Phase Three timeline is coming Tuesday, Northam says
State also issues guidelines for reopening colleges and universities
Gov. Ralph Northam said that he will provide information at Tuesday’s news conference about when the state could enter Phase Three of his “Forward Virginia” reopening plan, although he noted Thursday that the state will spend a minimum of two weeks in Phase Two, which started for most localities June 5.
Richmond and Northern Virginia, which started Phase One two weeks later than the rest of the state, will enter Phase Two on Friday.
The governor, this time wearing a mask whenever he wasn’t speaking at the podium, told Virginians to “not let down their guard” and continue following health experts’ advice, but added, “Right now, things look good.” He pointed to falling positive test rates, from a high of more than 20% in April to 8.9% this week, as well as the declining number of COVID-related deaths.
Northam recommended that protesters taking to the streets in Virginia’s cities and counties wear face coverings and stay as socially distanced as possible. He also encouraged them to get tested for the virus.
The governor also announced Thursday that he has released state guidelines for higher education institutions, which must first send their plans to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) for approval before reopening their campuses.
Although most of the state’s colleges and universities have already announced at least preliminary reopening plans for the fall, the state’s instructions focus on public health standards:
- Monitoring health of students, faculty and staff
- Repopulating campuses safely
- Limiting spread of COVID-19
- Plans for shutting down again if there is a surge in cases
Peter Blake, SCHEV’s director, said that the state’s colleges and universities — both public and private — have worked with the council in determining their initial fall plans, but none have been approved yet, going by the state’s public health guidelines. However, he noted at Thursday’s news conference, with some adjustments in individual institutions’ plans, there should not be a problem in gaining approval.
He said that students and employees should expect to see classes continue to be taught online, smaller groups in classrooms, food service provided in “nontraditional ways,” and changes to public performances and sporting events. Blake added that SCHEV will provide more information Friday.
In the spring, after classes shifted online across the state, more than 30,000 in-person courses were converted to virtual classrooms, just at Virginia’s publicly funded colleges and universities, Blake said.
In other news, the governor and Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said the state expects an $800 million loss of tax revenue this quarter, which is an improvement from a previous prediction of $1 billion. In May, the state saw a decline in General Fund revenue of 20.6% compared to May 2019.
In August, the General Assembly will gather for a special session to discuss the state budget, and Layne said that he expects to have “good data points” to build a biennial forecast. The budget passed during regular session in March was changed in April, with most new spending paused to accommodate losses in income and revenue due to the pandemic. Northam said he is also in conversation with state lawmakers about whether they will address other issues in August, including police reform and funding, a hot topic in the protests.
Asked for his thoughts on defunding police departments and other measures demanded by protesters, Northam said, “A lot of semantics have been used,” including “dismantle the police,” which he said he does not agree with. “When we talk about defunding, I wouldn’t look at it as defunding. I’d look at it as how do we best prioritize the [police] funding that we have. That’s how the police departments want to approach it, as we discuss reform.”
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, state Republican leaders criticized Northam’s comments: “Today, Gov. Northam embraced the extremist agenda to ‘defund the police.’ His attempt to rebrand this reckless proposal as how Virginia would ‘best prioritize the funding’ does not conceal the reality of his intentions. Today, he effectively endorsed reducing funding for law enforcement.” The group, including state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., Republican Caucus Co-Chairmen Ryan McDougal and Mark D. Obenshain, among others, said Northam also “has shown a disregard for enforcing current statutes, allowing active rioting and the destruction of public and private property.”
Northam said that he wants to have more police wear body cameras and to have people who are trained in de-escalation and individuals’ special needs — other than officers — also respond to situations involving people with mental illnesses. He also announced Thursday that he has expanded the scope of the work of his Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law, founded last year in the wake of Northam’s blackface scandal.
The nine-member commission, which identified state laws and regulations that were racist and discriminatory, many of which were changed in this year’s General Assembly session, will work now on public safety, criminal justice, education, health, housing and voting. They will provide suggestions in a report scheduled to be presented in November, Northam said.
He added that he has spoken to some activists in recent days, as well as Virginia’s police chiefs, the Virginia State Police and sheriff’s offices. Northam said he is now planning town halls to allow community members to be heard on the issues brought up by protesters both here and nationwide.
As for a rash of statues knocked down this week — including three in Richmond and one in Portsmouth in which a man was critically injured — the governor asked protesters to stop pulling down monuments for the sake of public safety. “These statues are very large and very heavy.”