Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a media briefing on the coronavirus outbreak last month. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

By Angela Ciolfi

Gov. Ralph Northam’s announced plan to begin “Phase 1” of reopening Virginia as early as May 15 is reckless and cruel. 

It is not at all clear that the metrics favor relaxing the stay-at-home restrictions. But setting aside the metrics, we are simply unprepared for even a partial reopening.

Virginia’s testing rate for COVID-19 is one of the worst in the country, ranking 48th among states. We have yet to hire and train the thousands of people necessary to perform the task of contact tracing and ensure appropriate outreach is made to marginalized communities.

With no vaccine, widespread testing or established system for contact tracing, we are choosing to jeopardize the health and lives of the 70 percent of the population who would need to contract the virus before any sort of “herd-immunity” would be effective. Forging ahead when you know or should know that an act is likely to cause harm is the definition of reckless.

This plan will also inflict disproportionate pain on communities of color due to systemic inequities that preexisted the virus. The plan will force low-wage workers, a large percentage of whom come from lower-income black and Latino communities, to choose between their health — even their lives — and paying the rent or buying groceries. Infection and death rates are highest in these communities across the country.

In our state capital of Richmond, 15 of the 16 deaths from COVID-19 were black residents. In Fairfax County, where only 17 percent of the population is Hispanic, 56 percent of all confirmed cases are Hispanic. Inflicting pain, suffering and fear without legitimate purpose is the definition of cruelty.

Low-wage workers do not have the option to “continue[] teleworking,” as recommended in the governor’s April 24 presentation. Many large businesses are already planning on doing just that, with Capital One recently announcing that most of its staff will be working from home all the way through September.

But for Virginians who don’t have the privilege to work in front of a computer, this is simply not an option. Opening non-essential businesses could mean the end of unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of Virginians, forcing lower-income residents to face a danger that wealthier Virginians can avoid. It could also be risky for businesses operating on narrow margins; businesses will feel pressure to reopen before customers feel safe and it’s just not clear that “if you open, they will come.” 

With experts warning of an increase in virus infection rates in states that relax preventative measures, this plan will also be devastating to those in congregate settings, including nursing homes, prisons, jails, youth facilities and immigration detention. Imprisoned people will be asked to continue enduring the psychological torture of isolation, the only form of social distancing possible in such settings, in an attempt to protect them as the virus rages through these facilities at higher rates than the general population. And with the lack of action by the governor and other officials in releasing meaningful numbers of incarcerated people who can safely go home, this will only get worse. 

I recognize that forcing people to stay home also creates intense hardship, felt most acutely by small businesses and families living paycheck-to-paycheck. But the choice is not dichotomous: health and safety or financial ruin.

There are other policy choices, including extending unemployment benefits, issuing cash assistance, canceling or waiving rent, deferring mortgage payments, stopping garnishments, preventing utility shut-offs, waiving government debts like regressive taxes and court fines and fees, and taking other measures to support families and businesses while we make this collective sacrifice for the good of the commonwealth.

But we are going in the opposite direction, with some local courts planning to follow the governor’s lead and resume non-emergency cases. Court dockets will likely soon be swarmed by landlords clamoring to evict tenants and debt collectors seeking to garnish people’s wages and stimulus checks.

We have the opportunity to protect every Virginia resident, including our most vulnerable, but we must make — and maintain — the choices that prioritize people, not profit. 

Even before this pandemic, Virginia has been failing on every measure that really matters: Nationally, we are ranked No. 40 for state funding per student for K-12 education and dead last on worker-friendly labor and employment policy. And we are ranked No. 43 for steps taken to protect people from losing housing in response to the pandemic.

But yet the commonwealth was ranked No. 1 for business in 2019.

And we fear that is the measure that matters most to policymakers.

Until we can reliably deliver basic public health protections and care — especially to marginalized communities — and take aggressive steps to minimize the cruel and inequitable effects of the pandemic, Virginia must stay closed for business. There is no acceptable margin of lives lost or families devastated that justifies prioritizing economic pressures over the health and safety of people, especially when black and brown Virginians will bear the brunt of this deadly calculation.

Angela Ciolfi is executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center