to Short Pump” in Henrico, said Fabrizio Fasulo, director of the VCU Center for Urban and Regional Analysis.

Fasulo said gentrification is driving many demographic changes in the areas outside of the city.

“There’s been some positive consequences, such as a higher median income and new business. But neighborhoods in the city are becoming expensive,” he said. “People are moving into the surrounding counties. There’s been an increase in poverty and a great need for services.”

The Chesterfield Board of Supervisors last month voted to study expanding fixed-route bus service in the Midlothian Turnpike corridor from west of Chesterfield Towne Center to just past the city line.

Three GRTC lines currently cross into Chesterfield. The county subsidizes one of those, the Route 82 Express, which runs along Powhite Parkway, operates only during weekday peak hours and has just one stop in the county.

Armstrong said the Chesterfield Link system, a commuter bus service that has mostly fallen away since its launch in 2001, suffered low use and a high ridership cost that slowly became more expensive over the years. He said lack of support from the county government eventually led to its demise.

But GRTC officials are hoping it will be able to draw new riders to its buses.

Carrie Rose Pace, a spokeswoman and marketing director for the transit system, said there’s been a major focus on reaching out to the corridor’s Latino community, with advertisements in Spanish and events with Spanish speakers.

“This corridor has a pretty significant population that has a limited English proficiency,” she said. “There’s conversations I’ve had with families where it was mostly children translating for us.”

Oscar Contreras, who broadcasts a Spanish language show on AM radio station WBTK, said the outreach is working.

“There’s been a sense of excitement for people who live or work there,” he said. “What makes this special is that they’re reaching out with intent.”


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Business
AP
Fed takes emergency steps to slash rates and ease bank rules

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve took massive emergency action Sunday to help the economy withstand the coronavirus by slashing its benchmark interest rate to near zero and saying it would buy $700 billion in Treasury and mortgage bonds.

The Fed’s surprise announcement signaled its worry that the viral outbreak will depress economic growth in coming months and that it is prepared to do whatever it can counter the risks. It cut its key rate by a full percentage point — to a range between zero and 0.25% — and said it would keep it there until it feels confident that the economy can survive a sudden near-shutdown of economic activity in the United States.

The central bank will buy at least $500 billion of Treasury securities and at least $200 billion of mortgage-backed securities. This amounts to an effort to ease market disruptions that have made it harder for banks and large investors to sell Treasuries as well as to keep longer-term borrowing rates down.

The new purchases will be similar to the several rounds of “quantitative easing,” or QE, that the Fed conducted during and after the Great Recession to bolster the financial system and the economy. Chairman Jerome Powell, in a conference call with reporters, declined to characterize the Fed’s new purchases as QE. He said their main goal was to ensure that credit markets could function properly. But the new bond purchases could also drive down borrowing rates and help the economy, as QE did, he said.

Powell also warned the economy would likely shrink in the April-June quarter because of the widespread shutdowns from the coronavirus and a broad pullback in consumer spending. He noted that the necessary steps being taken across the country to stem the outbreak — an avoidance of travel, shopping and mass gatherings — are inherently harmful to the economy, which he said had been in solid shape before the virus hit.

“The virus is having a profound effect on the people of the United States and across the world,” Powell said. While the primary response will need to come from health care providers, “economic policymakers must do what we can to ease hardship caused by disruptions to the economy, and support a swift return to normal once they’ve passed.”

The chairman added that Sunday’s deep interest rate cut would help companies that need credit now but would be particularly useful after the virus outbreak has largely subsided. He said there was no set timetable for the $700 billion in securities’ purchases and that they would occur as needed.

“We’re going to go in strong, starting tomorrow, Powell said, “and ... do what we need to do to restore market function.”

The Fed is also joining in a coordinated global action, with the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank and the Swiss National Bank, to provide cheap dollar credit to banks. This move is intended to ensure that foreign banks continue to have access to dollars that they lend to overseas companies.

In his audio news conference Sunday night, Powell explained the Fed’s actions, in part, by noting that “when stresses arise in the Treasury market, they can reverberate throughout financial markets and the entire economy.”

Powell said the Fed acted Sunday after having decided to meet over the weekend in lieu of the meeting its policy committee had been scheduled to hold Tuesday and Wednesday this week. He also said the central bank decided not to issue its usual quarterly projections for the economy and interest rates this week because the virus is altering the economic picture too quickly to make such projections useful.

U.S. stock futures began falling after the Fed’s announcement. Futures for the S&P 500 index dropped 4%, while futures for the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 3.7%. Gold prices rose 3.5%.

All told, the Fed’s massive response is intended to keep financial markets functioning and lending flowing to businesses and consumers. Otherwise, as revenue dries up for countless small businesses that have suddenly lost customers, these employers could be forced to lay off workers or even seek bankruptcy protection in some cases.

“This is a break-the-glass moment” for the Fed, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “They are throwing everything they’ve got at this. My sense is they must be nervous about the credit system not functioning properly. They are trying to shore up confidence.”

By aggressively slashing its benchmark short-term rate and pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial system, the Fed’s moves Sunday recalled the emergency action it took at the height of the financial crisis. Starting in 2008, the Fed cut its key rate to near zero and kept it there for seven years. The central bank has now returned that rate — which influences many consumer and business loans — to its record-low level.

The move drew rare praise from President Donald Trump, who had attacked the Fed as recently as Saturday for not acting quickly or aggressively enough.

“It make me very happy,” Trump said as he opened a White House briefing on the coronavirus. “I think that people and the markets should be very thrilled.”

One dissenting Fed member, Loretta Mester, president of the Cleveland Federal Reserve, voted Sunday against the full-point rate cut, favoring a half-point cut instead. She did support the Fed’s other actions to boost credit markets.

As more businesses across the country see their revenue dwindle as consumers stay home, many of them will seek short-term loans to maintain their payrolls. The Fed said it has dropped its normal requirement that banks hold cash equal to 10% of its customers’ deposits, thereby allowing banks to lend that money instead. It also said banks can use additional cash buffers that were imposed after the 2008 financial crisis for lending.

“It confirms that the Fed sees the economy going down ... very sharply” toward recession, said Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Yet with the virus’ spread causing a broad shutdown of economic activity, the Fed faces a hugely daunting task. Its tools — intended to ease borrowing rates, facilitate lending and boost confidence — are not ideally suited to offset a fear-driven shutdown in spending and traveling.

“This isn’t going to be the magic bullet that saves everything,” said Timothy Duy, an economist at the University of Oregon, but it sends a signal to Congress that the economy needs emergency stimulus.

Duy predicted that the Fed will follow up with further actions, including possibly changing its inflation target to allow for more stimulus and providing more support for commercial paper — the short-term notes that companies issue to meet expenses.


Virginia
Virginia nursing homes restrict visitors over coronavirus fears, families worry about separation

Ted Reiff, a 90-year-old physician from Hampton, thinks of himself and his 87-year-old wife, Brenda, as one person.

He visits her every day at the nursing home where she lives. He makes sure she gets the care she needs and speaks to her, even though he has chronic laryngitis that makes it painful for him to talk. He writes letters to the nursing home’s administrators every night advocating for her care.

But, after this week, he’ll no longer be allowed to see her for the foreseeable future.

Nursing homes across Virginia have begun restricting visitors in an effort to prevent the coronavirus from entering the facilities, which are considered to be particularly vulnerable as a result of the virus.

The restrictions began last week after the American Health Care Association, the largest national trade organization representing long-term care centers, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance recommending extreme measures to prevent a scenario that has played out in a Washington state nursing home where the virus spread quickly and ended lives.

“What we have found is that experts believe that this is the most prudent step that we can take to protect the residents,” said Keith Hare, CEO of the Virginia Health Care Association, the state chapter of the AHCA. “We have to put the health and well-being of these residents first. ... It really is unprecedented action.”

But some family members and advocates worry that — without loved ones allowed to visit — residents will be even more vulnerable to neglect in nursing homes that already struggle to provide basic care.

“I think that families do feel like they are stretched to the max now with worry,” said Sam Kukich of Poquoson, who started Dignity for the Aged, a grass-roots nonprofit to help family members navigate nursing home issues. “The fact that basic care isn’t being provided — add a virus on top of that and not being able to visit — they are really stressed out.”

One Newport News woman said she was told that she could come in and drop off supplies for her mother at the nursing home where she lives, but that she couldn’t visit with her.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution at the nursing home, said she’s worried that her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease and needs help eating, will not be fed without her there because the nursing home is understaffed.

Nursing homes in the state say it was a difficult decision to cut off visitation, but it was necessary.

“Our top priority has been to prevent any exposure in our facilities,” said Fred Stratmann, spokesman for CommuniCare, which runs five nursing homes in Virginia with a total of 615 beds.

“Once it’s in the buildings, you’ve already kind of lost half the battle,” Stratmann said. “We’re going to do whatever we can to keep it out.”

Innovative Healthcare Management, a company that runs five nursing homes in Virginia with a total of 750 residents, has been educating its staff and preparing for a potential outbreak since first learning of the coronavirus outbreak in China, said Taylor Tealakh, an infection preventionist.

Recently, it started screening visitors for possible coronavirus infection before they entered the facilities. Last week, it decided to restrict all nonessential visitors, except in cases where a resident is believed to be dying.

The nursing homes have promised to arrange alternative ways for family members to connect with residents, such as phone calls and video chats.

Jenni Johnson, regional director of clinical services for Innovative Healthcare Management, said its nursing home administration is making a point to communicate with families on the outside as well as hold informational meetings with the residents.

Johnson said that, although the nursing homes are limiting group gatherings within the home, they are trying to ensure residents are being entertained with in-room activities, such as movies, card games and puzzles.

Stratmann echoed the emphasis on communication and keeping residents entertained.

“We’re just keeping our residents to as much of a normal schedule as possible,” he said. “There is a certain amount of anxiety.”

Reiff, for whom the Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at Christopher Newport University is named, said he intends to consult an elder law attorney to determine his rights as his wife’s medical representative, but he fears that the public health emergency will give the nursing home where she is living latitude to ban him.

While he recognizes the danger the coronavirus presents, he’s still worried for his wife and other nursing home residents who rely on their family members to make sure they receive proper care.

“It’s going to put my wife and other patients who have knowledgeable advocates at a great disadvantage,” Reiff said. “Many knowledgeable families have to check on their family members on a daily basis to make sure errors aren’t made.”