Spring 2020 Capital News Service

VCU details August return with in-person, online courses, free COVID-19 testing

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Commonwealth University's fall semester classes are slated to begin Aug. 17 with a mixture of in-person, hybrid and online courses, per a release from President Michael Rao on Tuesday.

Students received updated information to their VCU emails on Wednesday morning regarding courses and resources available to “navigate any changes.” 

“We recognize that not every member of our community has equal access to the technology, support, and personal space that makes remote learning possible,” Rao said. “We will leave no one behind because our mission needs the vital perspectives and clear voice of all of us.”

The release stated that to ensure a safe return to campus, every member of the VCU community must adhere to safety guidelines like social distancing, wearing masks, disinfecting spaces and frequent hand-washing.

The university will provide masks, hand sanitizer and other items to help students and employees stay healthy. Before returning to campus, all students and faculty members will complete online safety protocol training and undergo daily health assessments. 

Students who plan to live on campus must test negative for COVID-19 before moving in. On-campus housing is available to students enrolled in both in-person and online classes, and online-only courses do not break a student housing contract, per VCU Residential Life and Housing. Students can cancel fall-semester housing contracts by visiting this site

The Graduate hotel at 301 W. Franklin St. is listed as a residence hall for first-year students. Honors College students can choose to stay in either the hotel or the Gladding Residence Center. The Honors College Residence Hall will hold low-acuity patients for VCU Health Systems during the academic year.

Students will receive move-in details through their VCU emails by the week of July 20. VCU will provide COVID-19 testing kits for students moving on campus. Non-residential students and employees with COVID-19 symptoms will also receive free testing. Asymptomatic students and employees will receive COVID-19 testing for an undetermined fee.

“This is, and will continue to be, a time of necessary adherence to safety measures and to supporting our classmates and colleagues. This includes continued access to mental health resources,” Rao stated. “And it includes remaining flexible and recognizing that our circumstances and plans may change, and we all may need to adapt to the changing situations around us.”

Virtual appointments and other mental health resources are available to students at the Health Promotion and Well-Being Center and University Counseling Services

Additional information from VCU on COVID-19 and fall semester can be found at together.vcu.edu/protocols.

Health Care Providers Fear Cancellation of Telehealth Coverage After Pandemic Ceases

 
 
By Rebecca Elrod
 
FAIRFAX, Va. --- Meg Fregoso, a nurse practitioner, used to see patients who previously had a lung transplant at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Now she uses telehealth to meet patients. 
 
Fregoso is one of many health care providers offering more telehealth services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, providers are concerned that they will no longer be reimbursed for these services once coronavirus restrictions are lifted. 
 
The coverage of telehealth for physical therapy services was rare before COVID-19, according to Kara Gainer, director of regulatory affairs at the Alexandria-based American Physical Therapy Association. Now, Medicare and most insurance companies are covering more telehealth services due to the coronavirus, Gainer said. 
 
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expanded Medicare coverage due to COVID-19, according to the organization’s website. However, the agency will reduce payments, on Jan. 1, 2021, to more than three dozen categories of health care providers, according to APTA.
 
Challenges still remain for physical therapists as many are uncertain about payment, according to a survey done by the APTA
 
Gainer works with different groups, such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, to advocate for the continuation of coverage for health care providers. 
 
“Everyone would be supportive of receiving reimbursement for telehealth services at the same rate as receiving reimbursement for in-person services,” Gainer said.  
 
Reimbursement is the payment that health insurers send to health care providers for giving a medical service, according to an article by Verywell Health, a website that provides health information.
 
In the past, Inova considered using telehealth to treat post lung transplant patients, Fregoso said. However since most insurance providers didn’t reimburse this type of service, it wasn’t commonly used. Now, Fregoso and other providers are reimbursed for telehealth visits.
 
“With everything with COVID, it became kind of critical,” Fregoso said.
 
Telehealth uses technology like  messages, phone calls and live video conference meetings to provide health care services, according to the American Telemedicine Association.
 
Jade Bender-Burnett, a physical therapist who serves patients with spinal cord and brain injuries at NeuroPT in Falls Church, used telehealth to serve patients before COVID-19 and has continued to use it. Bender-Burnett spoke about how COVID-19 made telehealth more accessible. 
 
“One of our biggest barriers to providing virtual treatment sessions has always been reimbursement,” Bender-Burnett said.

Some patients, like Kathy Lindsey, find telehealth appointments more beneficial than visiting the doctor in-person. Lindsey sees an endocrinologist in Fairfax County. She began using telehealth to see her endocrinologist because of COVID-19.

Given the option she would like to continue using telehealth services because it is convenient and efficient, Lindsey said. 

Telehealth’s more prominent role in health care will make private insurance companies and Medicare likely continue to cover these services, according to Gainer. Congress will have to act to ensure continued coverage because the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services does not have the authority to make the coverage permanent, Gainer said. 

Legislation has been introduced that would make telehealth coverage permanent for therapy providers, according to Gainer. It is likely the discussion regarding telehealth and introduction of other bills will occur in Congress in the coming months, Gainer said.

“The landscape is forever changed,” Gainer said.

Reopen Virginia Protesters Bombard Capitol With Honks

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Horns blared and flags waved from vehicle windows as hundreds of Virginians converged Wednesday on Capitol Square to protest restrictions implemented by Gov. Ralph Northam during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Protesters reiterated the message of similar demonstrations taking place in state capitals across the country. The groups hope to influence governors and lawmakers to scale back strict social distancing guidelines and allow businesses and churches to reopen.

“At first we were compliant,” said protester David Decker. “Now it seems like it’s being forced upon us more and more, and we’re absolutely sick of it.”

Many protesters said they disagree that liquor stores are considered an essential business, while many smaller businesses were ordered to close.

“I am against any policy that gives liberty to a corporation over the citizens,” said Jeffery Torres. “Corporations get their interests served while the interests of citizens get ignored.”

A small group of around 20 people -- some brought the entire family -- gathered near the Capitol Square entrance. Few wore masks or observed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggested social distancing recommendation of 6 feet of space.

Virginia imposed strict social distancing guidelines in late March. Northam issued a series of executive orders closing nonessential businesses and outlining which businesses could remain open. The stay at home order was later extended until June 10. Restaurants closed dining rooms and shifted to carry-out and delivery only. Recreational and entertainment facilities were shuttered, along with beauty salons, spas, massage parlors and other nonessential establishments. Essential businesses such as grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, pet and feed stores, electronic and hardware retailers and banks can remain open.

The Virginia Department of Health reports approximately 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the commonwealth as of Wednesday. Northam and health officials maintain that social distancing is keeping cases from skyrocketing.

Unemployment claims have had a dizzying ascent, with the Virginia Employment Commission reporting on April 16 that 410,762 claims were filed since March 21. 

The event was not without counter protesters, among them Dr. Erich Bruhn, a surgeon from Winchester. Bruhn wore a facemask and carried a sign that read, “You have no right to put us all at risk, go home.”

“I came out here today to tell the other side that the majority of people do not agree with this,” Bruhn said. “We want the economy to open up, but it is just too soon according to most scientists.”

As the interview with Bruhn was wrapping up, a female protester leaned out of her car window and shouted at Bruhn, “How long are we supposed to stay inside?”

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who has announced her intent to run for governor next year, voiced support for the rally. 

“There will be a number of people at this rally, and it has been well publicized,” Chase said during a Facebook livestream. “I think it sends a great message to the governor to reopen Virginia in a smart, wise way.” 

Protesters drove around the Capitol perimeter honking their horns for three hours. The event coincided with the General Assembly reconvening to respond to Northam’s vetoes and amendments. The House of Delegates, which met under a tent on Capitol grounds, was bombarded by the ongoing ruckus. There were no incidents of violence reported, though one Capitol police officer joked he had a headache from all the noise.

‘Never really off the clock’: Bringing the Newsroom Home During COVID-19

Marc Davis, sports director at NBC12, is working remotely and has adapted to working from home and using the social distancing guidelines while doing his job.

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Marc Davis closes his laptop in his one-bedroom apartment and turns on the television. His day at work is over, but his work mind hasn’t shut off. His office for the time being, like many in America, is in the kitchen.

Davis, the sports director at NBC 12 (WWBT-TV) in Richmond, said on a normal day when he’s not at work he checks his phone periodically just to keep an eye on the developing news. Now, since he’s working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, separating work and home has become more difficult.

“The days feel longer,” Davis said. “You can’t really separate that work space from home space.”

His station started telework almost five weeks ago and Davis found ways to take his mind off work: putting the phone down across the room and playing a game of MLB The Show or spending time with his girlfriend.

“I’ve just been making sure that I get the time to myself when I’m not working,” Davis said. “Just kind of tune out work for a little bit instead of constantly looking at my phone or Twitter or something like that.”

Davis is like many other reporters in Virginia and around the nation working from home during the coronavirus outbreak. Wayne Epps Jr., the Virginia Commonwealth University sports beat writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, has worked from home for the past month.

Epps said the transition has been smooth, partly because he’s used to working remotely from games.

“The fortunate thing for me and some other writers is that we did work from home or away from the office [at arenas, for example] often anyway, so we already had everything we needed to work from home,” Epps wrote in a Twitter direct message.

Epps has conducted all of his interviews over the phone or used Zoom to respect the social distancing guidelines.

Since sports ground to a halt, reporters have come up with creative stories and segments. Davis has covered sports angles in the coronavirus stories. When Home Team Grill in Richmond closed due to the pandemic, Davis used it as a way to show how the NCAA men’s basketball tournaments help drive local business.

“As a sports guy, you’ve got to be able to adjust and be flexible and show that you can do different things and different types of journalism,” Davis said.

Epps and the Richmond Times-Dispatch sports department have chronicled different sports rivalries in Virginia since there are no games occurring.

After returning to Richmond from Brooklyn, New York, where he was covering the Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament, Davis jumped in to help the news department with its coronavirus coverage.

Davis hadn’t covered non-sports news in years, but he used his experience as a news photographer from his first year in the television business.

“You’re dealing with different topics, different things, people who may be a little more sensitive to the topic you’re talking about,” Davis said. “There’s a lot we do in sports that can also apply to news as well.”

Davis made news packages for two weeks, helping with the coronavirus coverage. Then, he went back to making sports packages, but tied them back to the coronavirus, including how coronavirus has impacted a local gym.

Davis follows guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control, and conducts most interviews through video conferencing applications such as Zoom or FaceTime. Davis said he wasn’t fond of virtual interviews before the COVID-19 pandemic, opting to do his interviews in person.

Now, he leaves it up to the interview subject to decide if they want to do it online or in person.

“I will do whatever makes you comfortable,” Davis said. “It’s probably going to change the ways I have when it goes back to normal, being open [to virtual interviews].”

Davis said he conducted five interviews using video conferencing in a week alone.

Davis doesn’t know when things will return to normal and he can return back to his desk, but for now he’s working to balance work and home life.

“We work in a business that you never really turn off,” Davis said. “Stories are always happening, there’s always things to keep an eye on. You might get home, but you’re never really all the way off the clock.”

Some lawmakers view minimum wage delay as lesser of two evils

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va -- Labor advocates and Virginia legislators worried the recently passed bill to increase minimum wage might die during the reconvened General Assembly session Wednesday.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s amendment deferred the start date of the original bill by four months in response to the economic blow dealt to the state from the coronavirus pandemic. The recommendation was one of many made to trim the $135 billion, two-year budget passed in the spring. Republican lawmakers wanted to reject the amendment in order to stall the passage of the bill and have the governor amend it further.

During the relocated Senate floor session held at the Science Museum of Virginia, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, argued that now is a risky time to consider raising the minimum wage given the COVID-19 crisis. He said the legislature should reject the governor’s recommendation and send the bill back for reconsideration.

“Voting ‘no’ on this amendment keeps this issue alive,” Obenshain said. “It sends it back to the governor, and the governor has one more chance to do what’s right, not just for businesses, but for workers.”

Lawmakers who oppose minimum wage increases argued that those working minimum wage jobs in Virginia are young people entering the workforce, not people trying to support families. Other legislators pointed to the essential workers now serving the public from the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, many of whom make minimum wage. 

“Quite frankly I find it hard to believe we’ve got people in here who don’t think somebody working full time in any job should earn at least $19,600 a year,” said Senate majority leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax. “There’s no one in here … that would work for that kind of wage. No one.”

There were impassioned pleas from several House members to accept the recommendation instead of risking the bill being vetoed, though one delegate voiced resentment at having to make the choice. Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, said the COVID-19 crisis has spotlit “one of the most glaring contradictions in our economy” -- that workers paid the least are often deemed most essential to society.

“We are saying to these people ‘you are not worth a pay raise come January,’” Carter said. “I’m not gonna fault anyone that votes ‘yes’ on this, for taking the sure thing four months later rather than taking the chance, but if that’s what we’re gonna do ... I can’t be any part of it.” Carter did not cast a vote on the amendment.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, said that some legislators’ notion that families don’t depend on minimum wage is a myth.

“I’m glad they acknowledge that there are people in Virginia who cannot live off minimum wage,” Guzman said. “Actually, what they do is they get a second job, or a third job in order to make ends meet.” Guzman immigrated to the U.S. from Peru at the age of 18 and worked three jobs to afford a one bedroom apartment.

The House of Delegates voted 49-45 to accept Northam’s amendment to their bill. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax made the tie-breaking Senate vote when its version ended in a 20-20 tie.

The identical bills, introduced by Sen. Saslaw and Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, originally would have raised the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 per hour on Jan. 1, 2021. The governor’s amendment pushes the start to May 1, 2021.

The wage will then increase to $11 in 2022, $12 in 2023 and by another $1.50 in 2025 and 2026. Every subsequent year the bill is to be re-amended to adjust the minimum wage to reflect the consumer price index.

Virginia’s cost of living index is very close to the national average, but it ranks in the top four among states where the minimum wage equals the federal rate of $7.25, according to an analysis of data from the Missouri Economic Research and Development Center.

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said now is not the time for Virginia to turn its back on low wage workers.

“We have been fighting for a decade to push for people who are working hard to make ends meet, to support their families and to be able to do so with dignity,” Scholl said. “That’s what raising the minimum wage is about.”

Northam signs bill to regulate ‘Wild West’ CBD market

By Jeffrey Knight, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed a bill that would define hemp extract, such as CBD, as food and usher in state regulations on these products. 

Senate Bill 918, patroned by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, will help guide the budding industrial hemp industry in Virginia by regulating facility conditions and requirements for the production of hemp-derived products intended for human consumption. 

This bill also allows the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to regulate and enforce certain standards for hemp extract, including labeling requirements, identifying contaminants and batch testing.

Charlotte Wright, a hemp farmer based in Brunswick County and owner of the CBD business Hemp Queenz, said she feels encouraged by Marsden’s bill. 

“It gives validity to the CBD industry,” Wright said. “Right now, there is no testing required, no labeling, you have no idea what is in it. It’s like the Wild West.” 

However, Wright is worried about the federal law and said keeping to that level of THC makes it difficult to produce competitive CBD products. 

Hemp plants can not exceed THC levels of 0.3% or they must be destroyed, which complies with federal standards. THC is the intoxicating component in marijuana. CBD, also found in marijuana and hemp plants, does not cause a high and is used for a wide variety of treatments from anxiety to pain relief, according to a report from the World Health Organization.

The hemp plant produces significantly low THC levels and high CBD levels, according to the WHO report. Hemp, a relative of the marijuana plant, is used for a variety of things from making fibers to beauty products. CBD also has various applications; it can be used for edibles, oils and oral supplements. 

“If we go over the limit, we have wasted all of our time and money,” Wright said. “It is ridiculous to argue over seven-tenths of a percent when any hemp farmer can easily grow a crop that is under 1% total THC. You can’t easily grow a crop that is under 0.3%.”

Wright said the longer the hemp plant grows, the more CBD and THC it produces. A higher CBD percentage will make the product more valuable.

“To get those relevant CBD percentages up over 13% or 14%, you have to leave it in longer, the longer you leave the plant in the ground, that THC number creeps up,” Wright said. “After all is said and done, that seven-tenths of a percent isn’t going to impair anyone anyway.” 

Since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp has been removed from the definition of marijuana and taken out of the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp can currently be grown, processed and distributed by licensed individuals in most states. 

However, under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it is illegal to add CBD or hemp products to food or market them as a dietary supplement. 

Currently, the only pharmaceutical drug containing CBD that has been approved by the FDA is Epidiolex, which treats two rare, severe forms of epilepsy in young children. There are no over-the-counter CBD products that are approved by the FDA. 

“If the FDA does not start approving CBD products people are going to take them without regulation,” said Kyle Shreve, executive director of the Virginia Agribusiness Council. “That’s what the bill says, we are going to treat them like they are approved by the FDA so we can start regulating them.”

Shreve said it’s important to add another viable cash crop for agribusiness in the state. 

“Right now we are losing tobacco and dairy farms in the commonwealth, so it is another opportunity for Virginia producers to diversify and grow something that would help sustain their business,” Shreve said. 

During the 2019 growing season, approximately 1,200 registered industrial hemp growers planted around 2,200 acres of hemp in Virginia, according to Erin Williams, VDACS senior policy analyst. As of April 10, there were 1,280 active industrial hemp grower registrations, 357 processor and 219 dealer registrations. 

“I think it has a strong future,” Marsden said about the hemp industry in Virginia. “We just need to regulate it and hold other states to our standards.”

Marsden said over-the-counter CBD products like those sold at gas stations or convenience stores might not have CBD in them at all and could contain harmful ingredients. 

“We can’t have inferior products coming in from other states,” Marsden said. “We are going to try to do a good job with this stuff and it is up to VDACS to make sure other states don’t ruin our market with crap.”

Three bills were signed by the governor recently regulating industrial hemp in Virginia. One of those bills, House Bill 962, introduced by Del. Daniel Marshall III, R-Danville, regulates smokable hemp products for those over 21 and allows the sale of these products in vending machines. 

The governor also approved SB 1015 which protects certain people involved with the state’s medical cannabis program expected to begin this year. SB 2 and HB 972 decriminalize possession of certain amounts of marijuana and allows for the expungement of a prior misdemeanor offense. Northam recommended changes to the decriminalization bill that would still need to be approved when lawmakers reconvene on April 22. One recommendation is to move the deadline for a legislation study back to 2021 and another proposes that a marijuana violation occurring during the operation of a commercial vehicle would be included on the driver’s Department of Motor Vehicles record.

How Va. grocery stores practice safety amid coronavirus, sales uptick

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia grocery stores have increased efforts to keep stores clean and safe while they remain open to provide essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order as coronavirus cases quickly multiplied in the commonwealth. Grocery stores, considered essential businesses without restrictions, are implementing new service measures as sales spike during the coronavirus outbreak.

 Kroger is cleaning commonly used areas multiple times an hour including cashier stations, self-checkouts, credit card terminals, conveyor belts and food service counters. Beginning April 7, Kroger will limit the number of customers to 50% of the building code's calculated capacity to allow for proper physical distancing in stores and also plans to add plexiglass. 

Ellwood Thompson’s, a natural food market in Richmond, has upped cleaning practices, closed the salad, hot bar and dining room, and places wax paper throughout the store where there are shared surfaces.The store also provides customers with hand sanitizer stations through the store and no outside food containers are allowed. 

“We are sanitizing all bathrooms, door handles and every touchpoint each hour,” wrote Colin Beirne, marketing director at Ellwood Thompon’s in an email response. Food Lion announced that by the end of the week plexiglass shields at customer service, register and pharmacy counters will be installed at all locations.

Many grocery stores are attempting to prioritize those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Food Lion, Ellwood Thompson’s, Publix and all Mid-Atlantic Kroger locations have allowed customers above the age of 60 or who are immunocompromised to exclusively shop when stores are cleanest and least crowded. 

“Protecting our most vulnerable neighbors is important to us, so special hours are being reserved for this group,” said Food Lion President Meg Ham in a statement to customers. “These special shopping hours will remain in effect until further notice.”

Not all food markets are reserving certain hours for vulnerable demographics. Wegmans, a grocery store with several locations in Virginia, explained on its website that the elderly are not the only population susceptible to the virus. The company said it doesn’t believe it's a good idea to put highly susceptible people together in one location. 

“There are many wonderful people and community services in every market who can serve as a resource for those who fall in these susceptible populations,” Wegmans stated. “Any customer requiring additional assistance accessing our products or services should visit the service desk.”

Wegmans takes precautions such as markers on the floor to instruct shoppers where to stand for proper social distancing and the checkout belts are sanitized between each customer. 

Stores have modified the hours of operation to allow additional time for cleaning and restocking. Ellwood Thompson’s, Publix, and Harris Teeter now close at 8 p.m., Kroger and Wegmans close at 10 p.m. and Food Lion locations close based on regional curfews that may be implemented. 

Retail food markets are expected to gain substantial revenue from lifestyle changes related to COVID-19. Karen Short, managing director at British multinational investment bank Barclays PLC, told Winsight Grocery Business that between $61 billion and $118 billion is projected to shift from restaurants to grocery stores during the second quarter of 2020. 

Grocery retailers are adding tens of thousands of new employees nationwide. Kroger announced in late March that they hired 23,500 new workers with plans to hire an additional 20,000 in coming weeks.

Grocery store employees have been deemed as essential workers during the pandemic. As demand for their services rises and food retail revenue increases, many grocery store workers have been offered additional benefits. 

Wegmans boosted employee hourly pay rate $2 through March and April. Harris Teeter, which has several locations across Virginia, is offering employees a one-time bonus of $300 for every full-time associate along with a $2 per hour wage increase for its employees through April 21. Kroger workers will be receiving an extra $2 per hour for hours worked March 29 through April 18 in addition to $25 for groceries.

Efforts have also been taken to protect workers from contracting COVID-19. Harris Teeter has provided protective shields at counters and requires customers with reusable bags to pack their own items. At Food Lion, workers may choose to wear protective face masks. Kroger is expecting to give their employees gloves and face masks for protection by the end of the week.

Restaurants are permitted to remain open for takeout, delivery or drive-thru services. Other establishments have come up with creative ways to continue sales. Breweries are doing home delivery and some farmer's markets are accepting pre-orders for weekend pickup.

Non-essential businesses can remain open as long as they adhere to social distancing guidelines of a 10 patron limit. The stay-at-home order is effective until June 10. Failing to comply is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Coronavirus fund distributes more than $1 million in grants to Central Virginia organizations

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Funds are being released from a collective, $4.2 million pool intended to help groups provide resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Twenty-five regional organizations are receiving more than $1.1 million in grants. The grantees fall under four categories: safety net clinics, food access organizations, housing and education. 

The pool of money was created through a partnership between the Community Foundation and the Emergency Management Alliance of Central Virginia, a group of professionals that aims to help local residents dealing with disasters, according to the organizations’ sites. The fund, dubbed the Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund, was activated in March with an initial gift from the Community Foundation, a Richmond-based organization that manages more than 1,000 charitable funds. 

The fund has raised more than $4.2 million to date from foundations, businesses and individuals across the region, the partners said. An advisory committee will review and distribute grants from the fund on a rolling basis. 

The fund is currently focused on providing support for those most likely to contract the virus or those whose health could be further compromised because of barriers to food access, healthcare or stable shelter. 

“We are currently targeting those on the frontline that need to pivot and adapt quickly to an ever-increasing demand for their services,” Scott Blackwell, chief community engagement officer at the Community Foundation, said in a news release

The groups came together in September 2018 to create a disaster relief fund, according to Sherrie Armstrong, president and CEO for the Community Foundation. With the fund already in place, the two groups activated the COVID-19 response in March and began raising money. 

Organizations receiving grants in the food access category include FeedMore, Neighborhood Resource Center and Sacred Heart Center. The FeedMore funding will support staffing at the organization’s community kitchen, while Sacred Heart Center’s money will provide food, baby formula, hygiene supplies and other necessities. 

Health related organizations receiving aid include Daily Planet Health Services, Jewish Family Services, Richmond Academy of Medicine and YWCA of Richmond. The grants will help with a range of causes, ranging from the production of protective face masks for essential workers to support for a COVID-19 testing site for homeless individuals.

 Richmond Public Schools’ grant will go toward the purchase of 10,000 Chromebooks for students who need them to access education while schools are closed. Armstrong predicted that the RPS funding will ensure “that everyone has access to the internet and technology with everything that’s going on.”

The United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg is providing $100,000 in matching dollars to incentivize new donations made through United Way’s website. The organization was involved in the early conversations of where a fund “might live,” according to James Taylor, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg. As needs continued to grow in Central Virginia, United Way wanted to be “good partners” to help in relief efforts.

“As the response began from a fundraising standpoint, it became clear that the needs were going to continue to grow,” Tayor said. 

 There are 6,171 COVID-19 cases in Virginia as of April 14. There have been 154 deaths and 978 hospitalizations, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The relief is designed to be flexible and to complement other resources and responses at the national, state and local levels, organizers said. 

The fund is not taking formal applications, but nonprofits and public agencies can share their needs through this form, according to the Community Foundation’s site. Individuals seeking help are encouraged to call 211 or visit 211Virginia.org for a curated list of local social services.

Va. governor signs $50 per month insulin cap

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed a bill to cap the costs of prescription insulin copays at $50 per month, one of the lowest caps in the country.

House Bill 66, sponsored by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, originally aimed to cap the costs of prescription insulin copays at $30 per month. By the time the bill passed the Senate, the cap was amended to $50 per month. 

Cheers and applause roared through the chamber when the bill seemed poised to unanimously pass the House, until a lone delegate changed their vote and groans replaced the cheers. But they still had something to celebrate ––Virginia will have the country’s fourth lowest insulin cap.

“For people that have diabetes, they tend to be on anywhere from five to eight medications. So even if they have good health insurance, paying copays anywhere from $5 or $10 per prescription adds up very quickly,” said Evan Sisson, professor at the VCU School of Pharmacy and vice-chairperson of the Virginia Diabetes Council. “So to be able to cap [insulin] is a huge benefit for patients.”

 The Virginia Department of Health estimated in 2017 that 631,194 or 9% of Virginians have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. 

The bill prohibits health insurance providers from charging a copay over $50 for a one-month supply, or from allowing or requiring a pharmacy to charge any more. The bill incorporates HB 1403, which was introduced by Del. James A. Leftwich, R-Chesapeake, and shares the same wording as Carter’s bill, but the copay amount was capped at $100.

“This bill is aimed at providing relief for those folks who have health insurance but can’t afford to use it, that is a vast swath of Virginia's population,” Carter said during a Senate committee hearing. 

Insulin prices have risen so much in recent years that some diabetics have resorted to rationing their insulin or traveling to Canada where the drug is much cheaper. According to Sisson, for someone with diabetes, especially Type 2, a lack of insulin can lead to major complications, and even be a matter of life or death.

“What the body does is it kicks into looking for other sources of energy other than glucose, and it starts to produce more fat,” Sisson said. “If you have more fat floating in the bloodstream, then you end up with more hardening of the arteries of atherosclerosis. What that means is you have higher blood pressure, and higher risk of heart attack or stroke.” 

According to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, approximately 30 million Americans suffer from diabetes, with that number increasing by about 1.5 million every year.

Prior to the advent of insulin in the 1920s, someone diagnosed with diabetes was expected to die in a matter of months, with restrictive dieting extending that to as long as a couple of years. When Canadian researchers completed the development of insulin in 1922, they sold the patent to the University of Toronto for $1, hoping that everyone who was affected by diabetes would be able to benefit from the life-saving drug. 

Since then, the price has constantly increased, dramatically so over the past few decades. In 2009, a 10 milliliter vial of insulin cost between $90 and $100. Today, that same vial will cost between $250 and $300, even though little about the drug has changed.

When HB 66 was sent to the governor only two other states in the U.S. had hard caps for insulin copays. The first to introduce one was Colorado in May 2019, and the second was Illinois in January, both states have their caps at $100 per month. 

In March, governors of six other states signed legislation capping the price of insulin. New Mexico, Utah and Maine set their caps lower than Virginia’s at $25, $30 and $35, respectively. West Virginia, Washington and New York will set caps at $100.

The new cost in Virginia will be reflected in insurance plans starting Jan. 1, 2021, coinciding with plans purchased during the next round of open enrollment, Carter wrote on Twitter. He added, “The fact that it had to be done this way is a reflection of how generally screwed up our healthcare system is.”

Workers urge Northam to sign minimum wage bill

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Workers and advocates are urging Gov. Ralph Northam to sign a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 at the start of next year. The General Assembly will reconvene on April 22, and lawmakers will reevaluate recently passed legislation as the state’s economy takes a blow and unemployment climbs during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Northam and state leaders anticipate the state’s economy will suffer a major hit from the coronavirus outbreak. Northam didn’t respond directly whether he is considering delaying the increase in minimum wage when asked at a recent press conference. 

“There are a number of pieces of legislation that we are looking at regarding our business environment, and I haven’t made any definite decisions, but we are talking to the patrons of those pieces of legislation,” Northam said. The governor said he will “make a decision in the best interest of Virginia and the best interest of our economy.”

Workers on the front lines of essential businesses continue to serve the public during the COVID-19 outbreak, including many workers who earn minimum wage–currently $7.25 in Virginia. 

Employees at a Virginia Kroger grocery store and Amazon distribution center recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Many essential workers have asked for an increase in pay to reflect the increased need for their services and the elevated risks they take while working. 

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, an advocacy organization, said that raising the minimum wage is necessary to allow these workers to raise their families with dignity. 

“That’s especially true now when grocery store workers, delivery drivers, home health aids and so many more are going to work for low wages and putting themselves at risk of getting sick so that we can stay home and healthy,” Scholl said in a press release. 

The group is asking Northam to sign House Bill 395 into law without amendments or delays that would water down the bill. HB 395 would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 in 2021, $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023. The minimum wage could go up to $15 by 2026, if approved by the General Assembly. 

Some essential workers also argue that they are not being provided adequate protective gear and supplies to keep them safe from the coronavirus, another reason they are pushing for guaranteed wage increase.

Lisa Harris works at Kroger in Mechanicsville and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. She has been with Kroger for 13 years and said in a press conference organized by Progress Virginia that she would benefit directly from HB 395. She is urging Northam to sign the bill with no weakening amendments. 

“I find it fascinating how fast grocery store workers like me have gone from being considered unskilled labor to being recognized as essential personnel,” Harris said. 

She compared workers dealing directly with an increasingly infected public to being on the front lines like first responders and said “it would be nice to be paid accordingly.” 

Harris said Kroger is not observing the proper social distancing recommendation of 6 feet or providing workers with personal protective equipment. She said the staff is required to wipe down the self checkout scanners and screens every half hour but argues that this is impossible with the influx of customers visiting the store. Harris said the staff is given Windex to clean equipment and not a proper disinfectant. The company has given full-time workers a $300 bonus and part-time workers a $150 pay boost, but that’s not enough money, Harris said. 

“It means barely being able to support myself, it means making tough decisions about whether to pay a bill or skip a meal, it means calling on my family members to help me as I’m attempting to be a fully enfranchised 31-year old,” Harris said. 

Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger, said the grocery chain provided all hourly workers with a $2 pay increase for hours worked March 29 through April 18. McGee also stated that all Kroger stores in the Richmond area have been provided with Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants to wipe down counters and cash registers. She said employees are required to wipe down surfaces frequently and extra hand sanitizer bottles have been provided at each checkout station.

“As far as PPE, we are encouraging our associates to wear protective masks and gloves, and we’re working hard to secure these resources for our associates,” McGee stated in an email. “Supply has started to arrive for our associates, and we anticipate all locations having personal protective equipment within the next several weeks.”

Kroger said on its website that they want healthcare workers to get a hold of protective gear before they can properly distribute it to their workers. For now employees have limited access to such PPE and are encouraged to use their own.

Beginning April 7, Kroger will also start to limit the number of customers to 50% of the building code's calculated capacity to allow for proper physical distancing in stores, the company announced this week.

Michael Cassidy, executive director of The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, said that the coronavirus is a reminder many essential workers are also minimum wage workers. 

“These individuals are providing a vital service to us right now and they deserve more than $7.25 an hour,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy said if the minimum wage increase were to go into effect in January, it would help 46,000 healthcare workers, 100,00 retail workers and over 100,000 restaurant and service industry workers. He said this would allow people to buy more and contribute to businesses and the economy as a whole. 

“That’s important because consumer spending is the foundation of our economy, it’s about 72% of Virginia’s gross domestic product,” Cassidy said. 

Del. Danica Roem said in a tweet that she is extremely disappointed to see groups advocating for bills like HB 395 to be watered down or delayed. 

“We’re $1.50/hr behind West Virginia right now,” Roem tweeted. “You don’t see an uprising of West Virginian business leaders demanding the government lower their minimum wage to match ours.” 

Cassidy said history shows that increasing the minimum wage during a recession has been successful in bringing the economy back.
HB 395 is currently pending signature by Northam with a deadline of April 11.

Northam delays upcoming elections; others push for November alternatives

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va -- Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that he is delaying the June congressional primaries by two weeks and is calling on the General Assembly to approve moving May elections to November.

“We have wrestled with our options and none of them are ideal or perfect,” Northam said. “Voting is a fundamental right, but no one should have to choose between protecting their health or casting a ballot.”

State legislators will have to sign off on the governor’s proposal to move the May local and special elections. Northam proposed that these races appear on the November ballot. All absentee ballots already cast would be discarded, the governor said. Additionally, those officials whose terms expire as of June 30 will continue in office until their successors have been elected in November.

The primary for Congressional races and a few local races has been postponed to June 23.

“As other states have shown, conducting an election in the middle of this global pandemic would bring unprecedented challenges and potential risk to voters and those who work at polling places across the Commonwealth,” Northam said.

Groups and state leaders have been calling for proactive measures such as mail-in voting for the upcoming Nov. 3 presidential election, fearing ongoing impact from the coronavirus pandemic. Virginia Democrats recently joined other Democratic groups nationwide calling on federal lawmakers to create voting alternatives for the presidential election due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

The groups are asking for provisions such as free or prepaid postage, allowing ballots postmarked by election day to count, in addition to extending early voting periods for in-person voting. Two possible alternatives to replace voting in person are mail-in and absentee ballots, according to Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg that specializes in media and elections.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, supports the idea of a universal mail-in ballot, regardless of the current pandemic. An MIT research study found that universal vote by mail cuts costs, increases turnout and improves election reliability. However, the success of these programs depends on transparency, accuracy and accessibility. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah have introduced mail-in only ballots.

“We need to take up this essential task of giving all Virginians an opportunity to participate in a safe and inclusive election,” Carroll Foy said in an email.The delegate recently filed paperwork to run for governor in 2021, according to the Virginia Mercury. 

Carroll Foy said the mail-in method is preferable to absentee voting because individuals need to opt in to register for absentee voting. Mail-in voting allows any registered voter to mail in their ballot without opting in, Carroll-Foy said. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states using the mail-in method mail ballots to every registered voter, while absentee ballots are first requested and voters must qualify to receive the ballot. 

“We want to make sure that everyone feels safe and secure in these uncertain times, and that their constitutional rights are protected and easily accessed -- mail in ballots are the best to achieve both,” Carroll Foy said. 

Farnsworth believes it’s unlikely that the November U.S. presidential election will be delayed, but said voters may see changes at the polls.

“Even for states that don't make the switch away from largely in-person voting, you can expect much greater opportunities for no-excuse-required early and absentee voting,” Farnsworth said. 

During the General Assembly 2020 session, legislators passed House Bill 1 to allow a no excuse requirement to vote absentee. This removes prior requirements such as work, illness or travel to justify requesting an absentee ballot. 

Farnsworth said a mail-in only option is the most likely alternative over traditional in-person voting if the nation is still on lockdown in November. 

According to Anna Scholl, executive director of advocacy group Progress Virginia, postponing elections is the right move for Virginia voters.

“Postponing elections is a serious decision but it is the right move for our communities,” Scholl stated in a news release. “We strongly encourage the General Assembly to ratify this plan when they meet on April 22nd.”

The deadline to have an absentee ballot mailed for the June primary is June 2. Absentee ballot request forms can be found at www.vote.virginia.gov.

Gun Group Asks Northam to Reopen Indoor Ranges as March Gun Sales Increase

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia gun owners are calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to remove indoor gun ranges from the list of non-essential businesses closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Meanwhile, this comes as background checks for firearm purchases saw double digit growth from February to March. The Second Amendment advocacy group Virginia Citizens Defense League said that indoor ranges aren’t places of entertainment, rather places where people can practice lifesaving skills. 

The group has rallied its supporters to urge Northam to reconsider the closing of indoor ranges, which are part of two recent executive orders requiring Virginians to stay at home and non-essential businesses to close until June 10.

 Under Northam’s orders gatherings of 10 or more people are prohibited. Indoor gun ranges, along with many other businesses deemed recreational and entertainment facilities, have been required to close. That includes racetracks and historic horse racing facilities, bowling alleys, arcades and movie theaters. Beauty salons, spas, massage parlors and other non-essential establishments that can’t keep people more than 6 feet apart must close. 

Essential businesses such as grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, pet stores, electronic and hardware retailers, and banks can remain open.

“The governor’s view of ranges is that they are for entertainment, or that has been what he has classified them as,” VCDL President Philip Van Cleave said. “Ranges are where people get to practice lifesaving skills, and there are so many new gun owners now that have realized that their safety is in their own hands.”

Gun sales have spiked in some areas around the nation since the COVID-19 outbreak began, according to NPR. In Virginia, gun stores conducted 83,675 background checks in March, a 20% increase over January and February data which were 68,420 and 67,257 respectively, according to FBI firearm background check statistics. Background checks are required for a purchase, but multiple firearms could be purchased for each background check.

Though Northam’s order does not designate firearm and ammunition retailers as essential retail businesses, they can remain open but must abide by the social distancing order and not allow more than 10 customers at a time.

The VCDL has sought legal counsel to push back against Northam’s executive order, deeming indoor gun ranges as non-essential businesses, Van Cleave said. William J. Olson, the organization’s lawyer, sent two letters to Northam. The first asked for the indoor ranges to be removed from the list of non-essential businesses, and the second notified the governor of the Department of Homeland Security guidance to list jobs at gun manufacturers, retailers and U.S. gun ranges as being part of the “essential critical infrastructure workforce.” 

Citing the silence from the governor’s office and the issuing of Executive Order 55, which extended the timeline businesses must remain closed, Van Cleave said the VCDL Board of Directors voted to advance a lawsuit to put a stay on the closure of indoor gun ranges.

“The Board of Directors voted, and we are going to move forward with the lawsuit, but I can’t give any further details at this time,” Van Cleave said Wednesday.

Colonial Shooting Academy in Henrico County closed its indoor shooting ranges to comply with Northam’s order. Peyton Galanti, Colonial Shooting Academy’s marketing department manager, said the decision to close should be left up to businesses and not the governor.

“A lot of people don’t know that indoor gun ranges are under a lot of scrutiny with a lot of different government departments anyways,” Galanti said. 

Galanti explained that indoor ranges like Colonial Shooting Academy have to meet guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to include proper ventilation of indoor ranges due to lead particulates that are released when a gun is fired.

 “The practices that we have on a daily basis are so much stronger than other businesses in terms of our cleaning standards on every level that we have to comply with.”

Van Cleave said that indoor ranges “can easily limit the number of people allowed” by putting an empty lane in between shooters to keep people several feet apart and comply with the governor’s order.

There are approximately 70 shooting ranges in Virginia, according to the National Rifle Association data. Northam’s order doesn’t include outdoor shooting ranges, though a majority of outdoor ranges require paid memberships. 

The VCDL also implored the governor to veto House Bill 264, which would require Virginians to take an in-person class and demonstrate competence with a firearm to obtain a concealed handgun permit, ending the current option to take an online class in order to qualify for such a permit.

“Applicants would be socially isolated, while still getting training. That would be impossible if HB 264 becomes law,” VDCL said in a newsletter.

 If signed by Northam, HB 264 would take effect Jan. 1, 2021.

From Fashion Design to Chemistry, Classes Adapt to Distance Learning

By Jimmy O’Keefe, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Students and teachers at all levels of education are transitioning from classroom to computer as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Not every subject lends itself to a smooth transition to distance learning, as students and instructors have discovered. 

“I think we’re all really frustrated,” said Jordyn Wade, a fashion design major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “But we know that our professors are doing what they can in a really unprecedented situation.” 

Wade said that she and her classmates are now meeting remotely through Zoom, a video conferencing platform. Zoom allows students to meet virtually during a time when people can’t meet physically, but distance learning poses challenges for courses that require more than a lecture, like art classes and lab components of science classes.

Students like Wade worked mostly with industrial grade equipment.

“We kind of rely heavily on the school for supplies like sewing machines and the industrial equipment that can cost thousands of dollars,” Wade said. “Now we just stare at each other and they ask us,‘What can you guys do? Can you hand sew an entire jacket before the end of the month?’”

Wade said that one of the most frustrating aspects of distance learning is not being able to receive direct feedback from professors.

“We can’t ask our professors what’s wrong with the garment that we’re making, we can just send them pictures and hope they can figure it out from afar,” Wade said. 

Chloe Pallak, a student in VCU’s art program said that many of her projects are being graded on whether or not they are complete. 

“To get a grade for an assignment, you just have to do it,” Pallak said. “It really takes away the motivation of wanting to make art and not just complete the assignment.” 

Courses that include lab components, such as classes in environmental science, also face challenges as classes move online. Griffin Erney, an environmental studies major at VCU, said that distance learning prevents students from accessing lab materials that are typically provided in the classroom. 

“Before the class was online we would just do different activities and be provided with the materials,” Erney said. “Having labs online is more challenging, on top of all the work that we already have.” 

On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an order that closed down all K-12 schools in the state for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. 

Davide D’Urbino, a chemistry and organic chemistry teacher at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County, said he plans on using computer applications to supplement labs that cannot be completed in the classroom. He said the school division requested that teachers hold off on introducing new learning material.

“The expectation was that you could teach new stuff, but then you have to go back in class and reteach it,” D’Urbino said.

D’Urbino said teachers aren’t allowed to teach new material online because some students may not have internet access. He said he understands why the school division has placed these restrictions but said it “feels weird.” 

Distance learning has also presented challenges to teachers trying to adapt to lecturing online. 

“Some people say teaching is 75 percent theater, you just go out there and do improv. You can’t really do that online,” D’Urbino said. “It’s very difficult to intervene and correct course if you realize something isn’t quite working out.”

Teachers have also scrambled for ways to continue instruction for students that lack access to the internet.

Janice Barton, a 5th grade science teacher at Honaker Elementary School in Russell County, said that about half of the 60 students she teaches have access to the internet. She said the school is using Google Classroom, a web platform that allows teachers to share files with students through the internet. For students without internet access, teachers create physical packets of learning content.

“We’re working as grade levels, we’re going in and working together to put the packets together,” Barton said. “We have pickup days and drop-off days, and that’s how we are working and dealing with this right now.”

Barton said the school uses phone calls, emails, and the app Remind, which allows teachers to send messages to students to keep in contact with parents and students. 

While local school divisions are tasked with making decisions on how to pursue distance learning, the Virginia Department of Education issued guidance to help divisions continue instruction. 

VDOE’s guidance to local school divisions includes offering instruction during the summer of 2020, extending the school term or adjusting the next, and adding learning modules to extended school calendars. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane issued guidance regarding eight high school senior graduation requirements and will be issuing further guidance for half of those, which can not be waived outright. 

Two other graduation requirements -- training in emergency first aid and the completion of a virtual course -- require action by the General Assembly in order to be waived.

Real ID deadline extended until 2021 amid coronavirus outbreak

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The deadline for Real IDs has been extended until October 2021. The move was prompted by widespread Department of Motor Vehicle customer service center closures during the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday.

The deadline for the IDs was Oct. 1. After the deadline, the licences will be required to access federal facilities, board domestic flights and enter nuclear power plants.

The application process must be completed in person, but Virginia has closed DMV customer service centers until April 2 to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. DMV closures and restricted access nationwide will prevent people from receiving Real IDs. Gov. Ralph Northam added a 60-day extension to any license or registration expiring before May 15.

“The federal, state and local response to the spread of the Coronavirus here in the United States necessitates a delay in this deadline,” acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said in a news release. “Our state and local partners are working tirelessly with the Administration to flatten the curve and, therefore, we want to remove any impediments to response and recovery efforts.”

A regular driver’s license can still be used for driving, voting and verifying identity. Real IDs are marked by a black or gold star symbol in the top-right corner of the license.

The Real ID application process requires multiple forms of identity, such as:

  • U.S. passport or birth certificate

  • Social security card or W-2 form displaying social security number

  • Two of the following: valid Virginia driver’s license, recent utility bills, mortgage statements or leasing agreements

  • Proof of name changes if applicable

Non-U.S. citizens must show proof of identification and legal presence, such as an unexpired passport and visa, permanent resident card or employment authorization document. Virginians who do not have a Real ID must have federally accepted identification, such as a passport, to board a domestic flight or enter a secured federal facility.

Farmville resident Ethan Bowman, who was left unemployed by the coronavirus outbreak when he was unable to start a new political marketing job, has not received a Real ID but said an extension will help him.

“I don't have a copy of my birth certificate,” Bowman said. “So I would have to get that somehow before the deadline.”

Right now, there are other things on Bowman’s mind. He said his two roommates are out of work due to the pandemic, and the two grocery stores in the town of 8,000 were low on food Wednesday.

“We sent my cousin out for food and he just sent a bunch of pictures back to our little group chat, and it was just empty shelves, everywhere,” Bowman said of the Walmart Supercenter in Farmville.

Casey Tharpe, a respiratory therapy major at Radford University Carilion, received a Real ID in January after an eight-hour day of computer issues at the DMV in South Boston.

“You just had to check this box for Real ID, but honestly I really have no use whatsoever for Real ID,” Tharpe said. “I've been on a plane once in my life.”

Wolf stated that extending the deadline would also allow the Department of Homeland Security to work with Congress and implement the “needed changes to expedite the issuance of Real IDs.”

Virginia schools closed remainder of term; some businesses ordered shut

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia will close public and private schools for the remainder of the academic year, Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday during a press conference. He also outlined stricter guidelines for which businesses can remain open.

The move, which applies to K-12 schools, is part of an executive order that goes into effect March 24 at 11:59 p.m. until April 23. 

"We have a health crisis and we have an economic crisis but the sooner that we can get this health crisis under control, the sooner that our economy can recover," Northam said. 

Currently, the state’s 1.3 million public school students are in the middle of a two-week break due to the coronavirus. With 254 positive cases in Virginia and seven confirmed deaths, the governor finds it best to practice social distancing because “social distancing matters everywhere,” he said. Northam encourages schools to use online tools to finish students’ education for the rest of the academic year.

“School closures are necessary to minimize the speed at which COVID-19 spreads and protect the capacity of our healthcare system,” Northam said.

Northam said school division leaders will officially decide how students will learn the information they were meant to cover for the remainder of the year. The Virginia Department of Education will issue guidance to help school divisions think through those decisions and ensure every student is served fairly, Northam said. VDOE will submit a waiver to the federal government to lift end-of-year testing requirements and is exploring options to waive state mandated tests, he said.

The governor also placed additional restrictions on businesses. Restaurants must close their dining rooms but can remain open for carry-out and delivery. Recreational and entertainment facilities—including racetracks and historic horse racing facilities, bowling alleys and theaters—must close. Beauty salons, spas, massage parlors and other non-essential establishments that can’t keep people more than 6 feet apart must close. Essential businesses such as grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, pet and feed stores, electronic and hardware retailers, and banks can remain open.

Autumn Carter, who has owned Red Salon Organics in Richmond for 20 years, said she has a loyal clientele. However, she is concerned about making lease payments and managing other business-related bills, with no new revenue. Her salon made the decision to close last week for two weeks, but did not anticipate shuttering business for this long.

“I agree with the governor’s decision but he has given us no debt relief and no guidance,” Carter said. “He has put us in a terrifying situation with no support.”

Public and private gatherings of more than 10 people are banned. Northam explained that local law enforcement could approach people gathering, say at beaches or the river, but that the goal isn’t to penalize people, “but to encourage people to do the right thing.” 

The governor noted that the commonwealth is moving into a period of sacrifice. Virginia had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, but Northam said that last week around 40,000 people filed for unemployment.

“We must put aside what we want and replace it with what we need,” he said.” It will require everyone to sacrifice.”

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.

Health insurers say they'll waive coronavirus testing fees; Trump, Congress weigh payroll, industry aid

By BRYAN GALLION and NICOLE WEINSTEIN, Capital News Service
 
WASHINGTON — Major health insurance companies will waive copayments for novel coronavirus testing, Vice President Mike Pence said at a briefing with firm executives and President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

“While the risk to the average American of contracting the coronavirus remains low, we want a full partnership with industry and give the American people all the information they need to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus,” said Pence, who’s chairing the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The companies at the table — which insure nearly 240 million Americans through private insurance and support of Medicare and Medicaid, according to Pence — will also extend coverage for treatment in benefit plans and telemedicine while avoiding surprise billing. 

“We have been very focused on ensuring access to care and that cost is not an issue for people to have the testing appropriately done,” Gail Boudreaux, president and CEO of Anthem Inc., said. “So we’re pleased that we’re able to continue to expand this access.”

Telemedicine options aim to aid the country’s vulnerable senior population, allowing them to receive the necessary care without visiting a hospital or their doctor. 

“I would just like to say as a large servicer of Medicare, that we are very oriented to the aging population, and most importantly, how do we make it as easy as possible for them to receive their tests,” Humana CEO Bruce Broussard said. 

Over 8,500 specimens have been tested for the coronavirus in the United States since Jan. 18, while the number of cases ticks up across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Almost 650 cases have been confirmed so far, and 25 people have died from the virus across the 36 U.S. jurisdictions that have been affected.

Some healthcare professionals and members of Congress have expressed worry that not enough tests are available nationwide. 

“We are very worried about the president’s incompetence and lack of focus on fighting the spread of coronavirus,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, told reporters. “We believe that his lack of focus is hamstringing efforts to address this public crisis and inflicting pain on the stock market.”

Pence said an additional 4 million tests are expected to be distributed this week on top of the more than 1 million that are ready at CDC and U.S. Public Health Labs.

Members of Congress grilled CDC Director Robert Redfield about the shortage of testing at a House Appropriations Committee labor and health subcommittee hearing. Redfield pointed out the growing capacity for testing now that clinical laboratory networks LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics can administer them.

“We have slowed the spread of COVID19 through the United States as a consequence of the positive impact of the investment in public health that there has been at the federal, state, local and tribal level,” Redfield said in his testimony.

As cases of the coronavirus multiplied, schools and universities announced plans to close or move to remote teaching, airlines continued cutting schedules and major events — like Washington’s Gridiron Spring Dinner, an annual gathering of media and political people — were canceled. 

Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, who are vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced they were scrubbing planned rallies.

And Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League issued a joint statement that they were closing their team locker rooms to reporters because of the virus threat.  

The administration and Congress also are exploring potential economic aid to industries that will be hit hard by a major consumer slowdown. 

Trump said his administration is working closely with the cruise line and airline industries as people are canceling their travel plans, instead opting to stay home to lessen their chances of coming in contact with the virus. 

“They’re taking very strong steps in terms of people going on and going off. But they’re spending a lot of money and they are working very hard...So we are working very closely with them,” the president said at the briefing. “We’re helping them. They’re two great industries, and we’ll be helping them through this patch.”

Congress has been working on an economic package to alleviate financial strains caused by coronavirus response.

The president, accompanied by National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow and Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin, pitched a temporary payroll tax cut to Senate Republicans on Tuesday afternoon. He had no updates to share on the path forward following the meeting.

“We just had a great meeting. Tremendous unity in the Republican Party,” Trump said. “And we’re working on a lot of different things.  We’ve also had some very good updates on the virus. That’s working out very smoothly.”

Mnuchin also met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to identify “common ground” on legislative efforts that would support people affected by the virus. 

Pelosi told reporters that the “nature of it was pleasant” and that conversations will continue. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said after the meeting that he’d let the pair handle a bipartisan agreement.

“The secretary of the treasury is going to have ball control for the administration and I expect that will speak for us as well,” McConnell told reporters. “We’re hoping that he and the speaker can pull this together.”

Virginia colleges react to coronavirus pandemic

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia colleges and universities are extending spring break and adapting online classes amid the new coronavirus — along with more than 100 universities nationwide and still counting — after the flu-like illness was declared a world pandemic on Wednesday.

There are nine presumptive positive COVID-19 cases in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Most of them are in Northern Virginia, with one confirmed case in Central Virginia.

Professors are quickly pivoting to get material online, and some schools, like Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, are offering resources to help teachers adjust. Many students have expressed concern over lack of digital equipment and internet access.

Most universities are cancelling events with more than 100 attendees and have online resources for students to access updated information. Many colleges have canceled in-person classes, but faculty and staff will continue to work on campus. Below is a sample of universities that have changed schedules to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. 

James Madison University will extend their spring break until March 23 and will teach online classes until April 5. JMU President Jonathan Alger said in a release that students will be updated on the remainder of the semester on March 27.

Longwood University will be closed until March 18, cancelling in-person classes and events following a presumptive positive diagnosis for a Longwood student on Wednesday. In a release, Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley said faculty would continue to prepare for the possibility of online classes.

Norfolk State University extended spring break until March 23 and will teach classes online until April 6. University residences will reopen March 22.

Old Dominion University will resume classes online on March 23 after an extended spring break. ODU President John Broderick said in a statement posted on Facebook that the school would monitor the situation and reassess on April 6. 

Radford University extended its spring break for an additional week and plans to teach online until April 17, according to the university’s website. The university – as most academic institutions are doing – asked that faculty, staff and students complete a voluntary travel declaration forms.

“The information will be shared with local health officials as needed on a case-by-case basis,” Radford President Brian Hemphill said in a release. “For those who traveled, the University may ask individuals to self-monitor or self-isolate for two weeks depending upon the locations that were visited and the activities that were engaged in.”

University of Richmond extended spring break, cancelling classes from March 16-20, and will hold online classes until at least April 3.

The school’s website states that students with extenuating circumstances, such as international students, can submit a petition to stay in on-campus housing although access to student services and facilities will be limited.

University of Virginia students will also move to online courses starting on March 19, according to a release from U.Va. President James Ryan posted on Wednesday.

“We will not be holding classes on Grounds for the foreseeable future, quite possibly through the end of the semester,” Ryan said in a release. “We will reassess after April 5 at the earliest and periodically after that date.”

Virginia Commonwealth University announced Wednesday that it will extend its spring break for an additional week. When the semester resumes on March 23, classes will be taught remotely for the “foreseeable future.” Classrooms are expected to use digital tools such as Blackboard, videoconferencing and online programs. 

The release from VCU President Michael Rao said details regarding on-campus housing, student services and dining plans are forthcoming.

“I also want to take this opportunity to thank you for being mindful and respectful of others during this outbreak, which is not limited to any particular age group, geographic region, nationality, ethnicity or race,” Rao said.

Virginia Tech’s spring break is extended to March 23, with a transition to online courses for the remainder of the semester. All events with over 100 people are cancelled through at least April 30, though May commencement plans are still in place. 

“Our campus administrators, public health experts, and community leaders have been continuously engaged in monitoring the situation in Blacksburg, across Virginia, and around the world,” a release stated. “In consultation with our partners in the Virginia Department of Health, we are adopting a range of principle-based actions, effective immediately.”

William & Mary will start online classes March 23, after an extended spring break, to continue until at least April 1. University events are cancelled until April 3.

Virginia State University announced Wednesday that it will cancel or modify all scheduled events for the next 30 days. Modifications include pre packaged options in dining halls and livestreams for events, like the Mr. and Miss VSU Pageant and student government activities. Christopher Newport University took a similar approach, by rerouting study abroad plans and limiting serve-served food, according to its website

A few colleges remain open at this time: Liberty, Regent and Hampton universities and Reynolds Community College.

As of Wednesday, there are 938 confirmed and presumed positive COVID-19 cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bulk of cases are in Washington, California and New York. The infection has caused 29 deaths in the states. Worldwide, more than 118,300 people have the infection, including over 80,900 individuals living in mainland China. The outbreak has killed 4,292, reported the World Health Organization.

For more information about COVID-19 in Virginia, visit www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus.

Bill to manage wildlife collision rate passes General Assembly

By Macy Pressley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly recently passed a measure that will create a plan to reduce wildlife-related vehicle accidents, though opponents tout the bill as an example of wasteful government spending.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, directs the Virginia departments of Game and Inland Fisheries, Transportation, and Conservation and Recreation to conduct a study to identify areas where wildlife habitat is fragmented by human development and roads with a high wildlife collision rate. 

Marsden said the measure, known as the Wildlife Corridor Action Plan, is intended to help prevent wildlife related car accidents. There were 61,000 such collisions reported in 2016, according to VDOT.

“People get killed in wildlife collisions, mostly with deer,” Marsden said. 

There were 211 deaths from such collisions in the United States, according to State Farm, which tracks deer-related insurance claims across the nation.

The bill would give the DGIF two years to complete a study. Marsden said that after the study is done, the General Assembly will look into building wildlife overpasses along roads identified as problem areas. He said wildlife overpasses were successfully implemented in Charlottesville. 

“They tried this on I-64 in Charlottesville and reduced wildlife collisions by 98%,” Marsden said. 

Ryan Brown, DGIF executive director, said the bill addresses a complex issue and is intended to protect wildlife in two ways. 

Brown said his department will work with other agencies to identify places where development has fragmented wildlife habitats and address the work needed to avoid human and wildlife conflict.

“Wildlife moves around and they don't read road signs,” Brown said. 

The agencies will identify wildlife corridors and study migration routes of native, game and migratory species using existing state data. They will assess human barriers such as roads, dams, power lines and pipelines and determine areas with a high risk of wildlife-vehicle collisions. The study will contain maps to detail such wildlife corridor infrastructure, as well as recommendations for creating safe wildlife crossings. Brown said options might include fencing along problem roads and bridge-like structures to assist wildlife with safe crossing.

Brown said this issue is likely to get worse over time. 

“As wildlife habitat becomes more and more fragmented in an urbanizing Virginia, that makes it difficult in terms of management of wildlife population,” he said. 

Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, voted against the bill. He said the measure would be too costly. 

“ I do not believe the legislation is needed and it will end up creating another bureaucratic process that will cost time and money for no real benefit,” Cole said in an email. “The government is very good at establishing needless bureaucratic hurdles.”

Marsden said the legislation is worthwhile, considering Virginia is one of the top states for wildlife collisions. In 2018, Virginia ranked 12th for deer collisions, with drivers facing a 1 in 99 chance of hitting a deer, according to data from State Farm.

“It’s good for the animals and the drivers,” Marsden said. “It’s worth the effort to save property and save lives.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

Bill removing race requirement in marriage records passes

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- When William Christiansen married his college sweetheart, he was disturbed that they had to disclose their race to the registrar, considering they are an interracial couple. 

“It reminded me and my wife of a time when interracial couples were unable to get married,” said Christiansen. “It's an unneeded reminder of the discriminatory practices that dominated the South during Jim Crow.”

Both chambers of the General Assembly passed legislation to eliminate the race requirement on the marriage license application. Under Senate Bill 62, married couples will not have to disclose their race when filing marriage records, divorce and annulment reports to the state registrar. 

The bill was introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke. The legislation moved through every committee and legislative chamber without opposition from any lawmaker. 

“Asking for race seems completely unrelated to whether a state should recognize a marriage,” Christiansen said. “It sends a signal that those in charge of policy related to marriage applications care little about removing the legacy of discriminatory practices of their predecessors.”

Under current law, the race of the marrying parties along with other personal data is filed with the state registrar when a marriage is performed in the commonwealth. 

A lawsuit filed in September 2019 sparked the bill after three Virginia couples refused to declare their race while applying for marriage. The lawsuit resulted in Attorney General Herring declaring that couples applying for marriages would not be forced to disclose their race to the registrar.

“This is another Jim Crow law that should have been out of the books and I’m so grateful that the younger generation isn't judging people based on color of skin,” said Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake.

In October 2019, a federal judge struck down the race requirement as unconstitutional. Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. found that the law violated due process under the 14th Amendment. Alston said the law didn’t hold scrutiny against the U.S. Constitution.

“This new generation is much different,” Spruill said. “During my time, whites and blacks were thought of more differently.”

Other measures to repeal antiquated state laws were introduced during the 2020 General Assembly session. The General Assembly passed legislation that removes the crime of premarital sex, currently a Class 4 misdeameanor. 

“We are looking at old laws created by an older white establishment and just removing those,” Spruill said. “It's another step to say whites and blacks have the right to do what they want to do.”

Virginia is home to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia that overturned laws banning interracial marriage. In 1958, a judge sentenced Richard and Mildred Loving to a year in prison for marrying each other. He suspended the sentence for 25 years if the couple moved to the District of Columbia. After the Supreme Court of Virginia upheld their sentences, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their convictions. The court found that the law violated equal protection and due process under the 14th Amendment. 

“This made both of us curious why questions like this were still on the application,” Christiansen said. “If people are of age, they should only need to identify them via Social Security number or something similar.”

Legislature approves mental health training for Virginia teachers

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly passed a bill that will require full-time teachers to complete mental health awareness training, though some advocates are split on how the training should be implemented.

Del. Kaye Kory, D- Fairfax, sponsored House Bill 74, which incorporated HB 716 and HB 1554. Kory, a former school board member, said teachers and faculty may be better able to understand and help prevent related issues if they are trained properly to recognize signs of mental health problems. The bill requires school boards to adopt and implement policies for the training, which can be completed online. School boards may contract the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, a community services board, a behavioral health authority, a nonprofit organization, or other certified trainer to provide such training. 

Kory said the bill was requested by several teacher groups in last year’s General Assembly. 

“My intention is that the training provides the ability to ask the right questions at the right time,” Kory said via email. “As substance abuse becomes more common in young people, the need for early detection and response becomes more and more clear.”

The intent of the bill is good, said 4th District Richmond City School Board Member Jonathan Young, but there are potential flaws with the online training program..

“It often ends up being nothing more than a check in the box,” he said. “I’m not interested in another check in the box, I’m interested in real mental health training for our teachers.”

Young said teachers need professional development opportunities “to increase their awareness and develop some new skill sets.”

Schools currently offer online training programs with modules tackling cyber security and conflict of interest training, Young said. He said learning about something as important as mental health through a computerized training module may not be effective enough to combat the current mental health crisis. 

Mental health training needs to be scaled up in schools and the solution has to be legitimate, Young said. 

Only 7% of expenditures for mental health go to children under 18, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, an advocacy and education group. Studies show that early intervention might reduce the prevalence of serious mental health cases, according to the organization.

Approximately 130,000 children and adolescents live with a serious mental illness and only 1 out of 5 children get the help that they need,according to the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children. 

Bruce Cruser, the executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, said the youth suicide rate has gradually increased in the state. He said that usually the people who need mental health services are people that have experienced trauma, for example, any youth that has been abused or lost their parents at a very young age.

The General Assembly also recently passed an amended bill that will allow K-12 students excused absences for mental health issues. The bill gives the Virginia Department of Education until Dec. 31 to establish guidelines for public school districts to grant students excused absences if they are dealing with mental or behavioral health issues.

Legislature passes bill to extend kindergarten hours

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A Senate bill that almost doubles the instructional hours of kindergarten classes required for school accreditation from 540 hours to 990 hours passed its final hurdle in the House Thursday with a vote of 94-6.

 Senate Bill 238, introduced by Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, directs the Board of Education to adopt regulations by July 1, 2022, along with the requirement that the standard school day for kindergarten students average to at least 5.5 instructional hours in order to qualify for full kindergarten accreditation. Local school boards may approve a four-day weekly calendar, so long as a minimum of 990 hours of instructional time is provided.

Not every school system currently offers a full day of kindergarten. Supporters of the bill said this legislation helps establish standards of quality.

“We're down two school systems in the state that are not yet at a level where all students go for full day kindergarten, one of those Virginia Beach, the other is Chesapeake,” Barker said in front of a House subcommittee meeting. “Virginia Beach has a plan where they're moving forward on it and Chesapeake is also increasing the number of students.”

Barker said that a full day of kindergarten benefits students’ academic performance, social interaction and involvement with teachers and other adults. “There are significant benefits to it,” he said. 

According to the bill’s 2020 Fiscal Impact Statement, the additional 450 hours would not affect funding paid from the state to local school divisions based on attendance. School divisions that do not currently provide the 990 hours of instructional time may experience additional costs to add classroom space and hire new staff. The fiscal impact to local school divisions cannot be determined.

“Ironically we are already paying them as if they had full-day kindergarten,” Barker said. 

Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Fairfax, inquired about the timeliness of the bill during the House meeting. She asked why the bill will be enacted in 2022 and not next year.

“What I tried to do was to be sensitive to some of the issues that some of those school systems might encounter or in some cases will encounter, but I would certainly be happy if they move faster,” Barker said.

Chesapeake and Virginia Beach are already taking steps to establish a full day of kindergarten for their schools. A representative of Chesapeake schools told the House panel that the school district had to gradually implement full days due to space limitations. Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, asked why the legislation was needed if the districts were already implementing the changes.

Loudon County representatives have said they might in the future reverse the full day format, Barker said, and his legislation would guarantee all school systems are meeting the full day standard. 

Director of Government Relations at the Virginia Education Association Kathy Burcher said the VEA supports Barker’s bill, and the organization looks forward to the progress the bill will make.

“Putting it in code, ensuring that the requirement is there, will make sure that no school division slides off, particularly as we're looking at that continuum from birth through entering the workforce,” Burcher said. “We want to make sure there's no child that can possibly fall through the cracks in part-time kindergarten because it's a tremendous impact on their ability to stay on track for graduation.”

The bill now moves to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for approval.

Legislature approves excused absences for student mental health

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly passed an amended bill that will allow K-12 students excused absences for mental health issues and create uniformity for how Virginia school districts address emotional and mental health needs within its schools.

House Bill 308, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, would give the Virginia Department of Education until Dec. 31 to establish guidelines for public school districts to grant students excused absences if they are dealing with mental or behavioral health issues.

Charles Pyle, director of media relations at the DOE, said it’s too early to know what guidance the DOE would issue, including whether a student would be required to provide a written doctor’s note and if a limit would be instated on the amount of time or consecutive number of absences from school.

Virginia currently has no standard for addressing mental health in schools, and each school approaches it differently.

“There are some high schools and middle schools that have mental health clubs, so to speak, where they are trying to provide more peer support,” said Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia. “There is at least one teacher who is involved in helping recognize symptoms of mental health problems and can direct kids to the appropriate resources. In other places, it’s not in the open like that.”

The House worked closely with the DOE on several bills this year. There are three other House bills in which the department has been tasked with drafting standards or guidelines. HB 753 requires the DOE to establish a definition of social-emotional learning and develop standards for social-emotional learning across public schools from grades K-12. HB 836 requires the DOE to develop a plan to adopt and standardize microcredentials of teachers in STEM fields. HB 817 requires the DOE, in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health, to develop health and safety best practice guidelines for the use of digital devices in schools.

Pyle said when the General Assembly passes legislation that tasks the DOE with drafting standards or guidelines, the organization combines its expertise with contributions from the public.

“The Department of Education is always happy to support legislators by answering their questions and providing information about related statutes or board regulations,” Pyle said.

Mental health issues among young people in the U.S. have become more prevalent over the past few decades. Fifty percent of people with mental illnesses start showing symptoms by age 14, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. According to the organization, 16.5% of Americans ages 6-17 -- or 7.7 million people -- experienced a mental health disorder in 2016. Only half of those people received treatment.

Cruser said it’s important to take the mental health of young children and teens seriously, especially with mental illness as stigmatized as it is.

 “The suicide rate of youth in Virginia continues to increase and the number of children with serious emotional disturbances continues to increase, so it’s definitely a serious issue,” Cruser said. “The sooner any kind of emotional or behavioral disturbances can be identified, the better the treatment is.”

Sanders urges voters to participate in ‘most consequential and important election’

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Thousands of supporters greeted the Democratic presidential candidate and front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders in Richmond Thursday, just days ahead of Super Tuesday. 

Hopefuls were turned away despite the venue change from a 1,500-occupancy music hall to the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center which holds 6,000 people. The bleachers roared as supporters held up signs, chanted and stomped with excitement. 

Hometown musicians Lucy Dacus and No BS! Brass warmed up the crowd before activists, community members and one of the state’s first-elected Latina legislators stumped for Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont. 

The crowd cheered as Charlottesville City Councilman Michael Payne called for a political revolution.

“The reason I am here this afternoon is the same reason that each and every one of you are here,” Payne said. “Because you see in yourselves, in your families and in your communities that every single day that goes by where we do not challenge and change the status quo means homelessness, it means rationing insulin and medicine, it means choosing between rent and healthcare.”

Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, took to the stage, asking: “Are you guys feeling the Bern?” 

“He has a consistent message of progress,” Guzmán said, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2017 as part of the state’s blue wave. “We had a base here in Virginia in 2016 that believed in his message and voted for him.”

Sanders’ platform includes providing a path to citizenship for immigrants without documentation, medical care for all and free public college for all. These ideas have been considered radical by some, but Sanders argues that these are basic human rights.

“We know that our immigration needs fundamental reform,” Sanders said. “We’re going to sign an executive order that ends all of Trump’s racist immigration policies. As the son of an immigrant, I take this issue personally.” 

Since his 2016 campaign, Sanders has called for free college education for all and to eliminate student debt in the U.S.

“The world has changed. The economy, technology have changed,” Sanders said. “Public education from K-12 is no longer good enough. We need to make our public colleges and universities tuition free.” 

Sanders, who supports universal healthcare, has long criticized the U.S. healthcare system. He told the crowd about traveling to Canada with a group of diabetics. According to Sanders, the cost on insulin went down to one-tenth of the U.S. market price.

“Together we are going to end the international embarrassment of the U.S. being the only major country on Earth not to guarantee healthcare to all people everywhere,” Sanders said. 

The crowd cheered as Sanders promised to legalize marijuana by executive order. Sanders said he would expunge the records of those previously convicted of marijuana possession.

Protesters like George Paton stood outside and voiced opposition to Sanders’ political ideology.

“I am a capitalist; I think Bernie is a socialist and a communist,” Paton said. “If there is a communist in Richmond, I want to be there on the sidelines.” 

Sanders ranks No. 1 in an average of national polls for the Democratic nomination; a frontrunner with twice the lead over Joe Biden in second place. After a slim victory in the recent New Hampshire primary, Sanders easily clinched a win in Nevada.

The Virginia Democratic primary will take place on Tuesday, March 3. In the 2016 primary, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received 64% of the Democratic votes to Sanders’ 35%. Sanders garnered the most votes in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. Richmond ranked No. 4, with just over 14,000 votes cast for Sanders. 

Sanders encouraged the crowd to go out and vote. 

“This primary takes place in the midst of the most consequential and important election in the modern history of America,” Sanders said. “I am asking of all of you, please come out to vote.”

Legislature OKs bill allowing new birth certificate for transgender people

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The state legislature recently passed a bill that will allow transgender individuals to receive a new birth certificate, something advocates said will help transgender people acquire documentation in alignment with their identity.

Senate Bill 657, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, will allow a person to receive a new birth certificate to reflect the change of sex without the requirement of surgery. The individual seeking a new birth certificate also may list a new name if they provide a certified copy of a court order of the name change. 

The bill requires proof from a health care provider that the individual went through “clinically appropriate treatment for gender transition.” The assessment and treatment, according to Boysko’s office, is up to the medical provider. There is not a standard approach for an individual's transition. Treatment could include counseling, hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery or a patient-specific approach from the medical provider.

A similar process is required to obtain a passport after change of sex, according to the State Department. Once the paperwork is complete, it is submitted to the Virginia Department of Health's vital records department.

“Having your documentation accurately reflect your identity and match your other documentation is huge for transgender people,” Ted Lewis, executive director of Side by Side, said in email. 

Side by Side is an advocacy group whose primary work involves creating supportive communities for LGBTQ youth. Lewis believes that this bill removes the “unnecessary and costly requirement of surgery,” and it would allow transgender people “to have documentation of who they are.” 

Boysko said her constituents have reported issues when they need to show legal documents when leasing apartments, opening a bank account or applying for jobs.

“This bill removes an unnecessary hurdle for transgender people,” Lewis said.

This is the third year that Boysko has introduced this bill. In 2018 Boysko introduced  HB 407, and last year she introduced SB 1643. Neither bill made it out of subcommittee. Boysko said that it’s “really heartening” to see the legislation passed. 

“It’s going to make a difference for folks, and I’m really happy about that,” Boysko said. 

By law an individual can only receive a birth certificate from the state where they were born. An amended version of Boysko’s bill allows a person residing in Virginia to apply for the new document, but if it is approved by a judge, they still have to file for the new certificate from their home state. “Virginia doesn’t give you a birth certificate, you take the information from the courts here in Virginia and take that back to the place where you were born to get the new birth certificate,” Boysko said.   

Lawmakers also recently passed Boysko’s bill requiring the Department of Education to develop policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public elementary and secondary schools. 

Senate Bill 657 now goes to the Governor’s desk for approval.

General Assembly passes bills to combat human trafficking of minors

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly has passed two identical bills intended to help social workers in the fight against minor-involved human trafficking. The bills, introduced by House Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, were recommended by the Virginia State Crime Commission.

“I am thrilled that this bill passed,” Fay Chelmow, president of ImPACT Virginia, an organization that aims to prevent human trafficking, said in an email. “Family controlled human trafficking is so much more common than people think.”

The legislation allows local social services departments to interview the reported child victims or their siblings without the consent and presence of a parent or legal guardian, school personnel or an individual standing in place of a parent.

“This bill not only increases a minor’s chance to access safety but acknowledges their autonomy, resiliency and capacity for self-determination,” Chelmow said. “A minor’s assent is crucially important for their healing from the polyvictimization sustained at the hands of their traffickers and buyers.” 

Human trafficking, considered modern-day slavery, involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Sex trafficking is when a trafficker exhibits control over the victim and the victim receives something of value in exchange for performing sex acts. Traffickers recruit at locations such as middle and high schools, courthouses, foster care, group homes, bus stations, shelters, bars, restaurants, shopping malls and social media sites, according to the Virginia State Crime Commission. The agency concludes that child sex trafficking intersects with other problems such as drug addiction, runaway youth, child abuse, domestic violence and gang activity. 

Human trafficking victims are forced into a wide range of labor sectors, ranging from sweat shops and field work to domestic service, according to ICE. By U.S. law, a person under the age of 18 engaged in prostitution is a victim of trafficking, the agency said.

As of June 30, 2019, there were 98 human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline that mentioned Virginia, according to the organization. In 2018, the hotline received 198 human trafficking reports that referenced Virginia, up from 158 cases that mentioned the commonwealth the previous year. The commonwealth’s location along major highways and its international airports make it vulnerable to human trafficking activity, according to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. In 2017, Virginia ranked No. 4 in the top 10 of federal court districts where criminal sex trafficking cases were prosecuted involving children. 

The legislation also changes the name from sex trafficking assessments to human trafficking assessments. This evaluation helps identify potential and existing victims of human trafficking. According to Kristen J. Howard, executive director for the Virginia State Crime Commission, human trafficking is a more accurate word because this assessment also can include evaluation of labor trafficking victims. 

Howard said Herring and Obenshain’s bills change the classication from sex trafficking to human trafficking, to “more accurately describe the assessments since they also involve labor trafficking victims and not just victims of sex trafficking.”

An assessment is conducted to determine the immediate safety needs of the child, the extent of needed protective and rehabilitative services, and risk of future harm to the child.

Howard said she is “very happy” to see the legislation pass both chambers. In 2018, the commission conducted a large, comprehensive study defining sex trafficking, detailing how victims wind up in the sex industry, and making overall recommendations on how Virginia should change legislation to combat human trafficking. 

This study led to a 2019 legislative package of eight bills. Legislators passed a total of seven bills -- two in the Senate and five in the House -- to help tackle sex trafficking. The bills included the establishment of the Virginia Prevention of Sex Trafficking fund, allowed for the use of two-way closed-circuit television in testimony by child victims and witnesses in sex trafficking cases, established class 6 felony charges for sex trafficking offenses involving a minor, and created a sex trafficking response coordinator within the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Groups split over proposed overdose immunity bill

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Groups, including former drug users, are split over a Senate bill that would give immunity to both someone reporting or experiencing an overdose. 

In a recent unanimous vote, the Senate passed Senate Bill 667, introduced by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. The bill expands on the current protection offered only to the person reporting the overdose, who can be charged with a crime but has an affirmative defense, which leads to dropped or reduced charges when proven they reported an overdose. 

This new bill would offer immunity to both the person reporting the overdose and experiencing the overdose, meaning no charges would be filed. The bill protects individuals from arrest or prosecution for the unlawful purchase, possession or consumption of alcohol, controlled substances, marijuana or having drug paraphernalia. 

The legislation also states that no officers acting in good faith will be found liable for false arrest if it is later determined the individual arrested was immune from prosecution because they overdosed or reported an overdose.

“In Virginia, friends often do not call for help for fear of being arrested,” Boysko said at the committee hearing for the bill.

Boysko told Senate members that every second matters in an overdose and that data show bystanders are three times more likely to call 911 when there is a safe reporting law such as her proposed bill. She also said that the state needs to stop criminalizing individuals that are attempting to seek urgent help for themselves or others. 

“Virginia's death toll from opioid overdoses continues to rise despite state and local government spending millions of dollars to make naloxone available,” Boysko said. “More than 1,500 died just in 2019 in Virginia from drug overdoses.”

According to the Virginia Department of Health, overdose is the leading cause of unnatural death in the state since 2013, followed by motor vehicle related and gun deaths.

“With the new law we’re looking at a healthcare solution for a healthcare crisis,” said Nathan Mitchell, who said he was previously addicted to drugs. Mitchell now serves as the community outreach and advocacy coordinator at the McShin Foundation. Mitchell said the proposed bill does not provide protection for crimes such as distribution or a firearm at the scene of the overdose, only drug and paraphernalia possession. 

According to Mitchell, drug incarceration is inconsistent in the commonwealth. He said after his first drug-related arrest he wasn’t introduced to a recovery program. But, after his second arrest, he received treatment through the help of the McShin Foundation. He said that inconsistency is an example that not all individuals who overdose will have access to the same treatment. 

Drug courts are specialized courts where individuals plead guilty and agree to complete the drug court program. Not every locality in the commonwealth has a drug court, though state law authorizes any locality to establish one with the support of existing and available local, state and federal resources. 

Mitchell said that individuals may not report an overdose to help protect the individual overdosing from being charged with a crime. He said that’s why a bill granting immunity to both parties is important. 

John Shinholser, president and co-founder of the McShin Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on recovery education and recovery, testified in favor of Boysko’s bill.

“This is evidence-based, data-driven proof that this bill will reduce deaths in Virginia during this crisis,” Shinholser said.

Goochland County resident Micheal McDermott spoke in opposition of Boysko’s bill during the Senate committee meeting. McDermott said he’s been in recovery from substance abuse disorder for over 28 years. The bill has good intentions but immunity should only be given to the person reporting, not overdosing, McDermott said. 

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said. 

There’s no guarantee that an overdose victim treated by paramedics will find recovery, McDermott said. If the person overdosing is on probation, they should receive a probation violation, and perhaps get the needed court-mandated treatment.

Westmoreland County Commonwealth’s Attorney Julia Sichol spoke last month at a House subcommittee in opposition to similar legislation that failed to advance, on behalf of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. Sichol said she thinks a bill offering immunity “can also cause harm to lives” because it keeps the person overdosing from being charged with a crime and could possibly prevent them from receiving court-mandated treatment.

“Drug treatment is extremely expensive and sometimes the only way to get the treatment for the individuals is through the court system,” Sichol said. “If you take away the ability for individuals to be charged who have overdosed they are not eligible to participate in drug treatment program, they are not eligible to go through the court system under mandated treatment.”

On Friday, SB 667 was assigned to a House subcommittee.

Bill allows renters to make certain repairs if landlord doesn’t respond

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill that gives tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions, recently passed the Virginia Senate and is expected to advance in the House. 

Senators voted unanimously in committee and on the floor to pass Senate Bill 905, introduced by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, which gives a tenant the right to seek repairs that constitute a fire hazard or serious threat to the life, health or safety of occupants. Such conditions include the infestation of rodents and lack of heat, hot or cold running water, light, electricity, or adequate sewage disposal facilities. 

Tenants would have the right to secure a contractor to fix the issues and deduct the cost from their rent.

First, the tenant would submit a written complaint to their landlord and allow them 14 days to fix the issue before the tenant secures a licensed contractor to complete the repairs. The tenant must provide documentation and itemized receipts of the repair to the landlord. The tenant would be allowed to deduct the costs of the repairs, not exceeding one month’s rent, from subsequent rent payments.

Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, proposed an amendment that was rejected during the Senate committee hearing, requiring the tenant to obtain two repair estimates. 

Currently, state law allows the landlord more time to fix issues that compromise the health and safety of the tenant. The tenant can file a detailed, written complaint and give notice that the rental agreement will terminate on or after 30 days, if the landlord hasn’t fixed the issue within 21 days. If the problem is fixed, the tenant can’t break the lease. 

A tenant, though legally empowered under current law to terminate the rental agreement would still, in most cases, need to have a deposit plus first month’s rent to secure a new place, which can present a roadblock for renters.

The Virginia Poverty Law Center noted its support of the bill and stated that in addition to speeding up the repair process, the proposed bill would reduce the number of cases in Virginia’s courts, because tenants are given the opportunity to handle issues themselves instead of having to take landlords to court. Christine Marra, the group’s director of housing advocacy, said that the bill benefits tenants by allowing them to deduct the cost of donated repairs.

“There are a number of nonprofits across the commonwealth that do home repair for homeowners, but will not do them for renters because they don’t want to unjustly or unduly enrich the landlord,” Marra said. “I hope this will encourage them to start doing repairs for tenants.”

According to Elizabeth Godwin-Jones, a Richmond attorney who represents landlords, the original bill was too vague about what would constitute an emergency condition and how the tenant was allowed to go about getting the work done.

Now that the tenant is required to hire a licensed contractor and provide the necessary documentation, she said there’s little a negligent landlord could do to challenge their tenant in court and force them to pay their rent in full.

 “To me, the landlord already has a bit of a black eye, if it was something really serious and they didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” Godwin-Jones said.

Stanley patroned another renter’s rights bill, one which didn’t advance. The bill would have given tenants the right to use their landlord’s failure to maintain the property as a defense if they were taken to court for failure to pay rent.

Virginia’s eviction rates are among the highest in the country. Princeton University’s 2016 Eviction Lab study showed that five of the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the U.S. are in Virginia, and Godwin-Jones believes the problem is rooted in poverty more than it is in landlord-tenant legislation.

“To me, the biggest thing to help the eviction problem would be to raise the minimum wage and have more affordable housing options, but that’s terribly underfunded, and the funding hasn’t kept up with the increase in the rent,” Godwin-Jones said.

After making it to the House of Delegates, the bill was assigned to a General Laws subcommittee, which recommended advancing it. A committee on Thursday postponed hearing the bill because Stanley was still in the Senate and could not speak to the bill.

Bills advance to expand in-state tuition regardless of citizenship status

A coalition of groups lobbying for immigrant rights at the Virginia State Capitol on Jan. 16, in support of bills to grant driver licenses and in-state tuition to people without documentation. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition. 

SB 935, introduced by Democratic Sens. Jennifer Boysko and Ghazala Hashmi, would require a student to provide proof of filed taxes to be eligible for in-state tuition. A student also must have attended high school in Virginia for at least two years, been homeschooled in the state or have passed a high school equivalency exam prior to enrolling in a college. The bill reported out of the House appropriations committee Wednesday and heads to the floor for a vote.

Submitting income tax returns would be a challenge for students straight out of high school who have not worked or filed taxes before, according to Jorge Figueredo, executive director of Edu-Futuro, a nonprofit that seeks to empower immigrant youth and their families.

HB 1547, introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, applies the same provisions as SB 935, except the requirement to file proof of filed taxes. The bill is currently in the Senate Health and Education committee. 

Immigrant rights advocates have openly supported these two bills. Figueredo said he is “thrilled” to see the bill advance.

“This is something that makes a lot of sense. It’s something where we don’t want to have a group of people to get to a point that they cannot reach their highest potential,” Figueredo said. 

Attorney General Mark Herring announced in 2014 that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students would be eligible for in-state tuition. He said Maryland saw an increase in graduation rates after allowing students without documentation to access in-state tuition rates. Maryland officials believe this led less students to drop out of high school because they saw realistic options for continuing education, according to Herring. 

There is uncertainty about the future of the DACA program. A study by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis stated that uncertainty creates a risk for students enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities, who fear they could lose DACA status and access to in-state tuition rates. The institute, which studies issues affecting low-to-moderate income residents, recommended that lawmakers could mitigate the potential impact of that loss by expanding in-state tuition access to Virginia residents regardless of immigration status. The institute said that by doing so the state would also provide more affordable access to colleges for residents whose immigration status does not otherwise fall into the categories currently required for in-state tuition.

Figueredo said that allowing these students to apply for in-state tuition would create more opportunities for undocumented students to become professionals, something that would benefit all of Virginia. 

High school graduates in Virginia earn about $35,000 on average compared to people with a bachelor’s degree who earn about $65,000 a year, according to The Commonwealth Institute.

“A person that has a higher level of education in comparison to a person that has only a high school diploma, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that are not captured in the form of taxes, so that’s a direct benefit right there,” Figueredo said. 

Katherine Amaya is a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. Her family emigrated from El Salvador when she was 8 years old. Amaya said she pays out-of-state tuition rates as an undocumented student, about $6,000 per semester, compared to classmates who pay about $2,000 for in-state tuition per semester. 

Amaya said she was on the honor roll throughout high school and her first semester in college. She said she was able to apply for scholarships for undocumented students but it was a competitive process. She was awarded a few scholarships and said she was able to use that money for her first semester of college but is afraid she won’t get as much help in the future. 

Amaya said she had many friends in high school that were also having a hard time paying for college or university because they were also undocumented and did not qualify for in-state tuition.

“A lot of them, they couldn’t even afford going to community college, so they just dropped out and started working,” Amaya said. “It’s sad, you know, that they don’t have the money or the help to keep going to school.”

Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard holds town hall in Richmond

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Hawaii congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard greeted an audience of hundreds Tuesday at the Hofheimer Building on West Broad Street with her signature “aloha” before a brief speech and an audience question and answer session.

“The clock is running out as we are heading very quickly toward Super Tuesday,” Gabbard said. “There’s nothing I love more than to be here in rooms like this with people like you because this is why I fight.” 

Gabbard is the first female combat veteran to run for U.S. president. She also is the first Hindu and one of two female combat veterans to serve in Congress. Elected to the U.S. House in 2012, Gabbard has served on the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. 

Gabbard is campaigning on policies that include a green economy based on renewable energy, a single-payer health care system and ending American warfare where foreign regimes are removed by force. 

Audience members asked the candidate questions about school choice, the Second Amendment and term limits, among others. In response to Hanover County resident Dalton Luffey's question about her top priorities, Gabbard said she believes nuclear war is the biggest threat to the world. Gabbard, who said she joined the Army National Guard after 9/11, campaigns on ending the arms race. 

“I like Tulsi because she’s willing to have civil discourse and reach across the aisle,” said Whittney Hooks, a middle school teacher from Montross. “A lot of Democrats want a candidate who reflects the country but most of the frontrunners are old white men.”

Gabbard is seen as a divisive figure within the Democratic Party. After Hillary Clinton allegedly suggested that Gabbard is a “favorite of the Russians,” the Hawaii congresswoman filed a lawsuit against Clinton for defamation. Gabbard resigned as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee so that she could endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for president.

Gabbard’s campaign hasn’t fared well in the early Democratic primaries. The candidate received less than 1% of total votes in the Iowa caucuses while she received 3.3% of total votes in the New Hampshire primary. Gabbard has not received any delegates. 

Richmond resident Tim Gabbard, who supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, said he attended the town hall after becoming aware of Tulsi Gabbard’s podcasts.

“I love her service to the country. She's honorable; she fights; she doesn't back down and she didn't give into the DNC,” said Tim Gabbard. “She reminds me of Trump, although I wish Trump would speak as eloquently as she does, but at the end of the day they both put our country first.”

Before Virginia Democrats cast their ballot on March 3 to help determine Trump’s opponent in the 2020 general election, the Nevada caucus will be held on Feb. 22 and the South Carolina primary will take place Feb. 29. 

During the town hall, Tulsi Gabbard asked by a show of hands how many audience members were Democrats, Republicans or neither with a seemingly even amount of respondents for each choice. 

“Look around,” said Tulsi Gabbard. “This is the representation of America.”

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