A car at an April 27 rally on the Eastern Shore in support of protecting poultry processing plant workers from COVID-19. (Legal Aid Justice Center)
It’s not like Virginia to side with labor over business. So when the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam – fed up with federal inaction to protect workers and customers from the coronavirus pandemic – released new workplace safety mandates, it shook things up.
Unions and advocates for low-income workers and immigrants were delighted, if not surprised, that Virginia was the first state in the nation to put in place enforceable workplace health and hygiene requirements. Associations representing business owners, already battered and bloodied by the pandemic shutdown, felt betrayed if not blindsided.
The Legal Aid Justice Center’s Jason Yarashes applauded Northam’s administration for being “on the right side of history in passing this emergency standard.”
Nicole Bunce of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce saw it differently. “The business community supports clear and consistent workplace health protection protocols,” she wrote in an email statement. “Unfortunately, the business community has a lot of unease and unanswered questions about the newly mandated workplace regulations.”
Any way you cut it, this wasn’t business as usual.
Virginia was founded for business. The Virginia Company was chartered in London at the dawn of the 17th century to colonize North America and feed the British Empire’s appetites for tobacco, timber and other staples. Industry, commerce, mining, shipping and agriculture have held dominion ever since. Regardless of party – Republicans, Democrats, Whigs, Tories, Readjusters, you name it – the commonwealth made business interests paramount. Even Democrats elected with the enthusiastic backing of labor considered the state’s AAA Wall Street bond rating and its consistent business press rankings as the top state for business a crowning glory of their time in power.
Then along came a mysterious, dangerous and hyper-contagious virus that, in the past five months, brought the globe’s industries, economies and governments to their knees. According to the World Health Organization, more than 620,000 of the 15 million people who have contracted the coronavirus worldwide have died of it. In Virginia, where COVID-19 deaths have retreated significantly since spiking in early May, more than 2,000 of the nearly 84,000 cases have been fatal.
By any accounting, Virginia – which has had a measured and cautious approach to emerging from a sweeping six-week spring lockdown – has fared better than most. That’s particularly true when the state is measured against current coronavirus hell holes such as Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arizona and California whose leaders never took the epidemiological data seriously, never fully locked things down and pursued reopening prematurely and aggressively.
Though sometimes tone-deaf and behind the curve during the crisis, Northam – the nation’s only physician governor – has gradually gotten his legs under him. Barred from re-election by Virginia’s unique one-and-done term limit, he approaches the fourth and final year of his foreseeable political future seemingly intent on doing what he knows, comfortable in his grasp of medical science and, perhaps, wiser from his bruising on-the-job schooling in applied politics. The numbers so far back him up.
And he’s juggled the state pandemic response alongside a convulsive reckoning over race starting with George Floyd’s police killing as it unfolds against the haunted history of Virginia, where the first enslaved Africans set foot in British North America and which later became the seat of Confederate government.
Where do the new regulations position Northam and his Democratic Party? What, if anything, does this gain them or cost them in the upcoming presidential election in Virginia and the governor’s race the following year?
Veteran Virginia and national Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee doesn’t see politics as the primary driver of the move.
“What is the alternative? Another complete and total shutdown? Given this situation and the total failure of the federal government to get it under control, states are taking extraordinary steps to avoid another shutdown. By imposing some commonsense safety precautions, they’re taking steps to help keep those businesses open,” said Elleithee, now the founding executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.
It’s an issue not easily shoehorned into red or blue categories, he said.
“Workplace safety has a broader appeal,” he said. “Those who are truly against it are those who refuse to accept that the pandemic is as bad as the science tells us it is.”
Indeed, protections against coronavirus spread at offices, factories, restaurants, shops, hotels and the like cut less across partisan lines than economic and societal ones. They appeal to many people, regardless of party, who feel the most vulnerable and forgotten by government and other forces beyond their control. Those very feelings made Donald Trump’s message that the system is rigged against the average family resonate with a broad swath of working-class America four years ago.
Many businesses had adopted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for frequent hand washing, social distancing, cleaning and disinfection and masks well before the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board adopted the Emergency Temporary Standard on July 15. The dense 35-page directive will apply to businesses large and tiny when it takes effect as early as today. That’s particularly true of restaurants, which closed their dining rooms in early March and went to curbside pick-up or home delivery just to stay open.
“The concern is that some of it (the ETS) exceeds the CDC’s recommendations and directives, and we think they’re excessive,” said Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association.
Particularly onerous to his organization’s nearly 1,500 members, Terry said, is a portion that sets out job and task classifications, prescribing different levels of controls corresponding to different levels of risk.
“One challenge in our industry is that employees may work in multiple areas doing multiple tasks every day, day in and day out,” he said. “Take hotels for example. Today you may be working the front desk and tomorrow you may be helping out with housekeeping. In times like these where business is slow, lines get blurred pretty easily.”
Based on conversations within the industry, Terry estimated that as many as one-fifth of restaurants either may not reopen or “reopen for a short time and realize the requirements are just too difficult.”
Hotels may be better able to weather the pandemic, he said, but older properties will be more vulnerable. “I spoke to a well-known hotel broker in the Newport News area the other day and he told me that he thinks 2021 may be his biggest year ever” for hotels being put on the market, Terry said.
“We were getting back to a place where these businesses were trying to survive and a lot of people are on the edge,” he said. “So now they get smacked when they’re down.”
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