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Prisoners criticize VADOC vaccine rollout, coronavirus response

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Jillian Floyd hasn’t seen her son in a year. She is one of many Virginia prisoners experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic in Virginia’s correctional institutions, where thousands of incarcerated people have tested positive for the coronavirus since March, and more than 50 who died also tested positive for the disease.

Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Fluvanna County

 

Floyd, a prisoner at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Fluvanna County, said she talks on the phone every day with her 10-year-old child. She said it is difficult for her son not to see her as he did before COVID-19.

“I used to have video visits with my son, and regular in-person visits too,” Floyd said in an email. “I could see how big he was getting.”


Now, without access to video calls and living in the red zone, an area designated for prisoners who test positive for COVID-19, Floyd said she can’t go outside and that she is expected to stay in her cell. She said she tested positive about two weeks ago. Prisoners in red zones may leave their cells to access phones, kiosks, showers, restrooms, nursing stations, food trays, and laundry, according to Gregory Carter, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections.

More than 11,800 prisoners and 4,700 employees have received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran. That accounts for approximately half of the prison population. More than 470 prisoners and 210 employees have received a second dose, Moran said.

There are 629 active coronavirus cases as of Thursday among on-site incarcerated individuals, three active cases in hospitals, and 132 active cases among employees, according to VADOC. There have been more than 8,800 total positive COVID-19 cases, and more than 50 prisoners have died who tested positive for COVID-19.

Floyd, among others living in Virginia’s prisons, said she doesn’t think she could get the vaccine right now even if she wanted to.

“Some women have already gotten it but they haven’t told us when we are going to get it,” Floyd said.

Staff is administering two-dose Moderna vaccines, VADOC said in a January news release. The department is offering email stamps, telephone credits, and commissary items that will become available in early March to prisoners who take the vaccine.

“We want all staff and inmates who want the COVID-19 vaccine to get their inoculations as soon as possible,” Director Harold Clarke said in the release. “This effort is important to all in the VADOC community – our staff, inmates, and the community outside the walls, where our staff and inmates’ families live.”

Floyd said she was moved to the yellow zone, a quarantined area for those who may have been exposed to the virus, “in the middle of a freezing cold rain storm” after her previous roommate tested positive for COVID-19. Floyd said she initially tested negative but felt sick after moving to the yellow zone. She was worried she had the virus but wasn’t tested again for days.

“When I finally got tested, I tested positive and was moved to the red zone,” Floyd said. “The nice thing about the red zone is the kind of let us pick who we wanted to live with, so I’m with someone I knew already.”

Floyd said staff removed personal belongings from those moving into the red zone to quarantine the items, but two of her bags were lost in the move. She now sleeps without a pillow under a borrowed blanket and sheet, she said. The state issues linens to prisoners and they may request replacements, Carter said.

Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, a statewide legal aid and advocacy organization, said Floyd’s experience is consistent with what she’s heard from prisoners across the commonwealth.

“I think it’s fair to say that there has been a lot of chaos within [VADOC] in handling the coronavirus,” Ellis said.

Ellis is a co-leading attorney in long-running litigation against Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center, she said. Ellis’ duties include counseling incarcerated women living in the facility and evaluating healthcare standards following a settlement agreement under which VADOC would improve Fluvanna’s medical care.

Ellis said her legal partners conduct between 100 and 200 interviews with incarcerated women per year, and she receives around 60 emails and letters every week.

Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center has reported more than 630 COVID-19 cases among prisoners, ranking fifth in total positive inmate cases among the commonwealth’s correctional institutions, according to VADOC data.

“What we’re hearing from our clients at Fluvanna and what I’m hearing from other advocates that work with other facilities around the state is that there’s a lot of vaccine hesitancy that’s being caused simply by poor education and counseling ahead of time with the vaccines,” Ellis said.

Women living in Fluvanna have “had to say yes or no” to the COVID-19 vaccine without the opportunity to consult a doctor or a nurse despite having multiple serious health conditions and medication regimens, Ellis said.

“That’s a big problem,” Ellis said.

Prisoners are able to directly consult with a nurse or a doctor before receiving the vaccine, Carter said.

VADOC follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and communicates with local health districts regarding COVID-19 protocol and vaccine rollout, Moran said.

“We feel it’s going smoothly,” Moran said. “So if there are complaints, then you know, we’ll try to address those. But as of now, I’m being told it’s going fairly well in terms of the delivery of the vaccines.”

The Virginia Department of Health began offering COVID-19 vaccines to people living in state prisons and local jails in January, expanding eligibility for who can get the shot under phase 1b of the commonwealth’s distribution plan. For the public, the phase now includes frontline workers, people aged 65 or older, and people living in correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and migrant camps. People aged 16 to 64 years old with an underlying condition were added to phase 1b, though the vaccines aren’t readily available to them yet.

 

Moran said those in law enforcement, including correctional officers, were a priority in the early days of phase 1b.

“As we went to the prisons to do the correctional officers, it was a matter of operational efficiency … to do all individuals at the facility,” Moran said. “And in recognizing the particularly vulnerable population of those who are in confined spaces, it was determined that we would include inmates for the vaccinations.”

Moran said his office is focused on having an aggressive vaccination and testing program to drive down positive cases in correctional institutions. However, the process is not running smoothly, Ellis said.

“I think that Brian Moran has heard many complaints from advocates and from family members of incarcerated people across the state,” Ellis said.

Some cells in the COVID-19 red zone at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women don’t have call buttons, Ellis said. This prevents women inside the cell from being able to quickly communicate if they are in a crisis.

“For example, if they’re having difficulty breathing,” Ellis said. “The only way to get attention is by shouting and basically banging on your closed locked cell door to try to get the attention of a guard, which, if you’re in a medical crisis, you may not even be able to do.”

Carter said cell intercom systems are not required by the American Correctional Association, the accrediting body for VADOC. Some facilities have cell intercom systems and some do not.

“Security and medical staff make regular rounds to check the inmates’ status and address specific needs,” Carter said in an email.

Carter said department staff provides mental health resources and services to prisoners. He said services vary by location but generally include periodic newsletters from mental health staff; a toll-free number to ask questions and the opportunity to share concerns and receive information from mental health staff.

“We also provide psychiatric services as needed and other programs and services as needed,” Carter said.

The department uses several methods to educate prisoners on the vaccine. This includes recorded interviews with medical and public safety authorities that are shared with staff and prisoners, Carter said.

“Our health services staff has done tremendous work these last few weeks getting shots into arms,” VADOC Director of Communications Lisa Kinney said in an email.

Regarding VADOC’s incentive packs for those who receive the vaccine, Floyd said it doesn’t change her mind about the shot.

“I think I’m going to get it, but I’m not going to base my decision about whether to take it on free stuff,” Floyd said. “If it gets people to take it that’s great.”

Nicholes Callahan, a prisoner at River North Correctional Center in Grayson County, said he recalls when VADOC offered similar incentives to encourage getting the flu shot in the fall. He said it did not play a part in his decision to get the shot.

“I feel like the incentive pack is a bribe,” Callahan said in an email.

Callahan said he’s unsure if he wants to get vaccinated. He is concerned about the vaccine’s possible side effects.

“Some other inmates have gotten it this week so now I am going to see if they have any immediate side effects,” Callahan said.

Callahan said he was moved into quarantine after his cellmate tested positive for the virus. Prior to COVID-19, he said he would spend the entire day out of his cell with in-person visits and two weekly trips to the gym. Now, he is out of his cell for about three hours a day “if we are lucky,” he said.

“I feel they have done the best they can in River North,” Callahan said. “It would have been nice to not have lost so much rec time in them doing it.”

David Bomber, a prisoner of Nottoway Correctional Center, said he lives in a cell that is about 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide with a sink and a toilet. The cell is designed for one person but he has a cellmate, Bomber said.

“We basically live in a toilet,” Bomber said.

VADOC’s average daily population has decreased from 29,136 in March 2020 to 23,811 in January, Carter said. He did not respond directly to whether one-man cells are used to house more than one prisoner.

Bomber tested positive for COVID-19 in December with about 200 other prisoners, he said. Bomber and roughly 40 other men moved into quarantine in an area that previously served as a restrictive housing unit, Bomber said. These areas are intended to separate prisoners from the general population.

“The conditions were punitive at best,” Bomber said.

Bomber said he received temperature checks twice daily and only suffered from a headache. He’s now out of quarantine and on modified lockdown but doesn’t know if he’s eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“They’re not putting out no kind of memos; there’s no exchange of information,” Bomber said.

Bomber said he hasn’t heard of incentives for getting the vaccine, but he remembers when he received bags of peanuts and Doritos for getting the flu shot several months ago.

As Bomber spoke on the phone, someone in the background announced with a megaphone that prisoners could sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I think if they’re going to offer it, I’m going to go ahead and take it,” Bomber said.

By Andrew Ringle
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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Herring files brief asking SCOVA to dissolve injunction and allow the Commonwealth to remove the Lee statue

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RICHMOND (April 19, 2021) – Attorney General Mark R. Herring has filed a brief asking the Supreme Court of Virginia to uphold the Richmond Circuit Court’s ruling that removal of the divisive Robert E. Lee statue is lawful and to dissolve the injunction that is currently preventing the Commonwealth from taking down the state-owned statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Attorney General Herring’s brief makes the case not just for why the statue can be taken down, but why it should be taken down, recounting the statue’s prominent role in perpetuating Lost Cause propaganda and promoting racially segregated neighborhoods in Richmond.

“The Lee statue has held a place of prominence in the capital of Virginia, sending a message of white supremacy and division, for far too long and it is time for it to come down,” said Attorney General Herring. “The continued obstruction that has so far prohibited the Commonwealth from exercising its right to remove state-owned property must stop. I remain committed to ensuring that this stark reminder of a racist past comes down, allowing Virginia to move forward on its journey of healing and reconciliation.”

Additionally, a number of Virginians, advocacy groups, and legal scholars are expected to submit nine amicus briefs today in support of Attorney General Herring’s efforts to remove the statue.

On October 27, 2020, Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant ruled in favor of Attorney General Herring and Governor Northam in finding that the Lee statue’s removal was lawful. In January 2021, Attorney General Herring asked the Supreme Court of Virginia to reject this appeal that seeks to keep the state-owned Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue. He also asked SCOVA, if they chose to hear the appeal, to do so as quickly as possible.


Below are some notable passages from Attorney General Herring’s brief:

“In 1890, the then-Governor of Virginia accepted a statue from a nominally private organization of which that same Governor was also, simultaneously, the president. More than 130 years later, a different Governor decided that the statue—a piece of Commonwealth-owned property—should be relocated from one area of Commonwealth ownership and control to another. The General Assembly has agreed. That should be the end of the matter.” [page 1]

“In these two cases, however, a handful of private individuals claim a judicially enforceable right to veto the shared decision of the political branches. As plaintiffs see it, the people of 2021 may not take down a divisive symbol that those who held power in 1890 decided to put up.” [page 1]

“That cannot possibly be right. It is axiomatic that government officials are neither obligated to continue the policies of their predecessors nor capable of preventing their successors from making a different choice. And because even Constitutions may be amended as times change or circumstances warrant, it is clear that the claim plaintiffs assert is alien both to the law and the ability of future generations to create ‘a more perfect Union.’” [page 1]

“The end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments initially brought hope that the newly freed would enjoy the full benefits of citizenship and that the horrors of slavery would be consigned to the dustbin of history…But that promise proved elusive, as efforts soon began to curtail Black political power and bring forth a new era where the basic structures of slavery would persist in practice, if not in name.” [page 2]

“As part of that effort, various commentators embarked on a deliberate campaign to recast the object of Southern secession away from the actual reason secessionists had given at the time: the preservation of slavery. ‘The whole point of” this quickly developing ‘Lost Cause’ mythology was ‘to clothe everything in a language of home, of sacrifice, of loss, of valor, of glory, of religion; everything except the explicit thing that precipitated the severing of the United States.’” [page 3]

“On May 29, 1890, the Lee Monument was unveiled in a ceremony attended by as many as 150,000 people…The event was a both ‘display of . . . uncompromised devotion to the Confederacy’ and ‘a demonstration of the solidarity and power of white people in the South.” [page 5]

“Even in 1890, not everyone in Richmond felt pride in the unveiling of the Lee Monument. A Black-owned newspaper edited by prominent businessman and politician John Mitchell, Jr., for example, criticized the spectacle as ‘handing down . . . a legacy of treason and blood.’…Mitchell’s paper noted that many of those who attended carried ‘emblems of the ‘Lost Cause’’ with an ‘enthusiasm’ that was ‘astound[ing].’…By ‘rever[ing] the memory of its chieftains’ in this way, the paper argued, the ‘celebration . . . forge[d] heavier chains with which to be bound.’” [page 6]

“In 1902—12 years after the Lee Monument was unveiled and just one year after the first house was completed on Monument Avenue—Virginia’s new Constitution mandated racial segregation in schools and disenfranchised Black voters…In 1911, Richmond adopted a residential segregation ordinance—later upheld by this Court—restricting Black residents to certain city blocks…Real estate companies drew on Monument Avenue’s symbolism to attract affluent white residents as the city expanded, advertising race-based restrictions under which ‘[n]o lots [could] ever be sold or rented . . . to any person of African descent.’…These efforts made ‘explicit’ that ‘th[e] purpose was to claim this part of the city as for white people only.’” [page 6-7]

“In no uncertain terms, the inequality enshrined in law continued the legacy of the Lee Monument and others built to valorize Lee and the Lost Cause. The race-based violence inherent in slavery also persisted after the defeat of the Confederacy, as the Jim Crow era was marked by ‘racial terror and lynchings’ throughout the South.” [page 7]

“During the last several years, Richmond’s Lee Monument and other Confederate monuments have become ever-greater hotbeds for controversy. In August 2017, ‘white supremacist extremist organizations’ descended on Charlottesville for the ‘Unite the Right’ rally—a now-infamous demonstration opposing the City’s decision to remove a different Lee statue—as both ‘a show of force’ and an attempt to ‘lay[] exclusive claim . . . to public space [and] to the streets of Charlottesville.’…The demonstration turned violent, with ‘armed men menacing peaceful protestors’ and ‘a contingent of faith leaders’ threatened with ‘physical harm.’…Three people died, dozens were injured, and countless more were traumatized.” [page 8]

“In response to the events in Charlottesville and elsewhere, the General Assembly amended the Code of Virginia during its 2020 session to give localities more control over government-owned monuments on government-owned property, specifically repealing previous language that had prohibited ‘disturb[ing] or interfer[ing]’ with certain monuments…During the same session, the General Assembly also eliminated a state holiday ‘honor[ing] Robert Edward Lee,’…and created a Commission for Historical Statues to determine whether to replace a different statue of Lee that was then one of Virginia’s two submissions in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. [page 8-9]

“The killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, sparked massive protests against police brutality and systemic racism throughout the Nation, including in Virginia…On June 4, 2020—10 days later—Governor Northam announced that he would exercise his authority as the Commonwealth’s chief executive to relocate ‘the statue of Robert E. Lee’ that sits atop the Lee Monument from one area of Commonwealth control to another.” [page 9]

“The General Assembly has also addressed the Lee Monument. On November 18, 2020, the Governor signed a bill stating ‘the Department of General Services, in accordance with the direction and instruction of the Governor, shall remove and store the Robert E. Lee Monument or any part thereof.’…The law also states that this instruction applies ‘[n]othwithstanding the provisions of” the 1889 Joint Resolution, ‘which is hereby repealed.’” [page 10]

“…the [Richmond Circuit Court]…found that the Commonwealth had ‘overwhelmingly established’ the desire of white Southerners ‘to establish a monument to their ‘Lost Cause,’ and to some degree their whole way of life, including slavery,’ and that ‘[i]t was out of this backdrop that the erection of the Lee Monument took place’…the court specifically noted Dr. Gaines’ testimony ‘that today the monument stands as a contradiction to present societal values.’” [page 15-16]

“The Governor has determined that a Commonwealth-owned statue should be relocated from one area of Commonwealth ownership and control to another. The General Assembly has agreed. That should be the end of the matter.” [page 16]

“…the assertion at the heart of these cases is staggering. Plaintiffs insist that those who held power in Virginia more than 130 years ago made a binding promise that a massive monument to the Lost Cause must remain in its current location forever and that any number of people may enforce that promise in perpetuity by way of an injunction. Plaintiffs identify no decision from any court that has ever recognized such an extraordinary restriction against any property owner—much less against the sovereign. And with good reason: plaintiffs’ arguments are deeply flawed and profoundly anti-democratic.” [page 16-17]

“In these cases, a handful of private individuals assert a right to veto the shared judgment of the Governor and the General Assembly that a divisive piece of Commonwealth-owned statuary should be removed from a place of honor on Commonwealth-owned real property. The circuit court correctly rejected that proposition, and this Court should affirm for one of two independent reasons. First, the 2020 Law defeats all of plaintiffs’ claims, and the Taylor plaintiffs’ various challenges to the validity or effect of that law all fail…Second, plaintiffs’ claims always lacked merit and would have failed even absent the 2020 Law…Accordingly, the Court should affirm the decisions of the circuit court and promptly dissolve the injunction pending appeal in Taylor.” [page 21]

“All of plaintiffs’ various claims boil down to an assertion that the Governor has not been granted the authority to remove the Lee statue or that some other document (the 1889 Joint Resolution, the deeds, or both) forbids him from ever doing so. Those claims always failed—and the 2020 Law simply confirms it.”

“…the 2020 Law plainly represents a legislative judgment that leaving the Lee statue in its present location is, in fact, inconsistent with public comfort, welfare, and even health. As the circuit court noted, Dr. Gaines explained why the continued presence of a massive monument to the Lost Cause in the heart of the Commonwealth’s capital city ‘stands as a contradiction to present societal values’ and ‘that there is a ‘consensus that the monuments are a troubling presence.’’” [page 25]

“…the Commonwealth is not just any landowner, and the display of government-owned monuments on government-owned property involves matters of core government speech. Accordingly, regardless of whether the sort of right that plaintiffs assert would be valid against a private party, it cannot prevent the Commonwealth of today from choosing a different course.” [page 54]

“This Court should take care to forestall any such questions. By the time this case is argued, the Commonwealth will have been enjoined for more than a year and that period will continue to expand during the time it takes for the Court to rule. Despite plaintiffs’ late-breaking arguments under the federal Contracts Clause—which are conspicuously absent from plaintiffs’ complaint and arose only as a response to the Commonwealth’s argument that the 2020 Law defeats plaintiffs’ claims…these cases are and always have been overwhelmingly about issues of Virginia law. If plaintiffs want to continue their fight beyond the Commonwealth’s own highest court, it should be their burden to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to grant a further injunction. Accordingly, the Court should—in addition to affirming the circuit court’s judgments on the merits—make it unambiguously clear that the Taylor injunction is immediately dissolved and that the Commonwealth may, finally, remove the Lee statue from its current location in the heart of its capital city.” [page 72-73]

 

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No fatal crashes on I-95 during Virginia “I-95 Drive to Save Lives” initiative

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Virginia was among 15 states, from Maine to Florida, to participate in the annual “I-95 Drive to Save Lives” traffic safety initiative April 9-10. This initiative concentrated on traffic safety enforcement on Interstate 95 and resulted in zero traffic crash fatalities during the enforcement operational period.

“With 2020 being an especially tragic year for traffic fatalities in Commonwealth, zero traffic deaths on the entire 178 miles of I-95 in Virginia proves enforcement initiatives like this help save lives,” said Colonel Gary T. Settle, Superintendent of Virginia State Police. “Being visible on Virginia’s highways and interstates and enforcing live-saving traffic laws make an impact and State Police is proud to be part of the solution.”

In total, during the two-day “I-95 Driver to Save Lives” enforcement initiative, Virginia State Police cited 194 speeders and 11 people for failing to wear a seatbelt. In addition, 20 drivers were cited for violating Virginia’s new hands-free law. There were also two drug arrests made and three wanted persons were apprehended.

As Virginians start to plan for summer travel, Virginia State Police urge motorists to comply with all traffic laws, including Virginia’s hands-free law. Distracted driving can be deadly and as a driver, anytime your attention is not on the road, you are distracted. Do not let tragedy ruin your summer adventures – obey posted speed limits, buckle up and ditch distractions.


Funds generated from summonses issued by Virginia State Police go directly to court fees and the state’s Literary Fund, which benefits public school construction, technology funding and teacher retirement.

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Virginia’s unemployment rate falls to 5.1 percent in March

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Governor Ralph Northam announced on April 16, 2021, that Virginia’s unemployment rate decreased 0.1-percentage point to 5.1 percent in March, which is down 6.2 percentage points from its peak of 11.3 percent in April 2020. The Commonwealth’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate continues to be below the national rate of 6.0 percent.

“Virginia’s unemployment rate is steadily improving, and we are making real progress in safely reopening our economy,” said Governor Northam. “While we have made great strides in our recovery, we know there is still more work to do. We will continue to focus our efforts on bringing more Virginians into the workforce and supporting families, businesses, and communities with the resources they need to build back stronger.”

Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 800 jobs in March. The labor force increased by 1,618 to 4,238,239, as the number of unemployed residents decreased by 5,051. The number of employed residents rose by 6,669 to 4,023,563. In March 2021, Virginia saw over-the-year job losses of 4.4 percent.

“As more and more Virginians receive vaccines, we get closer to ending this pandemic, and our economy becomes stronger,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball. “Despite a tough year, companies have continued to expand and create new jobs in Virginia thanks to our strong business climate and world-class workforce.”



“Virginia’s workers and businesses have faced many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, but their resolve and perseverance have helped overcome them,” said Chief Workforce Development Advisor Megan Healy. “The growing rate of vaccinations gives us confidence that this downward trend will continue in the months ahead. We will keep working diligently to assist Virginians with job training programs and help them gain employment in a changing, post-pandemic job market.”

In March, the private sector recorded an over-the-year loss of 145,200 jobs, while employment in the public sector lost 36,800 jobs. Compared to a year ago, on a seasonally adjusted basis, all 11 major industry divisions experienced employment decreases. The largest over-the-year job loss occurred in leisure and hospitality, down 76,600 jobs, or 18.8 percent. The next largest over-the-year job loss occurred in government, down 36,800 jobs, or 5.0 percent. Local government employment fell by 30,700 jobs and state government employment was down 7,400 jobs, while the federal government added 1,300 jobs. Education and health services experienced the third-largest over-the-year job loss of 22,100 jobs or 4.0 percent.

For a greater statistical breakdown, visit the Virginia Employment Commission’s website at vec.virginia.gov.

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Senate rejects gun control bill amendments

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The Virginia Senate rejected the governor’s amendments to a bill that restricts the gun rights of anyone convicted for assault and battery of a family member.

Under House Bill 1992, introduced by Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, anyone convicted of assault and battery of a family or household member would be prohibited from owning, purchasing, or transporting firearms for a period of three years.

Gov. Ralph Northam proposed increasing the probation period from three years to five years. The governor also wanted to expand the bill to include individuals who were living together or who had cohabited within 12 months.

The individual’s Second Amendment rights automatically will be restored after the probationary period, unless they receive another disqualifying conviction. Anyone who fails to comply with this bill would also be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.


This may include jail time for up to 12 months, a fine of up to $2,500, or both.

“We know that domestic abusers should not own or purchase guns because when they’ve got one, they use one,” Murphy said when introducing the bill.

Senate Bill 1382, introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, established similar parameters but a lesser punishment for failure to comply. The Senate rejected the bill in a 22-16 vote.

The General Assembly met last week to review the governor’s proposed changes.

Lawmakers in the House passed the amendment along party lines, but it failed in the Senate. Democrats joined Republicans to vote against the changes.

Opponents said the measure is too restrictive for a misdemeanor charge.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the VCDL historically would not have supported this legislation in its original form. The VCDL is a group created to protect the Second Amendment rights of Virginians.

The original bill was amended in the Senate to include rights restoration unless there was a disqualifying conviction, a protective order that would restrict the right to carry a firearm or another legal prohibition. VCDL supported this amendment.

If a Virginia citizen lost their gun rights due to a misdemeanor charge, they would lose it forever under federal law, according to Van Cleave. HB 1992 remedies this situation.

“Right now, if you lose your gun rights due to a misdemeanor domestic violence in Virginia, you lose them forever,” Van Cleave said.

David Adams, legislative director for the Virginia Shooting Sports Association, shared some sentiments made by Van Cleave. The VSSA is an association that promotes shooting sports and defends firearm ownership. However, Adams opposed the bill because it would take away someone’s constitutional right due to a misdemeanor charge.

“Everyone will say ‘well, but its domestic violence-related,’” Adams said. “But we don’t take away basic constitutional rights for misdemeanors for any other type of misdemeanor crime.”

Adams also said that while a gun owner’s rights would be automatically restored after three years at the state level, those rights may not be restored federally.

Legislators in support of Northam’s amendment said last week that there are a number of couples who cohabitate but are not married.

“Domestic violence does take place in those situations,” Favola said. “A third of our homicides are really the result of domestic violence.”

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax said he did not expect the amendment to come back to lawmakers, or he never would have voted for the original bill.

“This bill expands the definition in a way that we did not intend,” Petersen said.

Petersen explained that by including cohabitants, there are convoluted situations that could unfairly cause someone to lose their gun rights.

“You could have a roommate, you could be living with your sister, you could be living with a couple of people in the same house that are unrelated,” Petersen said. “If there is a child there, which is a child of either one of them, and they get into an altercation or shoving match, police are called, now somebody loses their gun rights for three years.”

Lori Haas, senior director of advocacy at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, spoke in support of the bill during its initial committee reading. She said that someone with a past history of violence is likely to be a repeat offender.

“We know that a history of violence is the single biggest predictor of future violence,” Haas said. “Oftentimes, it’s the second or third charge before the conviction sticks.”
Guns are used to intimidate, control and harass victims, Haas said.

“There are a number of situations where victims suffer consequences of an abuser owning and possessing a firearm,” Haas said. “The most serious consequence of which is death.”

Jonathan Yglesias, policy director at Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, also spoke in favor of the bill. He said the bill is a common-sense measure that will protect individuals as well as the community.

“We know that offenders of sexual and domestic violence account for 54% of all mass shooting events in the U.S.,” Yglesias said. “These policies aren’t just an issue of individual and family safety, but they’re issues of community and public safety as well.”

The governor has 30 days to act on the bill, or it will become law without his signature.

By Hyung Jun Lee
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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Virginia public transit grapples with reduced ridership, zero fare

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Virginia public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others.

“We are serving a market of essential workers that can’t stay home; they have to use our service,” said Greater Richmond Transit Co. CEO Julie Timm during a recent presentation.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a state of emergency in March of last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move prompted limits on public and private gatherings, telework policies, and mandates to wear masks in public, although some restrictions have eased.

GRTC faced a “potentially catastrophic budget deficit” since eliminating fares last March in response to the pandemic and reductions in public funding starting in July of this year, according to the organization’s annual report. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation emergency funding covered the deficit, according to the report.


The transit system lost about 20% of riders when comparing March to November 2019 with the same 9-month period in 2020. Overall, fiscal year-to-date ridership on local-fixed routes decreased the least (-16%), compared to the bus-rapid transit line (-49%) and express routes (-84%), according to GRTC data. Local-fixed routes had a 7% increase from March 2020 to March 2021.

GRTC eliminated fares in March 2020 to avoid “close interactions at bus fare boxes,” Timm said in a statement at the time. CARES Act funding made the move possible. GRTC will offer free rides until the end of June.

GRTC will need an additional $5.3 million when federal funding ceases to continue operating with zero-fare, Timm said. Zero fares can be supported through the third round of federal stimulus money and Department of Rail and Public Transportation funding, advertising revenue, and other funding sources, Timm said.

“This is the conversation, and it’s a hard conversation,” Timm said. “To fare or not to fare?”

GRTC serves a majority of Black and majority female riders, according to the 2020 annual report. Commuters account for over half the trips taken on GRTC buses and almost three-quarters of commuter trips are five or more days per week. Nearly 80% of riders have a household income of less than $50,000 per year.

GRTC spends about $1.7 million to collect fares annually, according to Timm. Eliminating fares is more optimal than collecting fares, Timm said in March. She believes in zero-fare operation because the bus rates act as a regressive tax, which takes a large percentage of income from low-income earners.

Free fares could lead to overcrowding on buses, opponents argue. However, Timm said that’s not a good reason to abolish the initiative.

“If we have a demand for more transit, I don’t think the answer is to put fares out to reduce the ridership,” Timm said. “I think the answer is to find additional funding sources and commitment to increasing service to meet that demand.”

GRTC will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the zero fare model, according to Timm.

“We’ll have a lot of conversations post-COVID about how we consider transit, how we invest in transit, and how that investment in transit lifts our entire region, not just our riders but all of our economy for a stronger marketplace,” Timm said.

GRTC added another bus route as the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. Route 111 runs in Chesterfield from John Tyler Community College to the Food Lion off Chippenham Parkway. The route surpassed ridership expectations despite being launched during the pandemic, according to the annual report.

GRTC also will receive additional funding from the newly established Central Virginia Transit Authority. The entity will provide dedicated transportation funding for Richmond and eight other localities. The authority will draw money from a regional sales and use tax, as well as a gasoline and diesel fuel tax. GRTC is projected to receive $20 million in funds from the authority in fiscal year 2021. The next fiscal year it receives $28 million and funding will reach $30 million by fiscal year 2026.

These funds cannot be used to assist in zero-fare operation, Timm said.

Almost 350,000 riders boarded the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority buses per day on average in 2019, which includes passengers in Northern Virginia. That number dipped to 91,000 average daily boardings in 2020, according to Metro statistics.

Metro’s $4.7 billion budget will maintain service at 80-85% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a Metro press release. Federal relief funds totaling almost $723 million filled Metro’s funding gap due to low ridership.

“The impact of the pandemic on ridership and revenue forced us to consider drastic cuts that would have been necessary absent federal relief funding,” stated Metro Board Chair Paul C. Smedberg. “Thankfully, the American Rescue Plan Act has provided a lifeline for Metro to serve customers and support the region’s economic recovery.”

Hampton Roads Transit buses served 10.7 million people in 2019 and 6.2 million people in 2020. The decline has carried into 2021. Almost 1.6 million passengers took HRT transit buses in January and February 2020 and just over 815,000 have in 2021, resulting in a nearly 50% decrease. HRT spokesperson Tom Holden said he can’t explain why HRT bus services saw a higher drop-off than GRTC buses.

“We had a substantial decline in boardings in all our modes of transportation just as every transit agency in the U.S. did,” Holden said.

HRT operated with a zero-fare system from April 10 to July 1, 2020. Ridership had a slight uptick from April to October, aside from an August dip. Fares for all HRT transit services were budgeted for 14.2% of HRT’s revenue for the Fiscal Year 2020.

“We are hopeful that with vaccinations becoming more widespread, the overall economy will begin to recover, and we’ll see rates increase,” Holden said.

By Katharine DeRosa
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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Virginia expands Medicaid access for legal immigrants

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Ni Kin became a permanent resident in 2002 at 70 years old, but she was unable to work after moving from Myanmar to Virginia due to mobility problems.

Kin required more medical attention related to her condition as she aged, but was unable to see a doctor because she didn’t have insurance, according to her grandson Tin Myint. Kin didn’t qualify for Medicaid due to a state rule requiring permanent residents to present 10 years of work history to use public health insurance, Myint said. Kin also did not qualify for no-premium Medicare, since she never worked in the country and does not qualify for Social Security benefits.

“We have family friends who live in other states that were able to get Medicaid when they applied, who’ve been living here for 10 to 15 years, and we thought that applied to us also,” Myint said.

“That was disappointing and shocking to hear that Virginia was one of the very few states that had this particular rule.”



Kin is one of the thousands of permanent residents in Virginia that will qualify for Medicaid due to a new change eliminating the 10-year work history requirement, known as the “40-quarter rule,” according to the Virginia Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that advocates for low-income Virginians. The commonwealth was one of six states with a 10-year work history requirement for Medicaid.

Gov. Ralph Northam and state legislators approved a budget last year that eliminated the rule. The change went into effect this month.

Northam’s line budget amendment includes $4.4 million in state funds for this change, according to the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Freddy Mejia, a policy analyst at the Commonwealth Institute, said the old rule was a roadblock for legal permanent residents. The Commonwealth Institute is an organization that analyzes the impact of fiscal and economic issues on low-income communities.

“Someone who comes to the country as an older adult possibly doesn’t get the opportunity to work for 10 years but gets sick,” Mejia said as an example.

Mejia said lawmakers and advocates lobbied for the change in the 2019 General Assembly, but it did not pass. Northam and lawmakers approved the change as a line budget amendment in 2020, but it was vetoed once the COVID-19 pandemic began, Mejia said. It was funded again in the 2020 fall special session, and the change went into effect on April 1, 2021.

Mejia credited this change to advocacy efforts from different parties, including the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, and politicians such as Del. Mark Sickles, D- Franconia, Sen. George Barker, D- Alexandria, and Northam.

Jill Hanken, a health attorney, and director of ENROLL Virginia said immigrants have suffered in a disparate way throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and the policy change will encourage people to apply for the coverage they need. ENROLL Virginia is a project of the Virginia Poverty Law Center that helps Virginians access affordable health coverage.

“Statewide it demonstrates that Virginia is welcoming and interested in making sure that immigrants have access to the health services that they need,” Hanken said.

ENROLL Virginia will continue alerting immigrants across the commonwealth of this change, Hanken said.

Meanwhile, Myint is excited to sign his grandmother up for Medicaid.

“I can’t wait for her to get a proper medical checkup, the needs that she needs to have a living condition she deserves,” Myint said.

By Cameron Jones
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

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Upcoming Events

Apr
20
Tue
all-day Mad Science Kit @ Warren County Community Center
Mad Science Kit @ Warren County Community Center
Apr 20 – Apr 23 all-day
Mad Science Kit @ Warren County Community Center
The Warren County Parks and Recreation Department Mad Science Kit contains experiments that focus on fun, interactivity, and entertainment. Participants ages 6-12 will be able to perform four (4) experiments, including Dyed Carnations, Lava Lamps,[...]
Apr
24
Sat
10:00 am Earth Day @ Sky Meadows State Park
Earth Day @ Sky Meadows State Park
Apr 24 @ 10:00 am – 1:00 pm
Earth Day @ Sky Meadows State Park
On this Earth Day, celebrate safely by doing your part to restore our earth and joining the Great Global Cleanup. Stop by one of our tables at the Explorer Outpost, Picnic Area, or Lost Mountain[...]
12:00 pm Empty Bowl Supper “To Go” @ Downtown Market
Empty Bowl Supper “To Go” @ Downtown Market
Apr 24 @ 12:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Empty Bowl Supper “To Go” @ Downtown Market
Come out to enjoy our favorite fundraiser to benefit the House of Hope, the Empty Bowl Supper “TO GO”! DATE: Saturday, April 24 from 12noon-3pm Ticket Link: eventbrite.com/empty-bowl-supper LOCATION: Main Street & Downtown Market Check in near the[...]
12:00 pm SHS Band Golf Tournament @ Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club
SHS Band Golf Tournament @ Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club
Apr 24 @ 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm
SHS Band Golf Tournament @ Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club
Join us for an afternoon of golf at Blue Ridge Shadows Golf Club in Front Royal! 1 pm Shotgun, Registration from 12pm – 12:45pm. $85/Player $340/Team Help us celebrate Skyline High School Band’s success while[...]
12:30 pm Color Run Fundraiser @ Warren County Department of Social Services
Color Run Fundraiser @ Warren County Department of Social Services
Apr 24 @ 12:30 pm – 3:00 pm
Color Run Fundraiser @ Warren County Department of Social Services
Save Our Children Front Royal is hosting a Color Run/Walk to raise money for The Child Safe Center, located in Winchester, Virginia. The Child Safe Center is a local non-profit who supports sexually abused victims[...]
Apr
25
Sun
4:00 pm Paint with a Superhero @ Downtown Market
Paint with a Superhero @ Downtown Market
Apr 25 @ 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
Paint with a Superhero @ Downtown Market
$30 per painter or 4 painters for $100. Bring the whole family and save! Join us for a special Paint with a Superhero event! Be sure to dress up as your favorite hero or villain[...]
Apr
27
Tue
10:00 am Mah Jongg “Players Club” @ Warren County Community Center
Mah Jongg “Players Club” @ Warren County Community Center
Apr 27 @ 10:00 am – 1:00 pm
Mah Jongg “Players Club” @ Warren County Community Center
Players will enjoy several hands of Mah Jongg against skilled opponents. This club meets on Tuesdays from April 6, 2021 through April 27, 2021 from 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. at the Warren County Community[...]
6:30 pm Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
Apr 27 @ 6:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Dance Fitness Class @ Warren County Community Center
This class is for all fitness levels and anyone who is looking to have fun dancing to a variety of music styles from hip hop to swing to salsa, all while EXERCISING! This class will[...]
May
1
Sat
8:00 am 2021 Apple Blossom Wine & Hard C... @ Sky Meadows State Park
2021 Apple Blossom Wine & Hard C... @ Sky Meadows State Park
May 1 @ 8:00 am – 12:30 pm
2021 Apple Blossom Wine & Hard Cider Challenge @ Sky Meadows State Park
Come enjoy the challenging routes at Sky Meadows State Park and Valley View Farm, home of the Gnarled Orchard. These courses are knotty, knot nice at the farm as they are a mix of cross[...]
12:00 pm The Farmer’s Forge @ Sky Meadows State Park
The Farmer’s Forge @ Sky Meadows State Park
May 1 @ 12:00 pm – 3:00 pm
The Farmer’s Forge @ Sky Meadows State Park
Blacksmith Shop in the Historic Area. The forge is fired up and the blacksmiths are hard at work in the Historic Area. Members of the Blacksmith Guild of the Potomac have set up shop and[...]