Virginia LG Justin Fairfax calls for ‘bolder and swifter actions’ in state’s response to COVID-19

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides over the Senate on the opening day of the 2020 session of the General Assembly. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is asking Gov. Ralph Northam to take “bolder and swifter actions” to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state.

In a letter to the governor dated Wednesday, Fairfax said Virginia should mandate closures of restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms, close all schools for the rest of the academic year, suspend state and local tax payments for 120 days and hold a special General Assembly session within the next month to allow state legislators to adopt emergency measures.

“I thank you, governor, for your leadership, but I sincerely hope that we will implement bolder and swifter actions at this critical moment for our commonwealth and our nation,” Fairfax wrote.

Fairfax, who holds a statewide office that puts him second in line to the governorship, is the latest elected official to publicly call for a stronger response to the coronavirus crisis. Several state lawmakers have already called for a special session, with Democrats prioritizing issues like paid sick leave and health care benefits and Republicans emphasizing the impact on businesses and the need to restructure the state budget due to the economic fallout.

Fairfax, who, despite allegations of sexual assault that surfaced last year, and which he denies, has said he intends to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2021.  He also called for the state to temporarily increase maximum weekly unemployment payments from $378 to $800 per week, create a new grant program to offer financial relief to small businesses and “negotiate with lenders and landlords to suspend all rent payments and mortgage, student loan and burdensome consumer loans for the next 120 days.”

Northam has been announcing new steps to respond to the coronavirus crisis on a near-daily basis, saying he and his administration are responding to a rapidly changing situation. He has banned public gatherings of more than 10 people and encouraged restaurants to switch to takeout or delivery only, but has stopped short of mandatory closures for all restaurant dining rooms. He has also ordered all K-12 schools to close through at least March 27.

On Wednesday, Northam wrote a letter to the U.S. Small Business Administration requesting disaster loan assistance for Virginia’s small businesses. His administration has also expanded the state’s unemployment insurance program to accommodate spike in claims from workers losing jobs or hours due to the pandemic.

Fairfax asked Northam to call a special session prior to the April 22 veto session. Northam has not ruled out a special session but has said he does not see it as a necessary step to date.

On Thursday morning, Northam’s office said the governor only learned of Fairfax’s letter through the media.

“This is a fluid and quickly changing situation, and he is in constant communication with public health experts,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. “He will continue to make decisions in the best interests of Virginians.”

Northam is scheduled to hold another briefing on the outbreak today at 3 p.m.