Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is urging business leaders to follow the lead of the state and federal governments and require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We’re in a better place than we were back in March of 2020, but we still have a lot of work to do” to end the pandemic, Northam told about 200 business leaders at the Capital Region Business Forum on Thursday morning in downtown Washington. The forum was presented by three regional business organizations, including the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
Northam noted that he has required all state employees to be vaccinated or submit to regular COVID-19 testing. President Joe Biden was expected later Thursday to strengthen the requirement for federal employees to be vaccinated by eliminating their option to undergo regular testing instead.
“The only way we’re going to get through this pandemic is to get people vaccinated,” Northam said. “I would hope that you would step up as well and say the only way we’re going to move forward, the only way we’re going to keep our businesses alive and well, the only way we’re going to get our children back to school safely is to get people vaccinated.”
A physician, Northam noted that the virus is mutating in order to survive and that the more people are vaccinated, the fewer chances the virus has to mutate.
Northam, a Democrat, was joined at the event by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat. The three leaders highlighted their collaboration during the pandemic and noted that the region generally has fared better than many other areas of the country.
“We’ve stuck together. People have done exactly what we asked them to do,” Bowser said. “I think we’re very well positioned for the comeback.”
Hogan noted that over 80% of Maryland residents over age 12 have been vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the country, and the state currently has the second-lowest rate of new COVID cases in the country.
“It’s still very scary with this Delta variant,” he added. “We’re all doing better than most of the other places.”
Hogan and Northam both noted that a major problem facing the region now is the labor shortage, and Northam highlighted Virginia’s efforts to train new workers for 21st century jobs.
Bowser noted, however, that the pandemic may have resulted in some long-term changes to the workforce.
“People have had a year and a half to think about their life and what they’re doing and if they should be doing something else,” she said. “Quite frankly, as an employer, I’m glad people have had that opportunity because I want them to be focused on the things that are going to make themselves happy.”
The leaders also talked about the region’s transportation challenges, including expanding the American Legion Bridge, adding toll lanes to Interstate 495 in Maryland, and funding Metro.
While road investments are necessary, Northam said, “we can’t pave our way out of congestion” and must also focus on rail and transit projects, such as the Long Bridge expansion. That project will ease train congestion over the Potomac River between Virginia and the District.
Hogan cited the regional leaders’ efforts to persuade the federal government to continue supporting Metro but said its systemic problems and maintenance issues also need to be addressed.
“The federal government needs to understand their role in how important Metro is,” Hogan said.
In response to a question about business taxes, Hogan and Northam both cited their states’ budget surpluses. Hogan, who has been mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate, said Maryland has cut taxes for seven straight years and has experienced “the biggest economic turnaround in the country.”
Northam noted the diversification of businesses in Virginia away from a reliance on military and government contracting, as evidenced by Amazon’s decision to build its HQ2 in Northern Virginia.
“Virginia economically is in a good position,” he said. “I don’t think anyone needs to talk about raising taxes in Virginia.”