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County Board Passes Emergency Ordinance Against Sidewalk Crowding

With coronavirus cases in Arlington continuing to rise, and large crowds still congregating in Clarendon on weekends, the County Board took action late last week to try to cut down on sidewalk crowding.

The Board unanimously passed an emergency ordinance “prohibiting groups of more than three people from congregating on streets and sidewalks posted with the restrictions, and requiring pedestrians to maintain at least six feet of physical separation from others on the posted streets and sidewalks,” according to a press release.

The ordinance, which will be the subject of a public hearing in September, was approved during a closed session Friday evening. Violations will be treated as a traffic infraction, with a fine not to exceed $100, though Board members said the goal will be to educate the public and achieve voluntary compliance without the need to write tickets.

The action seemed to be aimed at bar-going crowds in Clarendon, as photos are posted on social media of large queues of people outside of nightlife spots like The Lot and Whitlows.

“It’s insane!” local resident Mike Gardell said of the scene this past weekend. “Lines down sidewalks, no social distancing, about one quarter with masks but around their chins or on their wrists. And, for some reason, not one police officer in sight.”

During Friday’s meeting, County Board member Christian Dorsey said Phase 3 of Virginia’s reopening, which allowed more people to gather in restaurants, “has exposed to us a real gap in our ability to ensure the public’s health.” Social distancing can be enforced inside restaurants, Dorsey said, but gatherings on sidewalks was not explicitly prohibited.

“This is absolutely necessary,” Dorsey said of the ordinance, which will be enforced by the police department following a public education campaign and the posting of signs. Board members said the aim is to achieve “a culture of compliance” without a single infraction being issued.

Coronavirus cases in Arlington, meanwhile, continue to rise. Twenty new cases were reported overnight, bringing the cumulative total to 2,945 and the seven-day rate of new cases to 122, a two-week high. There have also been five new hospitalizations over the past week.

The county’s test positivity rate, however, remains relatively low at just 4.4%. Arlington’s average daily testing rate is near an all-time high: 420 PCR-based tests per day.

While cases in Northern Virginia remain steady, the rest of the state is still seeing an elevated level of new cases and a sharp rise in COVID-related deaths.

More on the Arlington’s emergency sidewalk crowding ordinance, below, via a county press release.

The Arlington County Board today adopted an emergency ordinance prohibiting groups of more than three people from congregating on streets and sidewalks posted with the restrictions, and requiring pedestrians to maintain at least six feet of physical separation from others on the posted streets and sidewalks. Violators could face a traffic fine of up to $100. In adopting the measure, the Board cited the difficulty of securing voluntary compliance with social distancing requirements as coronavirus cases surge nationwide.

“While most Arlingtonians are adhering to requirements to wear masks and maintain social distancing, unfortunately, some are not,” Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey said. “They are putting themselves and our community at risk of serious illness or death during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Board hopes that this step will make it clear to our entire community that this pandemic is far from under control and that we are serious about maintaining social distance to slow its spread and save lives. We hope that through outreach and education, we will get voluntary compliance and will not have to issue a single ticket.”

The Board voted unanimously to adopt the emergency amendment to the County Code, saying enforcement will begin after a period of outreach and education, and after signs are posted in the areas of enforcement. The Board acted under the state of emergency declared by Governor Ralph Northam and the County in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

In adopting the emergency amendment, the Board noted that “since the inception of Phase Three,” of Arlington and the Commonwealth’s emergence from the Governor’s Stay-at-Home order, “Arlington county has experienced significant crowding inside restaurants and on the public sidewalks, rights of way, and adjacent public spaces where patrons gather for oftentimes prolonged periods awaiting admission into the restaurants,” without wearing face coverings and practicing physical distancing, “thereby creating a significant potential for spread of COVID-19.”

In accordance with state law, the Board will hold a public hearing on the amendment at its September 2020 County Board Meeting, before voting on whether to make it permanent.

Photo (top) courtesy Brad Haywood

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