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Northam issues order limiting public gatherings to 10 people

By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The state issued an order Tuesday that allows law enforcement to enforce a ban that prohibits more than 10 patrons in places such as restaurants, fitness centers and theaters.

Gov. Ralph Northam and State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver issued a public health emergency order to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19.

“I hope that everyone will have the common sense to stay home tonight and in the days ahead,” Northam said. “This order will ensure that state and local officials have the tools they need to keep people safe.”

All Virginians should increase social distancing, avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, the state said. This follows federal guidelines announced Monday. 

Oliver announced at Tuesday’s press conference that two people have died from the disease and 67 people are confirmed to have it, including one patient who is currently in a long-term care facility — which he said was “very concerning.” Oliver said about 48 tests are currently pending. The first confirmed case was announced on March 7.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high but the individual risk is dependent upon exposure. People over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions were urged to self-quarantine due to elevated vulnerability to the disease.

Oliver said that there are currently 300 to 400 COVID-19 testing kits in the commonwealth, with more on order. 

“I don’t want you to think that you are just getting a cold,” Oliver said. “This is a serious, serious pandemic and social distancing is, therefore, something we should do and take seriously, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our community.”

Oliver also said that there are federal plans to launch automated test sites and drive-through testing centers nationwide in the areas that have been hit the hardest by the disease.

Sentara Healthcare has opened several drive-through testing centers in Hampton Roads for those who are at the highest risk for the disease.

Northam has also rolled out new measures to support workers across the state that are being affected by closures due to the coronavirus, including eliminating the wait for unemployment benefits and increased eligibility for unemployment status. 

Workers may be able to qualify for unemployment if their employer slows or ceases operations due to the disease, if they have been issued a notice to self-quarantine by a medical or public health official but are not receiving sick pay or medical leave or if they are not receiving paid medical leave while staying home to take care of sick family members. The one-week unpaid waiting period was waived for benefits, and unemployment funds are available through the Virginia Employment Commission, Northam said. 

The state ordered all 75 offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles to close, in addition to urging the Supreme Court of Virginia to close all courts until April 6 for non-emergency or non-essential court proceedings. Online services are still available, the governor said, and 60-day extensions have been granted for expired licenses and registrations.

The State Corporation Commission also issued an order to suspend utility service disconnections for the next 60 days in order to provide relief for those financially impacted by COVID-19. 

“Together we will get through this and we will be a better Virginia,” Northam said. “Every single one of us has a personal responsibility in this situation, every one of us has a role in being part of the solution.”

The Virginia Department of Health currently has a 24-hour Coronavirus information hotline that can be reached at 877-ASK-VDH3 or 877-275-8343 for questions about the disease.

Hundreds of LGBTQ Advocates Lobby Lawmakers for Protections

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By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The day after hundreds lobbied lawmakers on behalf of LGBTQ rights during Equality Virginia's Day of Action, two significant bills advanced in the General Assembly to further protections for the state’s LGBTQ residents. 

The House passed a bill from Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, on Wednesday to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, insurance and banking. 

A Senate bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, reported from committee that adds gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability as reportable hate crimes. Victims would be able to bring civil action to recover damages against their offender. 

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, was “cautiously optimistic” at the start of the legislative session but said Tuesday during the organization’s annual lobby event that there is much to celebrate.

Lamneck noted that most of the bills supported by Equality Virginia, a group that advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ community, are still alive and advancing. Last session most of those bills failed to pass from Republican-led subcommittees.

“This legislation will ensure that people are not discriminated against in housing, employment, public spaces and credit,” Lamneck said.

LGBTQ youth showed up to make their voices heard too. Side by Side, a group dedicated to creating supportive communities for LGBTQ youth, helped sponsor the event.

 “We want them to see that it's easy and accessible and what it's like to actually be involved in the legislative process,” said Emma Yackso, director of youth programs and services for Side by Side. “A lot of them for many, many reasons don't feel like they belong in government, don't feel like their voices are actually ever going to be listened to.”

Groups visited legislators to discuss LGBTQ-related causes such as conversion therapy, housing instability, religious liberty, protection from discrimination and the vulnerability of African American transgender communities. 

“We know that people who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities often face the most discrimination, harassment, and, unfortunately, sometimes violence as well,” Lamneck said.

The lobbying event was followed by an afternoon of workshops at the Library of Virginia and a reception to thank lawmakers. 

 Some of the legislation that has advanced in the General Assembly — mostly with bipartisan support — includes two bills introduced by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. Senate Bill 657 would make it easier to change a person’s name and gender on a birth certificate. SB 161 would make the Department of Education create and implement policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public schools; a duplicate bill in the House also passed.

The Senate also passed SB 245, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, which would ban the practice of conversion therapy in Virginia on patients under age 18. A similar bill introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, recently passed the House. On Tuesday, the House passed a health care bill introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or status as a transgender individual. 

Advocates also celebrated that two bills referred to as the Virginia Values Act have made it to the floors of their respective chambers: SB 868, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, and HB 1663, introduced by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax. Both would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, credit transactions, employment and public spaces.

“We speak with many individuals from across the Commonwealth who have shared with us their experiences of discrimination,” Lamneck said. “And not just that, but the fact that they live in fear, day to day experiencing discrimination and so the Virginia Values Act will have a profoundly positive impact on the community.”

Gov. Ralph Northam and Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, attended an evening reception to wrap up the Day of Action. 

“This session we are going to ensure it is no longer legal in Virginia to discriminate against someone because of who they love,” Filler-Corn tweeted. 

Two House bills that add gender, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation as reportable hate crimes and a House bill replacing terms such as “husband and wife” with gender-neutral terms have yet to advance through their respective committees prior to crossover day on Feb. 11.

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League of Women Voters push lawmakers for criminal justice reform

By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Every Wednesday during the legislative session, the Virginia chapter of the League of Women Voters hosts a roundtable featuring legislators and speakers before members head to the State Capitol and lobby lawmakers. 

Deb Wake, president of the Virginia chapter, considers education a priority for the nonpartisan political organization and utilizes the member’s experience and knowledge to cultivate different perspectives.

“We’re always trying to learn and take advantage of the power of our membership,” Wake said. 

The group started with a discussion of gun control bills, citing the recent massive gun rights rally as a wake-up call to create stricter legislation.

“There's the right to gun ownership, but there's also the right to be free from intimidation by the people who show up with their firepower for the express purpose of intimidation,” Wake said.

The league was joined this week by the American Civil Liberties Union and the groups promoted criminal justice reform legislation. Both want lawmakers to eliminate the use of solitary confinement, calling it “inhumane.”

Last year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring state prisons to report data on prisoners placed in solitary confinement, including information on their sex, ethnicity, race, age, mental health and medical status. Prisons also must report why and how long a prisoner has been placed in solitary confinement and the security level of the confinement. The ACLU feels that it is not enough. 

“Solitary confinement jeopardizes public safety, wastes taxpayer dollars, and can cause serious lifelong psychological harm and trauma,” the ACLU stated. 

Justin Patterson, a correctional officer at Sussex 1 State Prison in Sussex County, said the mental health effects of solitary confinement depends on the situation.

“I've seen offenders who have been in solitary confinement for years thriving in population now. I've seen people who have been in there for weeks and start to lose it,” Patterson said. “It's a case by case basis in my experience.”

House Bill 1284, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, would “prohibit the use of isolated confinement in state correctional facilities and juvenile correctional centers.” It is currently sitting in a subcommittee.

According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, short-term solitary confinement was reduced by 66% from January 2016 to June 2019 as a part of their Restrictive Housing Pilot Program. 

Patterson argues that solitary confinement is necessary within the prison system.

“We are dealing with very dangerous individuals in an environment which breeds violence,” Patterson said. “Solitary confinement isn't just used as a disciplinary procedure, it's also used for safety purposes.”

The ACLU also wants to change the definition of petit larceny, thefts less than $500, which they said is one of the lowest in the country. It wants to raise the threshold to $1,500, according to Ashna Khanna, legislative director. A House bill proposing that change died last year in a committee. 

“We're seeing this entire system of how people are becoming disenfranchised, how people are becoming incarcerated, and we know that it disproportionately is black or brown people,” Khanna said.

Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, and Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, proposed HB 101, which would increase the grand larceny minimum to $750 but a Courts of Justice subcommittee voted down the measure Friday. 

Gov. Ralph Northam has voiced support for current legislation to raise the grand larceny threshold to $1,000, doubling the threshold that it was raised to in the previous session.

The League of Women Voters and the ACLU also are working on reforming the pretrial system, which the ACLU said largely affects communities of color who may not be able to afford bail. Other topics discussed at the round table included no-excuse absentee voting and legalization of marijuana. The ACLU has voiced opposition to current legislation proposing the decriminalization of marijuana, in favor of legalization.

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Virginia Senate Passes Bill for Schools to Provide Menstrual Products

By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday requiring public schools to include free menstrual products in their bathrooms. 

Senate Bill 232 applies to schools that educate fifth-to-12th graders. According to the Virginia Department of Education, this encompasses 132 school districts and almost over 630,000 female students

“I would like to see that the supplies are available, just like other supplies that we keep in the bathroom,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, the legislation’s chief patron.

An earlier version of the bill applied the stipulation to the aforementioned schools where at least 40% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. 

Boysko introduced the bill to make it more convenient for students to access menstrual products and help them avoid accidents.

“This is a necessity and girls can't carry out their school day without it,” Boysko said. “Some girls are missing school time and end up going home and missing classes because of these kinds of challenges.”

According to Boysko, school budgets currently cover menstrual product expenses, but they are often kept in the nurse’s office, making it inconvenient for students. 

Karen Keys-Gamarra believes menstrual products need to be more accessible at Fairfax County Public Schools, where she is a school board member.

“We typically provided menstrual supplies in the nurse's office, which was, in my opinion, inappropriate in that we were treating this bodily function as something you need to see a nurse for,” Keys-Gamarra said. 

The district began a pilot program last fall providing free menstrual products in school bathrooms to improve access to menstrual products. 

Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Dignity Act sponsored by Boysko, which standardized taxes on hygiene products, such as pads, tampons and diapers to 2.5% statewide, in effort to make feminine hygiene products more affordable. The tax previously varied from 2.5% to 7%, depending on the part of the state.

“The essential nature of personal health care products is not up for debate and I commend the General Assembly for coming together to ensure these savings for Virginians,” Northam said at the time in a press release.

Boysko also introduced a bill this session to eliminate the tax on menstrual products. 

“Women don't have a choice about these products. They've been treated just like any other luxury product,” Boysko said. “There are a lot of people who feel like it's actually an unfair taxation on women.”

Menstrual products are not covered by government grocery assistance programs, and some families can't afford sanitary products.

“There are students here in Virginia, and all over the world, who are not able to get to school because they don’t have the products, they can’t afford them,” Boysko said during the committee meeting. 

Four states, California, Illinois, New York and New Hampshire, currently require schools to provide free menstrual products in women’s bathrooms. Boysko hopes to make Virginia the fifth state to have that requirement. 

Boysko believes the House will pass the bill. Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, sponsored a similar House bill.

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