Frustrations on social media surfaced soon after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) extended orders last week for residents to stay at home and for non-essential businesses to remain closed as a result of COVID-19.
Some small businesses and residents, eager to return to normal life and upset with what they say is the governor’s “overreach,” have aligned themselves with protest groups, including one dubbed Reopen Virginia.
“Reopen Virginia – as a group we are trying to stay laser focused on that," David Britt, a Reopen Virginia rally spokesperson, told the Times-Mirror. "This is all about getting Virginians back to work again so that business owners can take care of their employees, can pay their bills, that employees can pay their bills, can provide for their families, and keep Virginia strong for the Virginians.”
Since April 12, the Reopen Virginia and Virginians for Constitutional Rights 2020 Facebook groups had attracted more than 28,000 followers. The Reopen Virginia page changed its name to Virginians for Constitutional Rights on April 20, according to a Facebook screen grab.
The push to return to normalcy comes after the U.S. Department of Labor reported that there have been more than 415,000 unemployment claims filed in Virginia in the last month. The number of claims represents about 9 percent of the state’s workforce.
Reopen Virginia says it wants the governor to reexamine his orders and open the economy sooner than Northam's planned date of June 10.
Kristen Lynne Hall, a parent and small business owner, said she supports reopening the state’s economy.
“As a parent, I feel Virginia should reopen because the recovery rate is extremely high and we shouldn't be forced to ‘stay home,’” Hall, a Virginia Beach resident, said. “Most parents have had to become their children's educators with the schools closing. Having libraries, zoos, aquariums, playgrounds, basketball courts, etc., all shut down is really taking a toll on their mental health and emotional health as well.”
Britt said he’s concerned that Virginians practicing strict social distancing for more than a month may have led to an increase of domestic violence incidents, substance abuse cases and mental health struggles. He added that he is worried about the potential for increased long-term unemployment, higher homelessness rates as well as a number of small businesses and restaurants potentially going out of business permanently.
“That is going to destroy the economy,” Britt said. “You'll have so many people out of work, and there won't be jobs because all those business owners are going to have to file bankruptcy. They'll default on some or all of their loans, which means they're not going to qualify to get capital to start another business for a long time. So yeah, the economy in Virginia will just disappear.”
The Virginia Restaurant, Lodging, and Travel Association said the restaurant industry has suffered significant sales and job losses since the outbreak. An estimated 78 percent of restaurant employees have already lost their jobs in Virginia, according to the association's survey of more than 6,500 restaurant operators nationwide between April 10-16. Furthermore, the study shows that in Virginia 29 percent of restaurants have closed temporarily, sales have declined by 77 percent and $1.3 billion in sales is estimated to be lost in April.
Americans across the country have clashed over when to reopen the economy amid the global health pandemic that has caused more than 40,000 deaths in America.
Supporters of reopening have held parades and marches at a number of state capitols. In Virginia, protesters plan to gather when the General Assembly reconvenes in Richmond on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump (R) has said he supports the protests to reopen. On Friday he tweeted, “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
But most health care workers, including doctors and nurses, have loudly opposed easing social distancing orders and have voiced their opinions on social media.
David Broder, president of SEIU Virginia 512, represents one of the largest group of health care workers in the commonwealth.
"Nurses, social workers, home care providers and other frontline workers are putting their lives on the line every day to keep our community safe," he said. "We should be listening to the public health experts, and making decisions based on science, not partisan tweets.”
Public health experts have broadly said it's too soon to fully reopen the country.
On Sunday, Gov. Northam was asked about reopening the commonwealth during CNN’s "State of the Union." He said before he reopens he would need testing capabilities ramped up, at least two weeks of coronavirus case numbers going down in the state and penitentiaries and nursing homes securing the personal protective equipment they need.
“As soon as we see all these things coming together, we will open up our businesses just as soon as we can," he said. "But we want to make sure that we do it responsibly, and we want to do it safely.”
In response to Gov. Northam’s remarks, Hall said, "I fully support a safe reopening with businesses taking the same precautions the big box stores are, [but] it should be between the business owner and their patron to both practice social distancing, hand washing, etc.”
In Loudoun County, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) said “science and facts” have guided the decisions of county officials, and they will continue to do so.
Based on modeling information the county is using, Virginians are entering the “surge” period of COVID-19, and that will last until early to mid-May, Randall said.
In an effort to help local residents, the chairwoman said the county has extended the personal property tax deadline, increased funds to local food shelters and rental assistance programs and contacted all utility companies to ensure services will continue and late fees will not be assessed.
“Obviously, getting the Loudoun economy moving in a robust manner is important," Randall said. "However, the lives and safety of people eclipse my very real concern for our local economy.”
Loudoun Chamber CEO and President Tony Howard added the chamber has taken a “firm” position that this is a public health crisis and then an economic crisis. Howard said leadership has been in touch with more than 75 percent of the chamber's approximately 1,200 members about their views on reopening. He said all support the position he described – that this is a public health crisis first, followed by an economic crisis – except for one member.
“If we don't firmly address as much pain as this is causing, we don't firmly address the public health crisis that is presented to us right now, then we will not only make the economic crisis worse, but we have we can potentially drag it out even further," he said.
Loudoun County’s confirmed cases of coronavirus have risen to 468, with 59 patients hospitalized as of Monday. Eight Loudoun residents have died as a result of COVID-19. All of have been older than 65. Four victims were men and four were women. The last local death was reported April 16.
Statewide, Virginia had seen 9,630 confirmed cases and 324 deaths as of Monday. 58,354 people have been tested, and 1,581 have been hospitalized.