Zach Armstrong

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.

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.”

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.”

House passes bill giving state’s electoral votes to popular vote winner

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The House of Delegates passed a bill this week that would allocate the commonwealth’s electoral college votes to the candidate who received the national popular vote.

The bill would join Virginia into the National Popular Vote Compact, which ensures the presidential candidate with the most votes nationally is elected once states comprising 270 out of 538 electoral votes sign onto the pact. The House passed the bill by a vote of 51-46. 

Passage of House Bill 177, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, comes less than two weeks after the bill was originally defeated in the Privileges and Elections committee by a vote of 10-12. After being reconsidered in the same committee last week, the bill reported out on a 12-9 vote. The bill incorporates HB 199, introduced by Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News.

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, and Del. Alex Askew, D-Virginia Beach, who initially voted against the bill voted in favor of it the second time. Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, who initially also voted against the bill did not vote the second time.

“The people of the United States should choose the president of the United States, no matter where they live in each individual state,” Levine said when questioned during the committee hearing. “It gives every American equal weight under the law.”

Levine tried to pass similar legislation the past three consecutive sessions.

A similar Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, was pulled from consideration by Ebbin, who did not identify the reason he pulled the bill. 

Since the campaign began in 2006, 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed the National Popular Vote bill -- a total of 196 electoral votes. If the bill passes the state Senate, Virginia’s 13 electoral votes would bring that total to 209. That leaves 61 electoral votes needed for the compacte to take effect. At least one chamber in eight additional states, with a combined 75 more electoral votes, have passed the bill. 

“We are grateful to our sponsors in the Virginia General Assembly, and to citizens across the state who are making it clear that they prefer a national popular vote for president,” said John Koza, chairman of National Popular Vote, in a released statement. 

A candidate winning the electoral votes and the presidential race despite losing the national popular vote has occurred five times in American history: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harris in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. 

“It is really hard to predict how campaigns would respond to this change,” said Alex Keena, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “We would probably see less campaigning in the smaller swing states and there would be less emphasis on winning states, per se.”

The bill stipulates that a state can exit the compact, but a withdrawal occurring six months or less before the end of a president's term shall not become effective until a president or vice president have been qualified to serve the next term.

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Bill fails that would award electoral votes to popular vote winner

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Legislation seeking to guarantee the presidency to candidates who earn the popular vote in national elections has again failed to advance in the General Assembly. 

Senate Bill 399, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would’ve joined Virginia into the National Popular Vote Compact and awarded its electoral votes to the presidential ticket that receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Ebbin withdrew the bill from consideration Tuesday without identifying the reason. 

House Bill 177, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, was defeated Friday in the Privileges and Elections committee by a 10-12 vote, despite narrowly clearing subcommittee. The bill incorporated HB 199, introduced by Del. Marcia “Cia” Price, D-Newport News. Three Democrats joined Republican members to vote no.

“The people of the United States should choose the president of the United States, no matter where they live in each individual state,” Levine said when questioned during the committee hearing. “It gives every American equal weight under the law.”

Opponents disagree over his premise.

 “One of the things that was in place was to try to ensure that certain large states like California and New York, now, don’t have all the control in making a decision for president,” Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, told ABC 8 News last week. 

Levine tried to pass similar legislation the past three consecutive sessions.

“The Electoral College is an outdated institution that creates an undemocratic system for deciding who holds the most important office in the land,” said Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, a co-patron of HB 177. “Call me crazy, but I think the person who wins the most votes is the person who should win an election.”

Under the Electoral College, each state is granted a number of electoral votes based on their representation in the U.S. House and Senate. A majority of states award electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes in their respective states. The candidate receiving at least 270 electoral votes wins the election. 

After Donald Trump won the 2016 election despite losing the popular vote, numerous states signed the NPVC. The NPVC would ensure the candidate who wins the popular vote becomes president when states possessing 270 electoral votes sign onto the pact and give their electoral votes to the candidate through presidential electors. 

The compact has been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which equal 196 electoral votes, according to National Popular Vote, a nonprofit that advocates for the compact. The pact will go into effect once states with at least 74 more electoral votes enact it. At least one chamber in eight additional states with 75 more electoral votes have passed the bill. 

“It is really hard to predict how campaigns would respond to this change,” said Alex Keena, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “We would probably see less campaigning in the smaller swing states and there would be less emphasis on winning states, per se.”

Americans have historically opposed the Electoral College method and prefer naming winners based on the popular vote, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.

“They favor an amendment to the Constitution to make that happen, but are more reluctant to have states make changes to how they award their electoral votes,” Gallup said in a summary of its finding. 

Five presidential candidates have won the electoral college without receiving a majority of the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harris in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. 

Without the compact, a constitutional amendment is required to switch from the Electoral College to the popular vote. 

In 1969, Rep. Emanuel Celler introduced House Joint Resolution 681 to abolish the Electoral College and instead require a president-vice president pair of candidates to win at least 40% of the popular vote. The bill passed the House with bipartisan support but failed on the Senate floor, according to congressional records.

“The compact does not require a constitutional amendment, so that route is obviously a lot easier than going through the amendment process,” Keena said.

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Bills to make voting easier advance in Virginia General Assembly

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers have advanced Senate bills that make voting easier, including not requiring an excuse to vote absentee and recognizing Election Day as a state holiday. Other legislation that would extend citizen access to voting -- part of the 11-point “Virginia 2020 plan” put forward by Gov. Northam -- has yet to clear committees.

Senate Bill 601 designates Election Day as a state holiday to give more citizens the chance to cast their ballot. The bill also would strike from current law Lee-Jackson Day, which celebrates the birthdays of Confederate generals. The legislation, introduced by Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, passed the Senate Tuesday.

“Even on Election Day, people have to go to work, people have to handle childcare, people have to go to class and often it can be hard to make it to the polls,” said Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Herndon. “It just makes sense that those folks should be given the opportunity to come out and vote in a time window that works for them.”

A bill that removes the need for an excuse to cast an absentee ballot passed the Senate Monday. SB 111, introduced by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, permits any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot in any election in which he is qualified to vote.

Several other bills that facilitate ease of absentee voting are SB 46, removing the requirement that a person applying for an absentee ballot provide a reason to receive the ballot; SB 455, extending the deadline when military and overseas absentee ballots can be received; SB 617, authorizing localities to create voter satellite offices to support absentee voting; and SB 859, making absentee voting easier for people who have been hospitalized.

Legislation in the House includes a bill that would also allow for no excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration. In the Senate, a bill would pre-register teens 16 years old and older to vote and one bill in the House would reduce the period of time registration records must be closed before an election. All House bills are in an Elections subcommittee.

“Restrictive voting provisions almost always disproportionately affects people of color and low-income individuals because those are the groups that move more frequently, work multiple jobs and have less spare time,” said Jenny Glass, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

The House and Senate also introduced bills that would remove requirements that voters present a photo ID when voting. Under the legislation, voters can show voter registration documents, bank statements, paychecks or any government document that shows the name and address of the voter. Neither bill has made it past committee.

Virginians currently must present a photo ID, such as a driver’s license or a U.S. passport, to vote in person. According to a 2012 study by Project Vote, an organization that works to ensure all Americans can vote, approximately 7% of the U.S. population lacks photo ID. This is especially true of  lower-income individuals, those under the age of 20 and ethnic minorities.

Voters can provide their social security number and other information to get a free Virginia Voter Photo Identification Card, but some legislators said that service is unknown to many.

“Before the photo ID requirement voters had to sign the affidavit to say they are who they say they are, and I think that was enough,” said House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “I feel the photo ID was a way to suppress the vote because not everyone has one.”

Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed SB 1256 into law mandating voters have a form of ID with a photograph. Virginia is one of the 18 states with such voting requirements, according to the National Conference of Legislature.

In 2016, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ID requirement after attorneys for the state Democratic Party challenged the law, arguing it had a disproportionate impact on low income and minority voters.

“People are fed up with our overly restrictive and racist voting policies, and the legislature is finally getting rid of some of the biggest roadblocks to progressive reform,” said Glass. “This has been a long time coming.”

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