Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday that the state will use $50 million in federal money to help Virginia residents pay their rent and mortgage as they deal with the economic fallout of COVID-19.
A total of $50 million for the state’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds will go to the new program, which the state is launching Monday. A statewide moratorium on evictions lifts the same day, with the Virginia Supreme Court ordering earlier this week that eviction hearings can resume.
“Once the moratorium is lifted, it is expected that thousands of Virginians will face eviction and that’s just not acceptable,” Northam said, asking chief circuit court judges around the state to bar evictions until July 20.
Northam did not ask the state’s high court for another extension, saying “we have a plan in place that we’re confident that we’ll start in time to help with this.”
“Virginians are facing a number of difficulties, but having a safe and stable place to call shouldn’t be one of them,” Northam said, adding later: “We don’t want anybody getting evicted at any time, but especially not at this difficult time.”
The state did not release Thursday specific information on how to apply for the program, which is being administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, or the criteria to be eligible.
Virginia’s 5.12% eviction rate, representing the number of evictions per 100 rented homes, was above the national average, according to 2016 research from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Richmond had the second-highest eviction rate in the country, the same research found.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced this week that the city will spend $6 million in CARES Act funding to fund an eviction diversion program and provide rental assistance to residents. The mayor’s office said roughly 1,900 households in the city face a pending eviction.
“While this program is a good first step towards giving Virginians the relief they desperately need, this effort does not address that courts will resume the eviction process on June 29th, which leaves thousands of Virginians vulnerable to homelessness, and it is likely that many people will be evicted before the rent and mortgage relief program is fully up and running,” New Virginia Majority, a statewide advocacy organization, said in a statement in response to the governor’s announcement.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called Northam’s announcement “a significant first step in the right direction to provide much-needed relief to Virginians, especially with the added COVID-19-related economic impacts on housing and the economy.”
“The Governor and his Administration assured us that they would focus on providing financial relief,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chairman of the caucus. “Together, we look forward to doing more to address underlying systemic issues related to housing and doing more to help provide relief.”
The caucus reiterated Northam’s call for circuit court judges to not act on pending eviction proceedings.
So did Monica Sarmiento, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights.
“COVID-19 pandemic has hit the immigrant community the hardest,” Sarmiento said. “During the last few months, immigrant families have had landlords illegally evicting people or have been facing eviction threats.”
Thursday’s briefing was the last of Northam’s regularly scheduled COVID-19 news briefings, which he said will transition to an as-needed basis. The governor has held 47 briefings since March 4, three days before the state’s first reported case.
NEW YORK — The coronavirus crisis deepened in Arizona on Thursday, and the governor of Texas began to backtrack after making one of the most aggressive pushes in the nation to reopen, as the daily number of confirmed cases across the U.S. closed in on the peak reached during the dark days of late April.
While greatly expanded testing probably accounts for some of the increase, experts say other measures indicate the virus is making a comeback. Daily deaths, hospitalizations and the percentage of tests that are coming back positive also have been rising over the past few weeks in parts of the country, mostly in the South and West.
In Arizona, 23% of tests conducted over the past seven days have been positive, nearly triple the national average, and a record 415 patients were on ventilators. Mississippi saw its daily count of new cases reach record highs twice this week.
“It’s not a joke. Really bad things are going to happen,” said Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s health officer.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, whose state was among the first to reopen, put off lifting any more restrictions and reimposed a ban on elective surgeries in some places to preserve hospital space after the number of patients statewide more than doubled in two weeks. Some Arizona hospitals also halted elective surgeries. Nevada’s governor ordered face masks be worn in public, Las Vegas casinos included.
“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Abbott said.
The U.S. reported 34,500 COVID-19 cases Wednesday, slightly fewer than the day before but still near the high of 36,400 reached on April 24, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The daily average has climbed by more than 50% over the past two weeks, an Associated Press analysis found.
Whether the rise in cases translates into an equally dire surge in deaths across the U.S. will depend on a number of factors, experts said, most crucially whether government officials make the right decisions. Deaths per day nationwide are around 600 after peaking at about 2,200 in mid-April.
“It is possible, if we play our cards badly and make a lot of mistakes, to get back to that level. But if we are smart, there’s no reason to get to 2,200 deaths a day,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute.
The nation’s daily death toll has actually dropped markedly over the past few weeks even as cases climbed, a phenomenon experts said may reflect the advent of treatments, better efforts to prevent infections at nursing homes, and a rising proportion of cases among younger people, who are more likely than their elders to survive a bout with COVID-19.
“This is still serious,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,but “we’re in a different situation today than we were in March or April.”
Several states set single-day case records this week, including Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas and Oklahoma. Florida reported over 5,000 new cases for a second day in a row.
Mississippi’s Dobbs blamed a failure to wear masks and observe other social-distancing practices.
“I’m afraid it’s going to take some kind of catastrophe for people to pay attention,” he said. “We are giving away those hard-fought gains for silly stuff.”
Tom Rohlk, a 62-year-old grocery store worker from Overland Park, Kan., complained that young people sometimes act as if they don’t care: “It seems like it’s time to party.”
The U.S. has greatly ramped up testing in the past few months, and it is now presumably finding many less-serious cases that would have gone undetected earlier in the outbreak, when testing was limited and often focused on sicker people.
But there are other more clear-cut warning signs, including a rising number of deaths per day in states such as Arizona and Alabama.
The number of confirmed infections, in itself, is a poor measure of the outbreak. CDC officials, relying on blood tests, estimated Thursday that 20 million Americans have been infected. That is about 6% percent of the population and roughly 10 times the 2.3 million confirmed cases.
Officials have long known that many cases have been missed because of testing gaps and a lack of symptoms in some infected people.
Worldwide, over 9.5 million people have been confirmed infected, and nearly a half-million have died, including over 122,000 in the U.S., the world’s highest toll, by Johns Hopkins’ count.
“Globally, it’s still getting worse,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
While some states impose new restrictions or pause their reopenings, some businesses also are backing off. Disney delayed its mid-July reopening of Disneyland.
The nation’s top public health agency on Thursday revamped its list of which Americans are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness, adding pregnant women and removing age alone as a factor.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also changed the list of underlying conditions that make someone more susceptible to suffering and death. Sickle cell disease joined the list, for example. And the threshold for risky levels of obesity was lowered.
The changes didn’t include adding race as a risk factor for serious illness, despite accumulating evidence that Black people, Hispanics and Native Americans have higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death.
Agency officials said the update was prompted by medical studies published since the CDC first started listing high-risk groups. They sought to publicize the information before Independence Day weekend, when many people may be tempted to go out and socialize.
“For those at higher risk, we recommend limiting contact with others as much as possible, or restricting contacts to a small number of people who are willing to take measures to reduce the risk of [you] becoming infected,” said the CDC’s Redfield.
The same advice holds for people who live with or care for people at higher risk, Redfield added.
Previously, the CDC said those at high risk of serious illness included people aged 65 years and older; those who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility; and people with serious heart conditions, obesity, diabetes, liver disease, chronic kidney disease, chronic lung disease, and conditions that leave them with weakened immune systems.
In the changes, CDC created categories of people who are at high risk and people who might be at high risk.
Those who are at high risk include people with chronic kidney disease, chronic inflammatory lung disease, obesity, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease, Type 2 diabetes, and weakened immune systems because of organ transplants. The threshold for obesity concern was lowered from a body mass index of 40 down to 30.
The CDC said people are at increasing risk as they get older, but it removed people 65 and older as a high risk group.
The list of people who might be at high risk includes pregnant women, smokers and those with asthma, diseases that affect blood flow to the brain, cystic fibrosis, high blood pressure, dementia, liver disease, scarred or damaged lungs, Type 1 diabetes, a rare blood disorder called thalassemia, and people who have weakened immune systems due to HIV or other reasons.
Pregnant women joined the list on the same day a CDC report found they accounted for about 9% of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in women of childbearing age. About 5% of women of childbearing age are pregnant at any given time.
The report showed that pregnant women had higher rates of hospitalization, of admission to a hospital intensive care unit and of winding up on a breathing machine vs. young women who weren’t pregnant. There was no clear evidence of a higher death rate among pregnant women, however.
Richmond police declared an unlawful assembly on Wednesday night for the fourth time this week, resulting in four arrests.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Robert E. Lee monument were ordered to disperse just before 11:30 p.m. when police declared an unlawful assembly.
After chanting at police, most of the protesters left the area and went on an hours-long march that disbanded shortly before 4 a.m. Police believe some committed vandalism.
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, complained in an email Thursday that, “The Governor’s decision to enforce the unconstitutional restrictions on use of the public forum at the Lee Monument has allowed police to call protest ‘trespass’ and turned trespass into ‘riot.’”
“Forcing people off the Lee Monument grounds into the streets is a strategy that invites rather than deescalates the potential for violence,” she added.
Demonstrations have been banned at the monument during nighttime hours and, for the second night in a row, police cleared a protest gathering there, citing trespassing violations at 11:25 p.m. Wednesday. Once the roughly 300 participants moved into the surrounding street, some started throwing rocks at police, authorities said. That’s when an unlawful assembly was declared, according to the Richmond Police Department, who put out a statement early Thursday morning.
Gastañaga contends that an assembly does not violate the unlawful assembly law simply because it is in violation of a regulation of questionable validity. “Under our laws, government must have credible, objective evidence that there is a clear and present danger of violence before anyone can restrain speech by declaring an assembly ‘unlawful’ and trigger arrests for anyone’s continued presence,” she wrote.
“If police had simply monitored events at the Lee Monument last evening and responded to actual criminal conduct when it occurred and where it occurred rather than forcing hundreds of people off the monument property and into our streets, everyone would have been safer,” she said.
Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, wrote in an email that as the protesters were leaving the Lee monument grounds, one of them was illegally blinding the state troopers with a laser.
“After repeatedly doing this with the laser light, one sponge munition was deployed by state police in the direction of that individual,” according to Geller.
The sponge-tipped round is a standard non-lethal, low-hazard munition used by law enforcement for safe crowd dispersal, according to state police. No rubber bullets were deployed by state police overnight, said Geller. Geller and a spokesman for the Richmond Police Department said neither organization has rubber bullets.
She wrote that after leaving the Lee monument grounds, about a dozen protesters staged on North Allen Avenue, south of the monument. State police remained on site along with a Virginia Department of General Services crew cleaning up the trash left on the grounds.
According to Geller, “That same individual remained on scene and, again, began illegally blinding the troopers with his laser. A second sponge munition was deployed by state police in the direction of that individual. He stopped the illegal action at that point.”
Those were the only two munitions deployed by the Virginia State Police overnight, according to Geller.
No chemical irritants were used, according to police.
Of the four people arrested, two were charged with felonies: one for pointing a laser at a law enforcement aircraft and another for assaulting a law enforcement officer who was struck in the face by a shield carried by a protester, police said.
The two Richmond men arrested for alleged felonies were identified by police as Jonathan Wolverton, 21, charged with interfering with aircraft, and Mychael Montgomery, 25, charged with assault on a law enforcement officer.
Police said Thursday that they are also investigating several acts of vandalism, which they say occurred during Wednesday night’s protests as demonstrators were moving away from the Lee monument.
After the crowd was dispersed around the Lee monument, police said many protesters headed west where the “major vandalism” occurred to two businesses, one in the 2000 block of West Broad Street and the other in the 1900 block of West Main Street.
“Surveillance video and eyewitness reports document the vandalism and will be used by the detectives to identify which protestors were responsible for the damage,” said a statement from the police department Thursday.
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Virginia schools will enter the third phase of the state’s reopening plan next week, allowing for the possibility of in-person instruction for all students when schools reopen in the fall.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that Virginia will enter Phase Three on July 1, a move that allows for social gatherings of up to 250 people and removes the cap on the number of patrons at restaurants and retail businesses. With the state moving forward with reopening, schools will follow suit.
While classrooms will look far different than before they closed for the rest of the academic year March 16, guidance released earlier this month says that in the third phase, in-person teaching can be offered for all students.
“The Virginia guidance document aligns with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance for reopening and provides considerations for school divisions in the first three phases of reopening, and we are all going into Phase Three next week throughout the commonwealth,” said Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, on Thursday.
Education leaders and families across Virginia eagerly awaited the state’s guidance, which it unveiled June 9. Those guidelines allow for all students to return to school, but they must practice social distancing. That means potentially not mixing classes and limiting recess; closing or staggering the use of communal spaces like cafeterias; and limiting the number of people on buses, among other things.
The 136-page guidance from the Virginia Department of Education was seen by many education officials and parents as required, with local school districts having to submit reopening plans to the agency in order to advance in the phases. Parents also organized, forming a group called “Choices for Virginia Schools,” to voice their frustration with the state’s guidelines.
Mercer said the guidance “is intended to inform the discussions happening at the local level, but it does not mandate any one particular approach. Guidance is not law. This is up to your local school boards to decide how they’re going to open responsibly.”
Mercer added: “The final decisions about reopening are squarely in the hands of local school boards.”
Republicans have criticized the lack of clarity on who was ultimately deciding when and how schools could reopen. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, reiterated that sentiment Thursday.
“Any parent of a school-aged child in Virginia who saw today’s briefing by Governor Northam is probably livid right now, and they have every right to be,” Gilbert said in a statement.
He added: “Decorum prevents me from saying what I really think, but I will say this: If you need an example of incompetence and untruthfulness in one package, look no further than Governor Ralph Northam.”
School systems in the Richmond area are still weighing how to reopen, including the possibility of a hybrid situation in which students go to school several days a week and learn virtually on other days.
A Hanover County man and avowed Ku Klux Klan leader charged with driving through a crowd at a Black Lives Matter protest in Henrico County was denied bond by a Henrico Circuit Court judge on Thursday morning.
Harry H. Rogers, 36, was initially charged with attempted malicious wounding, felony vandalism and assault and battery in connection with the June 7 incident.
During the hearing on Thursday, Circuit Judge John Marshall said there are no restrictions he could put in place to ensure that Rogers won’t “get behind the wheel” again.
“By his actions in this case, he shows he is an unreasonable danger to the public,” Marshall said.
On Thursday, Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor brought additional charges against Rogers, including four counts of assault with hate crimes, two counts of felonious attempted malicious wounding and one count of felony hit and run.
Video footage and photos shown during the hearing Thursday show Rogers driving onto the median to pass a group of cars behind an estimated 300 protesters headed north on Lakeside Avenue near Vale Street. From there, footage shows Rogers’ driving into at least two bicyclists and one demonstrator on foot.
No one was seriously injured in the incident.
At one point, photos and witnesses interviewed during the investigation indicate Rogers exited his car to assume what Chief Deputy Commonwealth Attorney’s Michael Huberman called a “Western-movie type of posturing” with a loaded pistol holstered at his side.
After his arrest, the Henrico County Police Department recovered an AR-15 firearm from Rogers’ vehicle and two 30-round M4 magazines in his center console.
Rogers’ attorney, George Townsend, argued during the hearing that there was not probable cause that Rogers would miss his next court date or endanger the community if he were to be released. Townsend played a two-second video of the June 7 incident, which showed Rogers’ vehicle coming into contact with two cyclists.
Townsend argued that the cyclist to Rogers’ right stepped toward Rogers’ car during the collision. The initial three charges stem from the contact between that cyclist and Rogers’ vehicle.
In response, Huberman detailed Rogers’ criminal history since 2007, which includes various misdemeanor charges from different Virginia counties.
He pointed out that Rogers had several opportunities to turn left to exit the crowd. Rogers had “no reason to be there other than to intimidate and scare and disrupt an organized Black Lives Matter rally,” Huberman said.
Releasing Rogers, Huberman argued, would put the community at risk.
“He is a danger to the community — he has access to a firearm, he has access to an organized hate group,” Huberman said.
In its investigation, Henrico police interviewed 25 direct witnesses and obtained and executed a search warrant at the home Rogers’ shared with his girlfriend, where they found several firearms and KKK memorabilia.
After his arrest, Rogers told police he was “the highest-ranking member” of the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia.
Police also found that Rogers had attended the August 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, during which Heather Heyer, a counter-protester to the rally, was killed after a white nationalist rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters. Rogers later protested at Heyer’s funeral.
A police report from May 29 of this year details an incident during which Rogers entered a medical facility in eastern Henrico without a face mask. When the receptionist asked him to put on a face covering, Rogers went back to his car and returned in a Klan hood.
When he was escorted out by staff, he reportedly yelled “white power.”
In the days prior to his June 7 arrest, Rogers engaged in Facebook post using racial epithets, at one point commenting “Black lives splatter.”
Rogers’ commitment to white supremacist ideologies was what led Taylor to pursue assault with hate crime charges, which carry a minimum sentence of six months.
“We are aiming to ensure that the citizens know that this behavior will not be tolerated — that the hatred we believe to be part of the intent of these crimes will not be tolerated in Henrico County,” Taylor said after the hearing.
Henrico police are still seeking to identify the second cyclist that Rogers hit.