Black Caucus says it opposes Gov. Northam’s plan to reopen Virginia Friday

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus laid out their legislative priorities for the veto session in April of 2019 and responded to criticism from Republicans for working with Gov. Ralph Northam on the issues despite their calls for his resignation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has asked Gov. Ralph Northam to abandon his plan to reopen most of Virginia on Friday, saying a premature reopening would make black and brown Virginians “guinea pigs for our economy.”

The Black Caucus, made up of 23 Democratic state lawmakers, formally registered its opposition to Northam’s proposed timeline in a letter to the governor released Wednesday.

The group said that racial disparities in health care and economic opportunity have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, with communities of color performing many essential jobs and seeing disproportionate infection rates.

“Throughout our country’s history, black and brown people have been experimented on and used as unwilling test subjects before — we cannot allow that to be repeated here,” the caucus wrote in a letter signed by its chairman Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico.

The letter from black lawmakers could intensify the political pressure Northam faces as he weighs how to begin allowing some businesses and churches to reopen during a public health crisis that has led to 927 deaths in Virginia.

In response to the letter, the governor’s office said Northam is “deeply appreciative of the Legislative Black Caucus and values their close partnership with him and his administration as we respond to this crisis.”

“He continues to be guided by public health, data and the CDC guidelines,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. “He is absolutely committed to moving forward in a safe, gradual manner that protects all Virginians, particularly low-income individuals, essential workers and communities of color.”

Though the governor had announced a phased reopening could begin at the end of this week, leaders in Northern Virginia, the state’s most populous region that’s been hit with the most COVID-19 cases, said it was too early for their communities to reopen. The governor carved out an exception allowing Northern Virginia to keep shutdown rules in place for another two weeks, but he appears to be sticking with his plan to allow the rest of the state to begin reopening Friday.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has also said he’s considering asking for a delayed reopening for his city, where 16 of the 18 people believed to have died from COVID-19 were African Americans, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Republican state lawmakers and some business groups have pushed the governor to lift shutdown restrictions sooner, arguing a prolonged lockdown could be ruinous to too many Virginians’ livelihoods.

The coronavirus crisis hit roughly a year after Northam’s political career was imperiled by the scandal over a racist photo that appeared on the governor’s 1984 medical school yearbook page. As he’s tried to recover and move on from the episode, Northam has put a particular emphasis on paying close attention to the concerns of black communities and their representatives.

The Black Caucus said concerns over worker safety it had raised with the governor in a prior letter last week “remain unaddressed.”

“Reopening now will not only increase the incidence of COVID-19 exposure to these workers, who remain unprotected and ill-supported, but will also increase the negative economic pressures that they are already experiencing,” the Black Caucus wrote.

The Black Caucus’s letter seemed to overstate trends in coronavirus cases in Georgia, one of the first states to begin reopening. Though the letter said Georgia has seen a “huge spike” in cases since reopening, a recent analysis by the news outlet Axios showed the number of new cases in Georgia has declined when comparing seven-day averages week-to-week.

Pointing to spiking unemployment claims, the caucus said reopening could further disrupt that system, pushing “Virginians who have already fallen through the cracks of our system to only fall deeper.”

“The VLBC is opposed to reopening this Friday in the absence of adequate medical, economic and workplace infrastructure,” the caucus wrote. “We request that you respond to these concerns with an equity-focused plan addressing the issues raised prior to moving forward with Phase One. We particularly ask for a plan that explicitly considers and confronts current and potential growth in racial disparities, and the needs and safety of underserved and vulnerable populations in Virginia.”