Arlington, VA

More than 1,000 coronavirus tests were performed in Arlington on at least four days over the past week.

The surge in testing may be attributable to returning college students, traveling relatives and others seeking a virus-free Thanksgiving gathering. It has pushed the county’s seven-day testing average up to 928 daily tests and the test positivity rate down to 6.3%, from 7.6% just four days ago.

Amid the rise in testing, the number of average daily cases continues to rise. Arlington hit a new record today, with 482 coronavirus cases reported over the past seven days, or a trailing seven day average of nearly 69 daily cases.

The cumulative number of confirmed cases in Arlington over the course of the pandemic is now 5,994, just shy of the 6,000 mark. It crossed 5,000 on Nov. 8.

No new COVID-related deaths were reported in Arlington today by the Virginia Dept. of Health, but three new hospitalizations were reported overnight, bringing the seven-day total of local hospitalizations to nine.

The Centers for Disease Control is recommending that Americans avoid traveling for Thanksgiving this year, as the pandemic rages in much of the nation. Arlington County, meanwhile, last week issued “Guidelines for a Safer Thanksgiving During COVID-19,” including keeping gatherings small, hosting guests outside, and wearing masks.

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(Updated at 11:50 a.m.) Just over a week ago, new coronavirus restrictions went into effect in Virginia.

Among other things, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered a 25-person limit on indoor and outdoor gatherings, down from 250; an expanded mask requirement; and a 10 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales for on-site consumption.

Since that went into effect on Monday, Nov. 16, more than 500 new COVID-19 cases have been reported in Arlington alone.

Some other jurisdictions are enacting more stringent restrictions. Yesterday, the District of Columbia announced a 10-person limit for indoor gatherings, a ban on indoor group fitness classes, and a maximum 25% indoor capacity cap for restaurants. Montgomery County is also enacting a 10-person gathering limit, starting tonight.

Restaurants and workplaces appear to be a oft-cited commonality among those testing positive for the virus in Arlington this month. The surge in new cases, however, has not yet been accompanied by a significant increase in hospitalizations, raising questions about whether the potential cost to business and employment is worth the health benefit of a marginal reduction in new cases. In addition, the case fatality rate for COVID-19 has been decreasing.

That said, hospitalizations are surging in other parts of the country, so it might only be a matter of time before the growth in cases here leads to a rise in hospitalizations and fatalities. And with vaccines on the way, any new restrictions will be temporary.

Given all that, do you think Virginia should tighten up its restrictions?

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Going to work or eating at a restaurant are two of the most commonly-reported activities among Arlingtonians who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

That’s according to new information released by Arlington County.

Among coronavirus patients who were interviewed by local health officials, a third had contact with a known positive case, 38% had recently gone to a restaurant, and 48% had recently gone to work, according to a press release.

This is the first time the county has publicly announced such contact tracing data. It comes amid a surge in new coronavirus cases in Arlington, though that surge has so far not resulted in a spike in hospitalizations.

The press release is below.

Between Nov. 3, 2020, and Nov. 16, 2020, Arlington County interviewed 539 residents who were diagnosed with COVID-19 (cases). Of those cases, 33% reported contact with a known case – 21% had that contact with a known case at home; 12% with a known case in the community.

In addition, public health staff identified sites outside of their homes where cases may have been exposed:

  • 48% reported going to work
  • 38% reported going to one or more restaurants
  • 12% reported going to a gathering (e.g., wedding, funeral, or party)
  • 17% reported traveling out of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia area
  • 7% reported going to a gym

While these were common locations among Arlington cases interviewed, it does not mean they were the definitive source for COVID-19 exposure in each individual case. As a reminder, “correlation does not imply causation.”

These findings are similar to a recent report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which suggests community exposures contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Given the rise in cases in the region, County public health officials remind Arlingtonians that social gatherings beyond your household bubbles makes germ spread more likely.

In general, the more closely people interact with each other and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.

To protect against COVID-19 spread, everyone should avoid close contact with people who do not live in their household, wear a mask (cloth face covering), and practice social distancing, and frequently and properly wash hands.

All Arlingtonians should do their part to abide by this public health guidance.

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(Updated at noon) Both Arlington and Virginia as a whole reached fresh one-day and trailing seven-day peaks for new coronavirus cases today.

In Arlington this morning, a record 98 new cases were reported, bringing the trailing seven-day average to its eighth consecutive daily record: 68 daily cases, or 476 cases over the past week.

The county’s test positivity rate is currently 7.1%, and an average of 773 tests are being performed per day; the latter is also a record. The cumulative total of reported COVID-19 cases in Arlington during the course of the pandemic is now 5,856.

It’s a similar story regionally.

“The number of new COVID-19 cases in the Fairfax and Loudoun health districts is officially surging, according to new analysis from the University of Virginia, and the Northern Virginia region’s overall caseload is at its highest level since it peaked May 31,” InsideNova reported on Sunday. Case averages are also at a new high in Montgomery County, Maryland, Bethesda Magazine reports.

Throughout Virginia, 3,242 new cases were reported today, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data, bringing the trailing seven-day average of new daily cases to 2,343. The state’s test positivity rate is 7.2%.

VDH noted that Monday’s case counts are higher “in part due to a catch-up from the VDH data system being down for upgrades for a few hours over the weekend.”

Despite the surge in cases locally, hospitalization and fatality figures for Arlington, as reported by VDH, remain relatively low. One new hospitalization and one new COVID-related death were reported overnight. Only eight hospitalizations have been reported in the county over the past week.

Nationally, however, coronavirus hospitalizations have “reached new record highs every day since Nov. 10,” Axios reports.

There is more positive vaccine news this morning, but that doesn’t mean that the pandemic will end and life will get back to normal in the near term. In his weekly public Facebook post, Virginia Hospital Center ER chief Mike Silverman suggested that the second half of 2021 might be when to expect a return to normal.

“Although vaccines will roll out in the near future, it will take until summer of 2021 before the last cohort (young, healthy people) are able to get vaccinated,” Silverman wrote. “This means mask wearing and COVID restrictions well into next year. But I think the light at the end of the tunnel could be school starting next fall and life returning to normal. We’re 9 months in with likely another 9 or 10 to go, but at least we now know the end point.”

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As the November chill setting in, Arlington County restaurants are taking steps to keep guests cozy as they eat at impromptu patios.

Outdoor dining continues to be an option for restaurants that want to seat more customers while keeping indoor occupancy low. But some Arlington restaurant owners are facing hurdles outfitting their space with heaters and extra seating while meeting local and state laws.

So far, the County has approved 21 requests for propane heaters. But some restaurants, including Medium Rare in Virginia Square, do not have enough outdoor space to keep their guests warm while meeting state fire codes.

Medium Rare’s owner, Mark Bucher, said he and other Arlington restaurant owners are being forced to choose among three bad options: close the outdoor seating space, spend thousands of dollars on electric heating, or break the law and put up propane heaters anyway.

Bucher, who has been organizing large-scale free meal deliveries during the pandemic, has started asking the County to cut the red tape that he says is making it harder to expand patio seating and subsequently, set up heaters.

“Arlington, which is normally the most business-friendly jurisdiction in the area, has been the worst on this,” said Bucher, who also operates in Bethesda and D.C. “There has been no proactive outreach.”

Arlington County spokeswoman Erika Moore said the County is taking steps to help businesses transition to winter.

“The Arlington County Fire Prevention Office is working hard to ensure businesses can remain open and operating as we move to colder weather,” she said in an email.

Part of the space issue stems back to the summer, when some Arlingtonians wanted to see streets closed so tables and chairs could spill into the street. But this never happened, due to a lack of resources and manpower, county officials said in October. A number of temporary outdoor seating areas were approved, and in some cases street parking spaces were used to help accommodate them, but bolder action was not taken.

Neighboring Fairfax County, meanwhile voted last month to relax regulations around tents and heaters.

With winter near, restaurant owners in Arlington do not just need space for outdoor seating, Bucher said, they need space to install heaters according to code. Propane heaters, for example, have to be five feet from buildings and exits, and cannot be under tents or canopies.

There’s a permit process that must be followed, which involves submitting a permit for heaters and possibly re-submitting a permit to change a restaurant’s set-up for outdoor seating. That all takes time, and restaurants are running out of time.

Out of desperation, in areas where seating is limited to sidewalks, some restaurants are putting up heaters anyway.

“People are doing it, but technically, you’re not allowed to have one,” Bucher said.

He said he tried to install a silent, diesel-powered, zero-emission heater at the Arlington Medium Rare, but was informed that also did not meet code.

Bucher said the problem is “an old fire code that is antiquated,” as well as overzealous enforcement.

“No one has said, ‘We’re going to hold off on this so that restaurants can have seating,'” he said.

Moore said Arlington County has helped create more seating for restaurant, approving 92 temporary outdoor seating areas that added more than 900 temporary outdoor tables countywide.

“Some of these have involved temporarily repurposing portions of public rights of way to increase space for restaurant seating, including in the Shirlington and Clarendon neighborhoods,” she said.

The County also has published a guide for transitioning to winter that addresses the commercial use of tents and heaters and recommends blankets, hand-warmers, cozy food and drinks and prix fixe menus. But even the warmest of drinks is unlikely to do much to boost business during the coldest of winter nights.

Bucher said Arlington should look to D.C. and Montgomery County, which are issuing grants specifically for restaurants to winterize, and have taken steps to close parts of streets for extra seating.

In D.C., 428 restaurants have received $2.6 million in funds to winterize, DCist reports, and the government still has $1.4 million to distribute. Restaurants in Montgomery County can apply for grants worth up to $10,000.

This summer, the County did award $2.8 million to nearly 400 small businesses through the Small Business Emergency GRANT Program, which “helped small businesses, including restaurants, transition as needed to operate during COVID,” Moore said.

To create more space D.C. shut down metered parking to create “streateries” in some areas, Bucher said. In Arlington, the process to expand patio seating is still beset with applications and fees, despite the extraordinary times, he added.

“I have to pay fees in a pandemic?” he asked.

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In March, Arlington County was on-track to set a new record low for tax delinquency rates.

Then, the coronavirus hit.

“As the pandemic unfolded, we got further and further from our goal, which was to be expected,” Treasurer Carla de la Pava told the County Board during its recessed meeting on Tuesday.

Delinquency rates had decreased by almost half since 2014, but COVID-19 erased two years of record-setting lows. The County is currently out nearly $10 million in uncollected tax revenue, de la Pava said.

For every 10,000 tax-paying residents and business, de la Pava had aimed to have only 17 fall behind, but when the collection year ended on Aug. 14, that proportion increased to 22. She told the County Board that next year, she predicts it will be “difficult, but achievable” to keep the rate under 30 delinquent residents and businesses per 10,000.

“We have our work cut out for us,” she said. “We started this collection year with the highest rate of delinquencies since I became treasurer,” or about $14 million.

The “elephant in the room” that contributed the most to the spike is delinquent real-estate taxes, which have never been higher in the County’s history, de la Pava said. Overall, the County is missing more than $5 million in property taxes for homes, apartments, hotels and businesses.

The highest percentage of households that have not paid their property taxes are clustered in the 22207 zip code: the northernmost part of North Arlington that includes the Cherrydale, Country Club Hills and Yorktown neighborhoods.

The highest percentage of businesses that have not paid their property taxes are centered in the 22202 zip code (the Crystal City, Pentagon City and Arlington Ridge neighborhoods) and 22206 (the Shirlington, Fairlington and Long Branch Creek neighborhoods).

Taxes on property used for business are also up dramatically, with number of delinquencies concentrated in the 22202 zip code. The amount owed along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, however, exceeds all other zip codes combined, de la Pava said.

This June, the treasurer’s office put a number of hotels and big businesses on Taxpayer Assistance Program loans so they could pay their taxes over 10 months, from August 2020 to May 2021. This came after her office offered a two-month deferral this spring that mostly benefited hard-hit restaurants and hotels.

John Marshall Bank, which partners with the county on the short-term loans, lowered its rates to make these repayment plans more affordable, she said.

“We prevented almost $1 million in going delinquent through TAP loans from John Marshall Bank,” de la Pava said.

To encourage safe and timely payments this year, de la Pava said her office added a temporary location this September and encouraged people to pay online, resulting in an 11% increase in online profiles.

The County Treasurer said she found another bright spot in vehicle taxes, which reached the second-lowest delinquency rate in Arlington’s history this year. Outreach, payment plans and automatic billing contributed to the lower delinquency, she said.

The Columbia Pike corridor, or the 22204 zip code, has the highest concentration of vehicle delinquencies, amounting to $1.1 million.

The treasurer’s office drafted 400 payment plans for vehicle taxes, saving $600,000 from going delinquent, de la Pava said.

Images via Arlington County

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For the fifth day in a row, Arlington has hit a new high point for coronavirus infections.

The Virginia Dept. of Health reported 59 new COVID-19 cases in the county overnight, bringing the seven-day trailing total to 412, or an average of 59 cases per day. That’s 10 times the level of infection at the end of June, at a local lull in the pandemic.

Arlington’s seven-day test positivity rate, meanwhile, has risen to 7.5%, above the statewide rate of 7.0%.

No new deaths nor hospitalizations were reported today, however, bringing Arlington’s seven-day hospitalization rate down to eight, from 16 two days ago.

The county’s relatively low level of hospitalizations compared to new cases can be at least partially explained by demographics: nearly two-thirds of new infections over the past two weeks have been among those under the age of 40. Younger people are generally less vulnerable to the worst virus complications.

The cumulative number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Arlington is now 5,603, 566 and 156, respectively, according to VDH. At the current rate of infection, Arlington would reach 10,000 cases in early February.

With virus cases surging in Arlington, in Virginia, in neighboring Maryland, and nationwide, officials are asking people to consider cancelling Thanksgiving travel and to rethink holiday gatherings.

“Americans should avoid travel for Thanksgiving, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Thursday,” NBC News reported yesterday. “It was a last-minute attempt by the nation’s leading public health agency to curb what’s sure to be yet another dangerous spike in Covid-19 cases if families gather next week.”

On Wednesday, Arlington County offered a number of tips for safer Thanksgiving gatherings.

We can all make it a safer holiday season by continuing to practice the public health guidance we know slows the spread: wear a mask; stay at least 6 feet away from others who do not live with you; and wash your hands.

The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to celebrate with people in your household. If you do plan to spend Thanksgiving with people outside your household, Arlington County is encouraging everyone to take steps to make your celebration safer by following the suggestions and guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you must attend a gathering, CDC recommends bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups, and utensils. Wear a mask, and safely store your mask while eating and drinking. Avoid going in and out of the areas where food is being prepared or handled, such as in the kitchen. Use single-use options, like salad dressing and condiment packets. Bring supplies to stay healthy including extra masks, hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol and tissues.

If you must have guests to your home, CDC suggests you consider a small outdoor meal with family and friends and limit the number of guests. Have conversations with guests ahead of time to set expectations for celebrating together. If celebrating indoors, make sure to open windows. Have guests bring their own food and drink. If sharing food, have one person serve food and use single-use options, like plastic utensils. Provide supplies to keep everyone healthy including extra masks, hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol and tissues. Stock bathrooms with enough hand soap and single use towels.

Anyone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, is waiting for COVID-19 test results, or has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days should stay home.

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A 1970s technology is causing a very 2020 problem at Arlington County’s drive-thru coronavirus testing site.

The collection site at 1429 N. Quincy Street is, as of publication time, temporarily closed. The reason, according to Arlington Public Health spokesman Ryan Hudson, is because “the site is having some technical issues with its fax line.”

The site closed shortly before 11 a.m. today. Police were called to the site to assist with traffic control, with a large number of vehicles reportedly in line at the time of the closure.

Arlington’s seven-day moving average of PCR-based tests performed reached 632 per day today, a new local record, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data. Arlington’s test positivity rate currently stands at 6.9%, down slightly from 7.2% a few days ago.

The trailing seven-day total of new cases reported in the county is 386 as of Thursday morning, setting a new record for the fourth day in a row.

Those hoping to get a COVID-19 test while the drive-thru site is closed can either go to the county’s walk-up testing site at the Arlington Mill Community Center or go to one of several local private testing sites.

Update at 2:15 p.m. — The testing site has reopened.

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Wakefield High School has opened its doors to a handful of students in search of better internet connectivity, a quiet place to study or a trip out of the house.

From 8 a.m.-3 p.m., up to 30 students can study at socially distanced work stations in the school’s vaulted atrium, featuring a glass wall that overlooks a courtyard. In the space, students can study without the distractions or demands of family life and they have access to technicians if their computers break.

It’s comparable to a co-working office, but for high school students.

“If you’re having WiFi issues, if you need a quiet study place, or if you simply are going stir-crazy and you need to get out and find a place to study, you’re welcome to come,” Principal Christian Willmore said.

Students seem to enjoy the space, with up to seven coming on average, he said. A few are regulars, while the rest come as needed.

“Honestly, it’s not to the degree that I had hoped, but we’re still trying to get the word out of what it is and what it looks like,” Willmore said. “I’m hoping more students access it, if they need it.”

Wakefield debuted its program on Nov. 5, one day after students with disabilities became the first to return to school. Wakefield had 12 students return for in-person learning, and 20 staff assigned to them, Willmore said.

The pilot is distinct from Arlington Public Schools’ return-to-school plan, which opened school buildings for students with disabilities in its first phase, also called “level one.” Future levels have had their return delayed until 2021, but APS did identify and start providing supports to an additional 150 four to 11 year olds this week.

Other principals are working with Willmore to eventually bring the program to their buildings.

“We want to see how it works at Wakefield first because we’ve been working out the detailed procedures,” Willmore said. “We’ve been able to refine practices and procedures, documents, processes so that people aren’t reinventing the wheel.”

Kids are screened and monitored by staff at the front door and to limit exposure, they cannot leave and come back later. To prevent them from roaming the building, only one bathroom and one drinking fountain are open and running. Students sign up one day in advance on Canvas, APS’ learning management software, affirming they have not been recently exposed to or sickened by the coronavirus.

The day-long study option also allows school staff to connect with students who do not log in for full periods or have fallen behind on work.

“Those conversations are hard to have, so it was nice to have them in person,” Willmore said.

Photos courtesy Frank Bellavia/Arlington Public Schools

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(Updated at 11:30 a.m.) For the third day in a row, Arlington’s daily coronavirus case average has risen to a new record.

In Arlington, 58 new cases were reported overnight, following 74 new cases on Tuesday and 82 new cases on Monday. The trailing seven-day total of new COVID cases is now 382, or nearly 55 per day, a new record.

The state also set a new case average record today, reaching 1,761 new daily coronavirus cases over the trailing seven-day period. New restrictions on gatherings and alcohol sales, ordered by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, took effect Monday.

Arlington’s cumulative case count since the beginning of the pandemic is now above 5,500. It crossed the 5,000 mark only ten days ago.

The county’s test positivity rate has also ticked up, and currently stands at 7.1%. It was around 3.5-4.5% in September and October.

Hospitalizations, meanwhile, remain elevated but well below the levels seen this spring. Sixteen new hospitalizations have been reported among Arlington residents over the past week, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data.

During a presentation to the Arlington County Board on Tuesday, officials said that the virus is disproportionately affecting younger adults and the Hispanic community.

“The trend continues to illustrate the constant disproportionate burden for our Hispanic residents across the entire span of the pandemic,” said Aaron Miller, Arlington’s director of the Department of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management.

For Nov. 8 to 14, this group had 29.3 cases per 100,000 people.

Eighteen to 29 year olds are breaking records for case numbers during the pandemic, with 28.38 cases per 100,000 reported last week.

“Since June, we have seen sustained increases and a disproportionate burden of illness that is higher than all other age groups,” Miller said.

The County’s contact tracing has found that one third of Arlingtonians who test positive knowingly interacted with someone who was positive or showing symptoms of COVID-19, while nearly one in five report that they attended a large gathering.

“That increase in people gathering together flat out allows for germ spread, and it makes it easier for coronavirus cases to rise,” he said.

Arlingtonians are also setting new highs for testing rates. Since the pandemic started, 84,601 PCR tests have been reported to the department, with 4,500 coming over the last few weeks.

“That is the highest number reported to date,” Miller said.

Nationally, all 50 states are currently reporting rising cases, and while COVID-related deaths in the U.S. crossed the quarter-million mark today, case mortality rates are lower than in the spring.

Drugmaker Pfizer reported new, strongly positive data from its vaccine trials today, and is now seeking emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

Pfizer and Moderna, which developed another vaccine that has proven highly effective in trials, are aiming to have 20 million vaccine doses each available in the U.S. by late December, the Associated Press reports.

Jo DeVoe contributed to this report

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Morning Notes

Arlington Streetcar Anniversary — Today is the sixth anniversary of the cancellation of the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar project. [ARLnow]

APS Still Planning for In-Person School — “Some have asked why we are proceeding at this time given the latest health metrics. It is important that we gather the information schools need to plan now, so that they have the time to prepare for possible transitions in January. Delaying the process would mean that we would not be ready to open our schools for more students, should we determine it is safe enough to do so.” [Arlington Public Schools]

More Taco Rocks on the Way — “Chef Mike Cordero and his sons, Nick and Anthony, are bringing a second Taco Rock location to Northern Virginia with plans to expand the brand to a chain of up to a dozen restaurants. Cordero and his restaurant group, Macnac Group, will deliver a 2,500-square-foot fast-casual taqueria and tequila bar at 6548 Little River Turnpike in the Pinecrest Plaza shopping center that will replicate the Rosslyn store that opened its doors in October 2019.” [Washington Business Journal]

Fireworks Banned on Public Property — “The use of personal fireworks is now officially verboten on publicly owned property in Arlington. The policy change was tucked away in a broader County Board action Nov. 14 that updates for the first time in three years the Arlington County Fire Prevention Code.” [InsideNova]

County to Implement Restorative Justice — “The Arlington County Board today accepted the Restorative Arlington Strategic Plan, which provides a framework for the County to adopt restorative justice practices in our public schools, legal system, and community settings. Arlington expects to receive a $75,000 grant award from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to help implement the plan.” [Arlington County]

Back to Normal at DCA May Take Years — “Officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority believe it will take years for air traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels — at least until 2024, according to its proposed 2021 budget. MWAA said it expects airlines at its two airports, Reagan National and Dulles International, will finish the year with about 7.4 million passengers put on planes, a significant drop from the 24.3 million in 2019.” [Washington Business Journal]

Nearby: New &Pizza in Seven Corners — “Looks like 7 Corners area of Falls Church is getting an @andpizza — a fun, new addition to the neighborhood.” [@jstrelitz/Twitter]

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