The Virginia State Police did not require training in an aerodynamic condition that contributed to the helicopter crash that killed two troopers who had been monitoring street clashes after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville almost three years ago, according to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation report released Wednesday.
The “factual report” does not address the probable cause of the crash that killed Lt. H. Jay Cullen — a veteran state police helicopter pilot — and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates on Aug. 12, 2017. But the 10-page report found no record that Cullen had been trained in responding to a condition that may have caused the Bell helicopter to spin and roll before crashing in Albemarle County.
The NTSB report describes a phenomenon called a “vortex ring state” as an aerodynamic condition that causes a helicopter to descend rapidly in the downwash from its own rotor blades, making it subject to “uncommanded pitch and roll oscillations.”
The report says the training manual used by the Virginia State Police Aviation Unit did not list “vortex ring state” in sample lesson plans for initial or recurring training of pilots. The manual also said the maneuvers necessary to recover from the condition “were considered to be optional.”
It also finds no record that Cullen, 48, an 18-year veteran of the aviation unit, receiving training on how to recognize and recover from vortex ring state conditions on the make and model of helicopter he was flying at the time of the fatal crash. However, it noted “anecdotal information” that Cullen was aware of the phenomenon.
“The Virginia State Police received the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Aviation Accident Factual Report late Wednesday and is currently reviewing its findings,” state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Wednesday night. “The Department is now awaiting the final ruling on the incident to be made by the NTSB Review Board, which will occur in the next 30 to 60 days.”
Cullen and Bates had been monitoring the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally, in which a counterprotester died after an Ohio man attending the rally, James Fields Jr., drove his car into a crowd on a street next to the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville.
About six minutes before the helicopter crash, Cullen and Bates were diverted to oversee the motorcade of then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe from state police headquarters next to Interstate 64 to a news conference in downtown Charlottesville.
McAuliffe had just landed at state police headquarters in a Fairfax County police helicopter when he heard a radio report about an aircraft going down.
He had recognized Trooper One, the helicopter that routinely flew him on gubernatorial business, circling above Charlottesville as he arrived from his home in Northern Virginia, where he had been monitoring the deadly clash between white nationalist groups and counterprotesters.
McAuliffe found out soon after he arrived at the news conference that the downed aircraft was indeed Trooper One and that two state police officers he knew well had died in the crash.
Cullen was commander of the state police Aviation Unit and Bates, 40, had helped protect the governor and his family for three years.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” McAuliffe said later that week. “The best of the best in state police.”
The coronavirus pandemic has scuttled big plans for a lot of people, and you can count Jasmine Mason among that number.
The senior at Henrico High School’s Center for the Arts won a major award — and, yes, it truly is a major award, not just “A Christmas Story” leg lamp — that carries with it a trip to New York for a ceremony at Carnegie Hall. The ceremony, originally scheduled for June, has been canceled, so Mason will not be able to walk onstage at one of America’s most venerable cultural landmarks. (It will be replaced with an online ceremony.)
But she still has the $10,000 scholarship that comes with the award and the feeling deep down of: “Did this really happen?”
“I still kind of am shocked,” she said. “It’s hard to believe. It’s a lot to take in.”
Mason was one of 16 national Gold Medal Portfolio winners — eight in art, eight in writing — in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which were established in 1923 to recognize the “vision, ingenuity and talent of our nation’s youth.” The program is sponsored by the National Alliance of Artists and Writers. Winners have included Andy Warhol, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, Bernard Malamud, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Avedon, Frances Farmer, Robert Redford and Ken Burns.
Mason is Henrico’s third Center for the Arts student to be honored over the years.
“This is not only a tremendous honor for Jasmine … but it is also a huge honor and testament to the prominence of the Center for the Arts program,” said Stephanie Poxon, director of the center. Previous winners from the center were Ellie Braun in 2014 and Hallie Wilson in 2019.
“We are fortunate to have a center that gives the most talented students from Henrico County an opportunity to concentrate on the arts,” Poxon said. She also praised the teachers at the helm of the center’s visual arts program, Mary Scurlock and Genevieve Dowdy, for their ability “to inspire, motivate, challenge and nurture their students, like Jasmine, so that they can reach their full potential.”
Mason, who turned 18 the week after she learned of her award in March, won for her portfolio of eight paintings, depicting people on the lower economic rungs of society — generally people of color — in the act of waiting: at a bus stop, at a coin-laundry, at a fast-food restaurant, at a grocery store.
She painted them in acrylic on cardboard, giving the finished pieces an authentic, rough-around-the-edges feel.
“I experimented with many different substrates and materials during my junior year, but cardboard was always different and my intrigue for it kept leading me back to it,” she said. “Cardboard also really tied well into the message I wanted the figures to convey.”
The theme of her portfolio pieces did not emerge to her immediately; she was just observing real life around her.
“But then my teachers were telling me all of the figures looked like they were waiting for something,” she said. “Then I thought about making a whole theme about that and [finding] more examples.
“Since I’ve always lived in a disenfranchised neighborhood, you don’t really see the problems because you’re in it, because it’s everyday life for you.”
She believes the portfolio, taken as a whole, shows “how Richmond is segregated economically.”
Dowdy said Mason’s work “reminds us of the potency of a young person’s point of view and the power their artistic vision has to move our culture through uncertain times.”
Scurlock said Mason “has a good eye. She really did capture a moment … and translate them to these paintings that were super interesting.”
“She’s very quiet, she’s really mature for her age, and, of course, talented, obviously,” Scurlock said. ”Jasmine is probably one of the hardest-working students I’ve ever had, in terms of always doing what was asked of her, having it on time and doing a great job.”
Her work ethic extends beyond school.
She’s worked at Westminster Canterbury for almost a year in one of the retirement community’s restaurants. Before the pandemic closed schools, she was working about 30 hours a week, often returning home after classes, changing clothes and catching a ride to her job or walking the 2 miles from her home. The experience of juggling the job and school was draining at times, she said, but taught her the importance of time-management.
She’s kept working during the pandemic, though instead of waiting tables she’s now delivering meals to residents in their apartments.
She’s planning to attend Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio come fall. Long term, she hopes to get into the architecture field, perhaps interior design. She likes the idea of designing public spaces.
“I still want to pursue a career as an artist, but I know I need a stable job and career,” she said.
Scurlock said she looks forward to seeing what Mason does in the future “because I think she’ll go really far in her endeavors. I just can’t imagine she won’t do really well.”
Mason’s mom, Clara Mason, said her daughter has been her own toughest critic.
“Jasmine was always critical of her artwork and had a hard time believing in her art,” said Clara Mason, who also works at Westminster Canterbury, as a supervisor coordinator. “I always saw something more in her art and kept repeating to her that it’s how others perceive her art. I truly started to believe that she was something special artwise when she made a dress out of leaves in the 10th grade.”
She added, “I’m proud that my daughter won, and I’m glad that she can continue to follow her dreams.”
And as for missing out on the trip to Manhattan to be honored at Carnegie Hall? Jasmine Mason says it might be for the better.
“Honestly, the award ceremony at Carnegie overwhelmed me with the thought of the amount of attention I would receive, so I’m a lot more comfortable with the virtual ceremony,” she said. “I’m disappointed for the people that were looking forward to it, though.”
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The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday opposed Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to begin reopening the state on Friday, arguing that the consequences of reopening too early could fall disproportionately on people of color.
The caucus announced its position shortly after Northam told reporters that all but Northern Virginia will move ahead onto a phased reopening starting Friday.
While Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney suggested Tuesday that he was considering requesting a delay of the reopening for the city, Northam said Wednesday that he had not received formal requests from leaders outside Northern Virginia.
Northam said Northern Virginia will remain under a “stay-at-home” order for at least an additional two weeks. Elsewhere in the state, Virginians will remain under a “safer-at-home” advisory, while many businesses now closed will reopen with some safety restrictions.
Northam cited what he termed a sufficient supply of protective equipment and hospital beds, along with a declining share of positive tests and hospitalizations. The state, however, has still not met key testing and contact tracing goals laid out by officials and public health experts. Northam said Wednesday that he believed current capacity would be sufficient.
“Phase One represents a small step forward,” Northam said during a briefing with reporters. “This virus has not gone away and everyone needs to act accordingly. You will be safer at home, unless you need to go out.”
‘Guinea pigs’ for economy
The Black Caucus argued in a letter to Northam that many of the Virginians who will leave their homes at the risk of being exposed are so-called “essential workers,” a substantial share of whom are people of color.
“Under the current plan, and with the already existent racial disparities that this pandemic and economic crisis are perpetuating, we will be creating a situation where black and brown Virginians outside of Northern Virginia will become guinea pigs for our economy,” the letter reads.
In response to the letter, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement: “Governor Northam is deeply appreciative of the Legislative Black Caucus and values their close partnership with him and his administration as we respond to this crisis. He continues to be guided by public health, data, and the CDC guidelines. He is absolutely committed to moving forward in a safe, gradual manner that protects all Virginians, particularly low-income individuals, essential workers, and communities of color.”
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the caucus, said the state faces hurdles before reopening is safe for vulnerable Virginians, including many black and Hispanic workers.
“I think we need to stay focused on increasing testing. I think we need to provide support to businesses with [personal protective equipment]. It’s important for local governments to lay out their plans for how a custodial person, or any other member of their team, would be supplied with PPE,” Bagby said.
While employers will now be required to provide face masks to employees, masks remain optional for customers. Bagby said that exemption puts essential workers at risk.
In the letter, the caucus also argues that “often confusing and inconsistent” guidelines from the Northam administration could put people at risk. The letter cites a directive allowing churches to open at 50% capacity, which may result in large gatherings even as the state bans gatherings of 10 or more people.
“There is not a clear rationale for this 50 percent capacity guidance where other smaller gatherings would be prohibited,” the letter reads.
Northern Virginia, the state’s most populous region, is still reporting a comparatively high number of positive COVID-19 cases among everyone tested each day — about 25% — well above the 10% target recommended by public health researchers to contain the virus. In Virginia, that rate rests at around 15%.
During Wednesday’s briefing a number of Northern Virginia leaders, patched in remotely, took turns thanking Northam for agreeing to their request for a delay and said they hope to begin to reopen the region as soon as they meet certain statistical measures.
Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey thanked Northam for “letting the data, not a date, determine our status.”
Leaders in Northern Virginia joined in a successful request to Northam asking him to delay reopening in that region, in line with guidance from officials in neighboring Maryland and the District of Columbia. The list of localities includes Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties; the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park; and the towns of Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg and Vienna.
More than 3,500 people have been hospitalized by COVID-19 and discharged.
The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, which represents 27 health systems and 110 hospitals, reported Wednesday that 3,544 people have been discharged after fighting the virus, an increase of 144 people since Tuesday. Roughly 1,500 people remain hospitalized, according to the VHHA.
The state Health Department reported roughly 1,000 more cases of COVID-19 in Virginia compared with Tuesday.
The agency said in its daily data report that the total number of cases in the state has risen from 25,800 to 26,746, and more than 900 people have died.
Of Virginia’s 927 COVID-19 deaths, which is 36 more than VDH reported Tuesday, 899 are confirmed to have been caused by the coronavirus and 28 are probable.
Last month, the agency started including probable COVID-19 cases and probable deaths in the state’s overall tally. Probable cases are people who are symptomatic with a known exposure to COVID-19, but whose cases have not been confirmed with a positive test.
The number of outbreaks — defined by the state as at least two laboratory-confirmed cases connected by people, place and time — rose slightly from Tuesday to Wednesday from 275 to 277, the majority in long-term care facilities.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, here’s what COVID-19 data looks like in the Richmond area:
As most of Virginia readies for its Phase One opening Friday, some businesses are wondering what went into deciding what can open and what can’t.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced at the close of last week that personal care businesses — such as barber shops, spas and tattoo parlors — could open with some restrictions, while museums, bowling alleys and other entertainment venues would have to remain closed. Gyms, restaurants and breweries can reopen, but in outdoor spaces only.
“My initial reaction is confusion,” Christian Morganti, regional manager for four Richmond-area Gold’s Gym franchises, said last week. “Because I don’t understand, given the amount of precautions that our gym, and probably many others, are willing to take, how we aren’t allowed to open.”
(Merrill C. “Sandy” Hall, owner of Gold’s Gym facilities in Henrico County, Chesterfield County and other parts of Virginia, unsuccessfully challenged the governor’s shutdown order in court.)
Northam announced May 4 that Virginia could start reopening by the end of this week if coronavirus health trends continued. But the governor’s office did not disclose until Friday which types of businesses would be permitted to open in Phase One.
The 27 pages of specific requirements for businesses that could reopen (barbers, tattoo parlors, massage centers and campgrounds) were not uploaded to the state’s website until 4:30 p.m. Friday. Roughly two hours later, those guidelines were removed from the state’s website and not uploaded again until the next day.
Grant Neely, Northam’s chief communications officer, said Tuesday evening that he is “aware of no substantive change” to the guidelines, and that the delay in posting them — and their removal from the website — was because of the “inherent complexity of preparing an 11-page Executive Order and more than 30 pages of additional guidance.”
But who helped shape the guidance?
“The governor has consistently made it clear that any decision about when and how to ease restrictions will be guided first and foremost by public health. He is very appreciative of the work of the task force, which was just one of many organizations and groups helping to further inform this decision,” Neely said. “In addition, the administration has consulted local government leaders, labor groups, trade associations, and other business leaders from across the commonwealth.”
Northam on Tuesday issued an executive order to let populous Northern Virginia, the region hit hardest by the pandemic, delay entering the first phase of its reopening by two weeks. The city of Richmond is considering asking Northam for an exemption similar to what Northern Virginia received. Northam says that as of Wednesday afternoon no leader outside of Northern Virginia had asked him for a delay.
The specific guidelines came as a surprise to at least two members of the state’s 24-person COVID-19 Business Task Force. The governor formed the group in April to help “plan a safe, consistent, successful path forward,” according to a news release last month from the governor’s office.
“The recommendations were to socially distance tables, total sanitization protocols before and after guests, no bar service, no standing, and reservations strongly encouraged. It was also discussed that there would be no gathering inside the premises, no party sizes larger than 8, and all servers to wear masks and gloves,” said task force member Bruce Thompson of Gold Key PHR, which includes multiple hotels and restaurants in Virginia Beach and Norfolk.
“Outside dining was never mentioned, much less restricting dining to only outside. That was a total surprise to the task force members.”
Richmond-based task force member Kevin Liu — co-owner of Carytown Cupcakes, The Tin Pan music venue in Henrico and The Jasper cocktail bar — said he, too, was surprised by the outdoor-only dining restriction, as it was not included in the task force’s official recommendations.
“We were unsure whether it made a difference if customers were indoor or outdoor, and therefore we developed guidelines that would apply to all dining, regardless of indoor/outdoor,” Liu said. “[But] if new information has shown that indoor dining is significantly more dangerous than outdoor, then I would understand and agree with the Phase One restriction to outdoor dining only.”
The governor’s office did not disclose who made the outdoor-only dining recommendation or any others. Northam said Friday that he has spoken to restaurant owners extensively about the restrictions for Phase One.
“Collectively, we have made that decision,” Northam said at his Friday news conference. “Rather than relitigate that here, that’s the decision we’ve made.”
Northam said at his Monday briefing: “It falls back to people being comfortable going into that restaurant, knowing that they’re going to be safe.” He added that the restaurant employees should be able to feel safe, in addition to customers, noting that the business task force helped shape some of these decisions.
Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, which represents the interests of Virginia restaurants and hotels, said he, too, was surprised by some of the guidelines. He said he is concerned about the impact those restrictions — both the continued closure of public beaches and the outdoor-only dining restriction — will have on the state’s hospitality industry.
“We had put forth language with the governor’s office and the Virginia Department of Health. There was never any discussion about doing just outdoor seating,” Terry said.
In a letter to Northam dated Monday, the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association asked the governor to open the beaches and allow limited indoor dining in Phase One.
“We encourage you to allow restaurants to have the option to offer indoor dining with physical distancing,” Terry wrote. “Furthermore, we were perplexed that you did not allow beaches to open as other nearby states — including Maryland and North Carolina — are doing. We implore you to allow beaches to reopen in Phase One.”
He wrote that jurisdictions like Virginia Beach have “outlined a process that helps protect public health.”
Terry noted in his letter that the Phase One guidelines position restaurants that don’t have outdoor seating as “losers” in the state’s reopening plan.
“We have concerns that big box stores have been able to continue to remain open and operate very safely; however, restaurants — which are predominately small businesses — have seen greater restrictions than many big businesses. We ask that you show us how restaurants are less safe than these other businesses including ‘non-essential retail’ which is allowed to open at 50% capacity,” Terry wrote.
“While we don’t think that restaurants should be forced to open, we do believe they should have the option to do so.”
The Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association is also asking the state to move up its July 1 release of grant money for Virginia businesses paid for by a tax on electronic “skill games.”
“This is far too late to help hospitality and tourism businesses many of which rely on a strong travel season during the summer months,” Terry wrote.
Still, restaurants might see some relief. The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority announced Wednesday that it will temporarily offer restaurants an accelerated process to sell alcohol in expanded outdoor dining areas, that could include parking lots and sidewalks, with locality approval.
Petersburg’s mayor on Wednesday called a state order to restore water to households whose faucets had run dry for months “a political ploy.”
The pushback came during a news conference on the steps of City Hall that Petersburg leaders called to announce they’d restored service to five households, five days after Gov. Ralph Northam shamed the city as endangering public health during the coronavirus pandemic.
At the request of Del. Lashrecse Aird, Petersburg last week identified 46 households without service. The City Council then voted 6-1 against turning the taps back on, citing the cost, prompting a rebuke from Northam and a directive from state Health Commissioner Norman Oliver on Sunday to restore service through the duration of COVID-19.
“Del. Aird took a complaint from one constituent and ran with it to the governor’s office to get an order specifically to discriminate against the city of Petersburg and our efforts,” Mayor Samuel Parham said.
Petersburg on Wednesday said 14 of the 46 homes initially identified actually lacked water. Of those, five were reconnected by the city; four were reconnected but not by the city; three were scheduled to be reconnected by the city; and two homes had “special issues,” including a plumbing problem and a social services issue, City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides said.
“The problem with the order that was issued is we were in the midst of addressing this issue and unfortunately it took the focus away from our efforts,” Ferrell-Benavides said.
Oliver is slated to meet with Petersburg officials later this week. Parham said the city requested to have a similar meeting with Northam.
City officials last week surveyed 264 potential homes that might have lacked service, and were among 731 accounts Petersburg cut off between July 2019 and Jan. 31.
Parham on Wednesday announced $90,000 from the Dominion Charitable Foundation and $5,000 from Meridian Waste had been pledged to help residents behind on bills with initial payments.
Aird helped secure the grants, according to a letter the delegate sent Ferrell-Benavides at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. With assistance from Pathways-VA Inc., the money is going to accounts that were disconnected before the health emergency and have remained off since.
“I worry deeply about families during this pandemic and well after which is why I am excited that this money will be available to support families in need now and into the future,” Aird, D-Petersburg, said Wednesday.
Parham stressed Wednesday that the disconnection of residents’ water occurred before the pandemic.
“I hope she will from now on before running to the governor screaming that the city is a big bad wolf, that she [Aird] would come and meet with us and see we are being good stewards. … We are taking care of our citizens the way we signed up to do here,” Parham said.
Of the 264 households initially in question, 147 were reconnected to water “by their own creative means”; 90 were vacant; an additional eight might have been vacant; five accounts were closed; and 14 households had no service, Parham said.
A city spokeswoman last week said Petersburg would investigate and seek prosecution of anyone who had turned the water back on “illegally.”
Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith, who cast the sole vote to turn the water back on, did not attend Wednesday’s news conference. She was the only council member not present.
“I do not agree with attacking the governor … we cannot blame others. The letter from the commissioner came after [the city] council voted to not turn water back on,” Wilson-Smith said in an interview.
Parham, who called Wilson-Smith’s attempt to establish an amnesty program “an act of socialism,” said Wednesday, “My statement is still we cannot give away water services in the city of Petersburg. We do not have the resources to give free water away. We have a crumbling infrastructure.”
Collections have been a constant problem for the city. Petersburg still is recovering from near-economic collapse four years ago after the flawed rollout of a new utility billing system interrupted the collection of city revenues.
“City officials took a cautious approach to re-addressing the services for our residents who were disconnected … as this city has been plagued by fiscal challenges dated back to our financial collapse in 2016, the hasty actions of reconnecting without proper investigation and analysis would simply have been irresponsible,” Parham said.
The cost of unpaid city water bills has ballooned to about $3.9 million, Ferrell-Benavides said.
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