Va. braces for $1B budget shortfall; Northam to make decision on beaches next week

Zumba Gold instructor Stacey Zebrowski, center, leads a class at the Shady Grove YMCA Friday May 15, 2020, in Glen Allen, Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam instituted a Phase One reopening of certain portions of the state Friday. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Though much of Virginia entered Phase One of Gov. Ralph Northam’s gradual reopening blueprint on Friday, Northern Virginia localities remained locked down as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and related deaths continued to rise.

The parts of Northern Virginia that remain in “Phase Zero” include: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties; the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park; and the towns of Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg and Vienna.

Ahead of the Friday reopening, Northam also allowed the city of Richmond and Accomack County on the Eastern Shore to hold off on entering Phase One with the rest of Virginia.

Northam said that the decision to allow a regional approach to reopening was made after examining the latest data.

More Coronavirus News

At a briefing Friday afternoon, Northam added that his administration has been in close contact with beach communities around Virginia to discuss their plans to keep beachgoers safe when those areas reopen to the public for use outside of exercise and fishing.

The governor said he expects to make an announcement on whether or not Virginia’s beaches will reopen by Memorial Day weekend on Monday.

Testing: diagnostic vs. antibody

Northam said he had directed the Virginia Department of Health to omit a type of test that checks for antibodies to the new coronavirus as these tests indicate that someone had the virus but may not still be infected.

Only diagnostic tests, which check for active infection, will now be included in Virginia’s official count of testing.

Northam said the disparity of the tests was not an issue early on in the outbreak, as antibody testing was not widely available. Once the tests were more broadly distributed, Northam made the call to exclude them from the commonwealth’s official count.

There are currently 215 testing sites in Virginia, with 52 more sites under development, Northam said.

Read more about Virginia’s tweak in reporting on testing here.

$1 billion budget shortfall

Virginia also expects to face a budget shortfall of close to $1 billion by the end of June thanks to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Northam said.

The commonwealth saw around a $700 million drop in revenue for April, he said.

A large percentage of those losses are due to the governor’s decision to postpone tax filings for some businesses from May 1 until June 1, according to Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne.

Though the revenue drop was significant, Layne said there were positive signs for Virginia’s economy.

“Approximately 80% of our revenues come from payroll withholding and that was up 4% for the month, meaning that we had quite a few businesses operating and still paying their employees,” Layne said. “While we have been impacted, we did not see a total shutdown of economic activity.”

Virginia has also received over $6 billion in relief funds in the last several months. The commonwealth received around $3.1 billion for the CARES Act alone, Layne said.

“On May 12, we issued instructions to localities around the commonwealth that we would be distributing approximately $650 million to be used for direct costs related to the virus — they’re expected to be distributed here the First of June,” Layne said.

Arlington residents ask leaders about extended pandemic restrictions

Arlington County government leaders and health professionals took on several questions from residents about ongoing efforts to control the spread of infection while the county remains under extended COVID-19 restrictions.

Instead of joining other areas of Virginia that were allowed to begin the first phase of reopening on Friday, Arlington County is in a stage called “Phase Zero” for two more weeks until at least May 29.

One of the questions revolved around increasing testing capacity.

Emergency Management Director Aaron Miller said they have asked for some outside help on that front.

“We have requested from the Virginia National Guard the ability to conduct what are called ‘point-prevalent surveys'”, Miller said, which leverage National Guard soldiers and airmen that have been trained and medically qualified to do sample collection and partner with state labs in order to increase our capacity.

Deputy County Manager Jim Schwartz answered concerns about the future of indoor and outdoor recreation.

“We will be making a decision next week about the [county] summer camps for the coming summer,” said Schwartz, who added that county parks will remain closed.

Schwartz said recreation centers, which are also currently shut down, could remain that way longer since they are indoor facilities.

As far as what happens come May 29, Public Health Director Dr. Reuben Varghese said it depends on several metrics that are closely monitored.

“As we follow things like the hospitalization data, we’re seeing some good signs,” Varghese said.

“We are going to make recommendations based on the metrics and saying do we believe there’s still risk of transmission and how high it is.” Varghese said.

“Then it’s up to the community in many ways to decide is that an acceptable risk at that point to move forward,” he added.

Contact tracing

At the news conference, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said that around 4,000 people across Virginia had applied to be contact tracers. Those contact tracers would be assigned to regions in Virginia based on communities specific needs and case counts, Dr. Oliver said.

“For example, needing Spanish-speaking contact tracers or people who can speak Hatian Creole or other needs,” Dr. Oliver said.

Virginia cases

Number of total cases*: 28,672 (+859)

COVID-19-related and probable deaths: 977 (+22)
Currently hospitalized, per VHHA: 1,511 (-22)
Recoveries**: 3,805 (+127)
Total number of tests^: 176,681

*includes positive test results and probable cases

**Confirmed COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized and have since been discharged, according to the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association.

^includes diagnostic/PCR tests only

WTOP’s Ken Duffy contributed to this report.

Zeke Hartner

Zeke Hartner is a digital writer/editor who has been with WTOP since 2017. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University’s Political Science program and an avid news junkie.

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