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What’s Next: Coronavirus Preparedness In Arlington

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Coronavirus in Arlington has increased ninefold in just ten days. This is all with extremely limited testing resources. We need more tests and we needed them last week.

America just hit the highest number of individuals filing for unemployment in history. Unemployment insurance filings in Virginia jumped from just 2,706 last week to 46,885 this week — a 17-fold increase. People are losing their jobs and they’re losing them quickly.

The response of our community during this unprecedented health crisis has been heartening, however.

Virginia Hospital Center’s (VHC) COVID-19 testing site has gained national attention. President Obama shared the work of the Maywood Community Association’s effort to help the elderly and at-risk neighbors. Some restaurants like Good Stuff Eatery, Bayou Bakery, Medium Rare, and Good Company Doughnuts and Cafe are offering free meals to school-age kids or at-risk seniors. Arlington was the first in Northern Virginia to encourage bars/businesses to close prior to St, Patrick’s Day and encouraged the Governor to make a statewide announcement, apparently facing opposition from leadership in Fairfax County.

While our spirit remains resilient, our new normal has not yet appeared. Arlington has the second-largest coronavirus infections reported in Virginia. Virginia received 44,000 new filings for unemployment last week, and small businesses and restaurants are having to make hard decisions about their future. VHC’s drive-through testing requires a doctor’s note, which is difficult for those who are recently unemployed, uninsured, and particularly service workers who unknowingly interacted with infected patrons. Local doctors have reported turning away hundreds of patients who needed testing due to lack of tests.

My fear is that our reporting of infected persons is being vastly underreported due to a reluctance of doctors to issue a note for recommended testing because of limited testing resources.

Short Term Response: Safety

Ensuring the safety of our community always comes first. We have heard from VHC and other hospitals in the region that we don’t have enough testing.

No jurisdiction in the D.C. area has been named on the White House’s list of cities to receive funding for more testing. Governor Northam, Governor Hogan, and Mayor Bowser have written a letter asking to be added to this list, and that notion was supported in a subsequent letter by our senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, Congressman Don Beyer, and the rest of the D.C. area Congressional delegation, to no avail.

Now that the coronavirus stimulus package has been approved, the Trump administration needs to actually use the Defense Production Act to ramp up the production of much-needed materials. Hopefully, the administration can handle the situation in front of them before we get to part two, the economic long term response.

As a supporting service, I hope Governor Northam also considers a mental health therapy hotline service similar to that in New York for those finding isolation difficult.

Long Term Response: The Economy

What is Currently Being Done

What Other Cities are Doing

Funding A Response

Virginia will at minimum receive $1.25 billion from the coronavirus stimulus package. Fairfax is the only locality in Virginia that meets the local government population funding requirement (over 500,000 people), meaning Arlington will likely not qualify for a local government distribution. It is unclear at this time how the state’s allocated stimulus will impact us locally. Hopefully the direct payments to individuals will help bridge the gap for a few weeks/days on short term household needs.

What we can do is advocate to Governor Northam to create a statewide small business grant or loan program to help local small businesses survive using those federal funds. This would help local businesses rehire any temporary laid-off workers and mitigate what has turned into the worst unemployment week in American history. Virginia is significantly behind other states in solutions to this problem.

Locally, Arlington is still in Fiscal Year 2020 (ending in July). To keep our AAA bond rating we need 5% of our operating budget in reserves and we are currently keeping about 7%, or about $10 million over what is required. This added cushion was literally built-in for this type of unexpected market turn. It is unseen as to if coronavirus will impact business so badly as to decrease our revenues by $10 million. God bless Mark Schwartz and his team for trying to forecast our future during this time.

Be well everyone and keep your social distance.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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