As Virginia’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, Gov. Ralph Northam has assembled a series of workgroups and task forces to coordinate the state’s response to specific concerns.
The health equity working group first assembled on March 11, a few days after Virginia’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. In mid-April, Northam convened a long-term care task force to address rising outbreaks at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. A few days later, he announced a new testing task force amid reports that Virginia’s screening efforts were lagging far behind other states.
On April 24 — the same day he unveiled his blueprint for gradually reopening the state — Northam announced the formation of a new COVID-19 business task force “to provide advice and guidance” as his administration drafted industry-specific safety guidelines, according to a news release from his office.
Those guidelines are expected to be released on Friday — a week before the anticipated first phase of Northam’s reopening plan.
But in the weeks since the groups were assembled, other details remain scarce, including in some cases who’s involved, when they’re meeting and what they’re talking about. While the administration publicly announced the members of its business task force, it’s still unclear who makes up the other workgroups and how they were selected. A published description of the health equity work group — available online through the Virginia Department of Health — notes that it includes “representatives from private human service organizations, advocacy and stakeholder groups, community leaders, and diverse faith leaders,” but provides no other specifics.
There also appears to be little available information about meeting times, agendas, or public comment opportunities for any of the groups. None have been publicized on the state’s public meetings calendar for government entities. And Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky did not immediately respond to a request for more information on whether details of the meetings had been — or would be — available to the wider public.
Technically, there’s no requirement to make that information available. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the state’s Freedom of Information Act does define task forces and commissions as “public bodies,” but only when they’re created by other public bodies or agencies.
“The problem is that if an individual — the governor or a mayor or a sheriff — is the person creating it, then it is not a public body for the purposes of FOIA’s meetings provision,” she added. While records from the groups are generally subject to disclosure, there’s no requirement for members to meet in public.
That doesn’t mean they can’t, Rhyne said. In 2012, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell established a working group to assess whether Virginia should lift its moratorium on uranium mining (the ban survived and was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court).
While the decision to create an independent task force was widely controversial, Rhyne said McDonnell made some concessions by publicizing the group’s meeting dates and holding public briefings on its discussions.
“He conceded that, ‘Yes, this is something the public is really interested in,” she added. “‘So we need to continue to be at least somewhat transparent.’”
“And that’s what I would be thinking of with these task forces of the governor’s,” Rhyne continued. “They might not be subject to the rules, but that is no reason why they should not be letting the public know at least when they’re meeting and what their agenda is.”
Businesses especially concerned
The governor’s business task force has been a particular focus, both among small business owners — many of whom described the upcoming industry guidelines as vital to their future survival — and legislators eager to rebound from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
But while Northam announced in late April his intent to reopen the state, details of the guidelines — including expected sanitation and capacity requirements — have not been released. Jessica Killeen, the deputy counsel for the governor, could not immediately provide minutes from the task force’s three virtual meetings, a copy of the report members provided to Northam last week, or the draft guidelines that members say they were asked to consider.
Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, said the lack of information was particularly frustrating given the loosening restrictions in neighboring Tennessee, where restaurants, stores and recreational businesses are gradually reopening. Legislators from Southwest Virginia have vocally advocated for Northam to allow their localities to reopen before other areas, citing low numbers of known COVID-19 cases compared to other parts of the state.
“We shared a letter from the Southwest delegation asking to open by region, but we didn’t get a lot of response to it,” Kilgore said. Northam has publicly resisted calls to reopen some parts of Virginia sooner than others, saying that it could sow division and cause new infections if residents traveled to open businesses from other parts of the state.
Cassidy Rasnick, a deputy secretary of commerce and trade, wrote Thursday that members of the task force were selected “to represent a broad array of industries, scales, geographies, and personal backgrounds – while also attempting to maintain a manageable size to enable a constructive working group.”
But Kilgore pointed out that few members of the task force came from Southwest Virginia. And as businesses anticipate a May 15 reopening, he said it’s particularly important to have a better understanding of the upcoming guidelines.
Stores and restaurants in his district are already competing with companies across the border, where restaurants are currently allowed to operate at half capacity. In Virginia, there’s still the chance that capacity will be further restricted, which would have a significant impact on profitability.
“The problem is I just don’t know what they are,” Kilgore said, referring to the guidelines. “But I think General Assembly members would have liked to have some input, or at least some knowledge into what’s going on.”
Business owners say they’re also largely in the dark. Both Kevin Liu and George Hodson — two members of the 24-person business task force — said they didn’t know when Northam planned to reopen businesses until he publicly announced it on Monday. Members of the task force were able to weigh in on the administration’s draft guidelines, but neither had seen the final copy.
“We’re still waiting on those final guidelines,” said Hodson, the CEO of Veritas Vineyard in Afton. “To be honest, I think there’s still some dialogue. I think it’s kind of been a moving target. Because getting everything right is a big job.”
Waiting on the guidelines has been a source of anxiety for many business owners, especially given what’s at stake. Scott Hoffman, who co-owns Ono Brewing Company in Chantilly with his wife, Cyndi, said that their revenue has declined by 70 to 80 percent since the start of the pandemic. He’s reached out to representatives of the beverage industry on the governor’s task force and said his own recommendations seem to align with their suggestions.
Even so, he’s especially worried about capacity restrictions for food and drink establishments. Tasting rooms were closed in late March, but for the first two weeks of the pandemic, Northam allowed restaurants, wineries, and distilleries to stay open as long as they restricted their capacity to 10 patrons or fewer. Hoffman said it seemed like an arbitrary requirement, given his own brewery can seat 150 people.
“This whole thing has been a frustration,” Hoffman said. Future capacity restrictions will also have a major impact as he prepares to restart his business.
“For us, it’s all about planning,” he said. “Are we going to be at 50 percent capacity? Are we going to be at 10 percent capacity? Do we brew more beer, do we not brew more beer? These are all questions we’re still asking.”