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Fewer COVID-19 cases. Lower unemployment. Higher hotel occupancy rates. These and other signs point to Arlington County’s continued recovery, according to Board Chair Matt de Ferranti.

During the annual State of the County address, the chair said Arlington County is well on the road to economic recovery but it has a ways to go before it enters into a period of renewal. The event was hosted virtually yesterday morning (Tuesday) by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, with a Q&A moderated by ARLnow founder Scott Brodbeck.

“We’re growing, but not as fast as at the start of 2020, before the pandemic, when our prospects seemed truly bright,” he said. “If we’re honest, recovery is not all we’re looking for at this moment. The state that we have not reached — that we must create — is renewal.”

Reaching renewal will mean supporting small businesses, working to eliminate inequities and increasing housing options, he said.

Recent data show the health of Arlington County residents has stabilized, with a 0.6% COVID-19 test positivity rate and about one case per day over the last two weeks. Unemployment is down, as well, from 7.2% this time last year to 3% today, he said. As vaccination rates rise, tourism is recovering, with hotel occupancy rates up to 40% from a low of 20%.

The county has also retained organizations with an Arlington footprint, including the State Department, while attracting new companies, from Microsoft to shipping company ZeBox‘s startup incubator. All along, Amazon continues to meet its occupancy and hiring goals while supporting businesses, he said, and will present its second phase of its HQ2 to the Board later this year.

Plus, new development is continuing.

“The County Board has approved numerous office and residential projects that will drive economic growth… and strengthen our economy in Arlington,” de Ferranti said. “We’re hearing from commercial real estate brokers that there is significant pent-up demand from [office] tenants who delayed real estate decisions in the pandemic. We expect to see these deals come forward in the fall of this year.”

Still, the office vacancy rate is a lingering concern for de Ferranti, who noted that it was 18.7% in the first quarter, up 2.1% from the same time last year.

“Part of the reason I sought this office was to bring down the vacancy rate so that we could invest in schools, housing, transit, transportation and the things that make Arlington a great place to live,” he said. “Our economic development projects show promise, our pipeline is strong, so I’m confident we can bring down the rate over the coming years.”

The county will need to engage with companies already here and those eyeing Arlington while adapting to 21st-century office needs through measures such as office-to-apartment conversions, he said.

“We saw before Amazon that there was a time when we got a touch complacent working on our office vacancy rate,” he said. “That’s no one’s fault but we do need to stay focused on it.”

While it’s mostly larger companies that help to fill Arlington’s office towers, small businesses in Arlington need help, de Ferranti said, so Arlington Economic Development is preparing a grant program using American Rescue Plan funds. It follows up on a similar program last year that helped 393 businesses.

The county still has work to do to fix bugs with the online permit system and improve the customer service experience for businesses — lessons learned from the roll-out of temporary outdoor seating areas, or TOSAs, the chair admitted.

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After residents spoke out about poor living conditions at the Serrano Apartments, county officials and building owner AHC Inc. say they are committed to making changes.

“It is the highest priority I have right now, in part because we are in a different place with vaccines,” Board Chair Matt de Ferranti tells ARLnow. “This is a health and safety issue I will take responsibility for.”

AHC said it is working with county officials, Arlington’s Housing Commission and community organizations to ensure residents’ concerns are heard and addressed.

“Over the past few days, Serrano’s new management company Drucker & Falk has completed more than half of its 100% inspection of the property (except for the apartments where residents have not provided access) to document and remediate all identified issues through systemic improvements given Serrano’s age,” AHC spokeswoman Celia Slater said. “We are now moving forward with the repairs and encourage everyone to visit our website for updates about the steps we are taking to ensure that all Serrano residents have safe and healthy homes.”

Earlier this month, residents and community leaders told ARLnow about the dire state of some committed affordable apartment units at The Serrano (5535 Columbia Pike). Problems include rodents eating through food and leaving droppings, mold growing on walls and white dust permeating HVAC conductors.

Residents and advocates say they are glad the plight of those living in The Serrano is getting attention but are also frustrated at how many people and walkthroughs it took to get the county and AHC, an affordable housing nonprofit, to act.

The most recent walkthrough was last Friday, when about 40 people, including county officials, Del. Alfonso Lopez, as well as AHC and management representatives, looked at units and talked to residents.

“There were a lot of people there who were supposed to be there a long time ago,” community organizer Janeth Valenzuela said. “Finally, they could experience this with their own eyes and listen to families.”

Former School Board member Tannia Talento said she was frustrated to disrupt the lives of families once more, while not knowing if changes would actually happen.

Ashley Goff, a pastor with Arlington Presbyterian Church, was critical of AHC’s lack of responsiveness to an issue that was many months in the making.

“Look at all the people that had to turn out to get AHC to pay attention,” she said. “They were shamed into taking action, absolutely.”

(An Arlington NAACP newsletter from November, providing an update on its advocacy about conditions at the Serrano, said that the “exhausting battle by the tenants and their allies” — the NAACP and Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) — had been ongoing since at least the fall of 2019.)

Conditions provoke strong reactions 

The Serrano has 196 committed affordable units and 84 market-rate units. After walking through about a dozen apartments, officials said the conditions were unacceptable and needed to be fixed, quickly.

“I long ago lived in a place that had a problem with rats and no one can actually relax in their home when they’re worried that there could be mice there,” de Ferranti said.

Some problems will be more difficult, but no less essential, to solve due to the building’s age, he said.

“The medium-term solution for holding AHC accountable is getting a clear and specific schedule of what must be done at the Serrano,” he said. “I could envision taking the form of a short, specific Memorandum of Understanding. That is a step over the coming month or two that we are likely to take.”

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With COVID-19 cases trending down, vaccines being distributed and restrictions loosening, County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti says his focus is starting to shift toward Arlington’s economic and social recovery.

“There is more work to do on the pandemic but recovery has already begun,” he said.

And Arlington County, by his assessment, is in a fairly strong place financially — in some ways, he said it is in a better place than when numerous federal agencies and military offices decamped from Pentagon City and Crystal City starting around 2005.

Arlington will receive $23 million this year and next year through the federal American Rescue Plan, some of which will be used to return funding for affordable housing and hunger prevention programs that had been on the chopping block from the 2022 budget. The new budget, as passed, boosts spending by 3.5% despite the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic.

In addition, Amazon’s presence is contributing to Arlington’s stability. De Ferranti said the e-commerce giant’s arrival is and will continue attracting talent and businesses of all sizes, strengthening the county’s commercial office base. And, for now, the county has been spared from making incentive payments to Amazon.

The county’s incentive package for Amazon stipulated that Arlington would share a cut of the revenue generated from an increase in hotel stays if Amazon met its hiring goals. Since the economic impact of the coronavirus also included dramatically fewer hotel stays, Arlington has not been on the hook for these payments.

If any of these things weren’t true, de Ferranti said he “would be more worried about the fiscal outlook in 2023, 2024 and 2025.”

This moment — when the county’s financial outlook is strong but there’s still significant need in parts of the community — is exactly when the government needs to step in, he said. Keeping people who are at risk of eviction in their homes, fighting hunger and providing grants and loans to small businesses will have big economic returns later on, the chair said.

The county has learned a number of financial lessons from the coronavirus, de Ferranti noted. Arlington will need to invest more in public health staffing and is considering a rainy-day fund for future public health emergencies. When the American Rescue Plan funding dries up, the county may need to increase its support, through grants and loans, for small businesses as well as its investments in hunger and eviction prevention.

While the county has been focused on the pandemic response, it has held back on certain equity-focused work. Some community engagement in land-use changes to address Missing Middle housing was pushed back due to the pandemic, as have investments in multimodal transit and workforce development.

“Arlington is committed to equity, but it has been hard,” de Ferranti said.

And while Amazon is economically propping up the county in some ways, Arlington Public Schools’ budget will not be feeling the returns as directly. The county will need to do more work with the School Board and administration to address APS’s systemic budget deficits, he said.

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A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Arlington County has the capacity to administer 14,000 vaccine doses per week, but has been getting at most 8,000 doses per week from the state.

That’s according to a letter sent to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam from the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, which represents Arlington and other local government in the region. The letter asks the governor to send Northern Virginia localities more doses to quicken the pace of vaccinations.

“We have assembled the capacity to administer many more doses of coronavirus vaccine than we are currently administering,” the commission’s letter says. “With additional doses allocated to our health districts immediately, we can put that capacity to work to quickly assist the Commonwealth in achieving its vaccination and equity goals.”

The letter notes that Arlington has over 28,000 people who meet current Virginia’s Phase 1A and 1B guidelines waiting for their vaccinations to be scheduled. Meanwhile, the state announced last week that some health districts — including less populated areas where there is less vaccine demand — would begin transitioning to Phase 1C.

“Each of our health districts have waiting lists for vaccines for individuals in the 1A and 1B categories that far outstrip the supply we have received to date,” the letter says. “We stand ready to meet your expectation that everyone, even those who have not yet registered, will have a place in line six weeks from now, but we will need more doses immediately to make that reality.”

As of Tuesday morning, 24,690 people in Arlington — 10.4% of the county’s population — have been fully vaccinated, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data. In all, just under 67,000 doses have been administered in Arlington, at a trailing seven-day average rate of 1,372 doses per day. That figure includes doses administered by pharmacies and other private entities.

County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said the county is also seeking more autonomy from the state to make decisions about vaccination priorities.

“We hope that the Governor will respond to the NVRC’s request to increase Northern Virginia’s vaccine supply, and to allow our Health Directors greater discretion to make decisions about how we administer the vaccine to our residents going forward,” de Ferranti said in a statement. “We have the capacity and the demonstrated commitment to vaccinating our community as quickly and equitably as possible.”

Arlington’s Congressman, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), also weighed in, tweeting his support Monday for more vaccine doses.

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Morning Notes

Police Searching for Missing Girl — “ACPD is seeking the public’s assistance locating 15 year old Javon… Described as a B/F, 5’7″, 195 lbs with long black and dark blue braids. She was wearing a tie-dye sweatshirt with ‘Myrtle Beach’ on the front, black joggers, crocs, and a white mask.” [Twitter]

MU Returning to ‘Fully In-Person’ in Fall — “Following multiple semesters of modified instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Marymount University is pleased to announce its plans to reinstate a fully in-person academic delivery model starting in August for the upcoming fall semester, along with a return to a more ‘normal’ college experience for students in regards to resident life, athletics, campus activities and more.” [Press Release]

New Pike Restaurant Features Colorful Murals — “In late October, he did just that with the debut of Supreme Hot Pot in Arlington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. He enlisted a group of friends to decorate the walls with murals of soup, dragons, fish and a zaftig lucky cat. Even from the street, the art attracts diners with its red and gold tones.” [Northern Virginia Magazine]

Middle School Sports Could Be Cut — “First, high-school sports in Arlington were shut down for months because of the pandemic, and now there is a chance middle-school athletics in the county could be eliminated because of budget cuts. A proposal included in Superintendent Francisco Durán’s 2021-22 school budget calls for the elimination of teacher stipends for extracurricular activities and athletics at the middle-school level.” [Sun Gazette]

Project Takes Local Couple Across U.S. — “Two Arlington County residents set out on a year long journey to see all 50 states and document it through art, photography via the 50 states project. That was before the pandemic temporarily stopped their plans in March 2020… what began as a project to see all 50 states turned into a study of before and after the impacts of 2020.” [WJLA]

Another Local Endorsement for McAuliffe — “Arlington County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti has become one of the latest county elected officials endorsing Terry McAuliffe’s bid for governor. McAuliffe ‘has laid out clear plans to create a better future for all Virginians,’ de Ferranti said in a statement.” [Sun Gazette]

Responses to Violence in Atlanta — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam released a statement yesterday, saying: “We are grieving with the Asian American community and all of the victims of the horrific shootings in Atlanta last night that took eight lives, six of whom were women of Asian descent. This is the latest in a series of heinous attacks against Asian Americans across this nation, but sadly these are not isolated events.” Arlington police, meanwhile, said there are “no known threats” in the county associated with the shooting. [Commonwealth of Virginia, Twitter]

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A number of major changes are coming to Boundary Channel Drive and the I-395 interchange near Crystal City.

The modifications include a shared-use walkway, pedestrian and bicycle access to the yet-to-open Long Bridge aquatics center, and reduction of four lanes to two.

On Saturday, the Arlington County Board voted to endorse the $20.4 million Virginia Department of Transportation project. It was part of the consent agenda, meaning they are non-controversial and can be acted upon by a single vote.

“We’ve long sought these improvements,” said County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti at the meeting. “They will reconfigure the interchange that you see to make it work a lot better and safer for everyone.”

Major components include adding roundabouts on each side, as well as building a 12 foot shared path that connects to the Mount Vernon Trail, the Long Bridge Park esplanade, and a new loop that goes around the aquatics center. Also along Boundary Channel Drive, there’ll be 8 foot wide sidewalks, landscaping, crosswalks, and street lighting.

A public hearing was held in November where, according to the county report, the public “expressed strong support for the project.”

Much of the feedback revolved around the shared-use path, making sure it was wide enough to accommodate both pedestrians and bicyclists safely. There were also a number of comments about the crosswalks and proposed safety measures.

The project is funded by a combination of state, federal, regional, and county money. Construction is expected to start in spring 2022 and be completed in fall 2023.

Construction of the Long Bridge Park Fitness and Aquatic Center, meanwhile, is still expected wrap up later this year, according to the county website. The upcoming FY 2022 county budget will decide when it ultimately opens to the public.

Image via VDOT

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Acknowledging that “many residents are frustrated,” Arlington officials on Friday urged patience with the county’s vaccine distribution, while calling on the state for more doses.

The county has been facing scrutiny for what some see as a slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, despite receiving the first vaccine shipment before Christmas.

Earlier this week, vaccinations in Arlington were happening at a pace of just over 200 per day. At that rate, it would take more than two years just to give a single dose of the two-dose vaccine to every adult resident of the county.

Over the past two days the pace has quickened, with more than 400 doses administered each day. As of Friday morning, a total of 4,573 doses had been administered and 550 people in Arlington had been fully vaccinated.

Still, ARLnow has received a barrage of emails in recent days from people saying Arlington should be moving faster, given the more than 3,000 coronavirus deaths per day nationwide and the growing prevalence of a more contagious virus strain.

“The inability to ramp up to a more reasonable speed is terrible,” said one person. “People are dying.”

In a press release today, the county said it is “moving quickly to ramp up access for eligible Arlingtonians.”

“This weekend, the Arlington County Public Health Division will hold two clinics to vaccinate 1,800 individuals from the Childcare/PreK-12 Teachers/Staff priority group identified in Phase 1b,” the press release noted.

But even that effort is not without controversy.

As ARLnow first reported Thursday, the county-led registration process for Arlington Public Schools employees to sign up for vaccinations was botched, with many not receiving the emails and links required to register. Some of those that did manage to register and get a confirmation email the first time around were subsequently told that it was not actually a confirmation of an appointment.

“You received the WordPress confirmation due to an error in the technology that allowed more appointments to be booked than were available,” school employees were told this afternoon, in an email from Arlington’s public health division.

Some who received that initial confirmation were not able to secure a spot when registration reopened last night, we’re told.

“There were limited slots available,” APS spokesman Frank Bellavia explained today. “Public Health sent an email last night to those staff who didn’t receive an appointment to schedule one of the remaining available slots. Those remaining slots were filled by this morning.”

Ryan Hudson, spokesman for Arlington public health, said the county is now waiting on more vaccine supply and cannot say for sure when the remainder of APS employees will be vaccinated.

“We can’t give a specific date when all APS teachers and staff will be vaccinated, as the ability to schedule appointments will depend on increased distribution of vaccine from Virginia,” he said.

“The expansion of people eligible under Phase 1b unfortunately does not increase Arlington’s limited supply of vaccine doses,” Hudson added. “The County began establishing its distribution plan and infrastructure in 2020. Arlington is prepared to expedite appointments as soon as the County receives additional doses from Virginia.”

County health director Dr. Reuben Varghese told the Arlington County Board earlier this week that the county was still working to establish infrastructure for mass vaccinations. Asked by ARLnow why that process did not start sooner, County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti said much work was done leading up to the arrival of the first vaccine doses.

“Freezers were ordered, [a] website was developed and we already had a pre-existing relationship with Virginia Hospital Center,” he said today. “Many other infrastructure steps were taken, but demand [for the vaccine] so far exceeds supply. Other Northern Virginia jurisdictions and D.C. are also seeing similar challenges. We are working to get as much of the vaccine as soon as possible. We are asking for as much patience as folks can find.”

In this afternoon’s press release, de Ferranti defended the efforts of Varghese and County Manager Mark Schwartz.

“As the situation continues to change rapidly, our County Manager and Public Health Director are working flat-out to secure vaccines and to get them into arms,” he said. “The Board has assured them that we will provide whatever resources are needed to get this done.”

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(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) Arlington County says it is “taking all necessary steps to ensure public safety” ahead of the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration.

In a statement issued this afternoon, County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti thanked the county police officers and firefighters dispatched into D.C. as mutual aid during last week’s pro-Trump storming of the U.S. Capitol, and assured residents that the county will “protect our community and help keep the peace in the coming days.”

De Ferranti said he has “full confidence” that Acting Police Chief Charles “Andy” Penn and County Manager Mark Schwartz are “taking the steps necessary to keep Arlingtonians safe” in the lead-up to president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Full statement is below.

My colleagues and I share the concerns that so many Arlingtonians have voiced in the wake of the storming of the Capitol last Wednesday. We are proud of the Arlington County police officers and firefighters who helped defend the Capitol and tended to the wounded. While we are grateful that no Arlington first responders or residents were injured, we mourn the loss of life, including the death of Capitol Hill Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who was mortally injured while defending the Capitol. Our officers who defended the Capitol and democracy deserve our profound gratitude. Everyone who participated in this violent assault on our Capitol must be held accountable.

Arlington will take all necessary legal steps to protect our community and help keep the peace in the coming days. I have full confidence that the County Manager and the Acting Police Chief are taking the steps necessary to keep Arlingtonians safe and appropriately assist with the safe transfer of power in a way that aligns with our community’s ideals and commitments.

The FBI is warning of a group potentially planning an armed uprising in the coming days by supporters of President Trump.

In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam joined Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in urging people to “not to come into Washington, D.C. for the Inauguration and to instead participate virtually.”

Last week, Arlington officers in riot gear defended the Capitol, following a request from D.C. police for mutual aid assistance. Despite more than 50 police officers during the clashes that day, and the death of a U.S. Capitol Police officer, no Arlington officers were seriously injured.

Photo via Tyler Merbler/Flickr

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Yesterday (Wednesday) was Matt de Ferranti’s second full day as the Arlington County Board’s 2021 chairman.

Yet, he was already faced with a crisis and had to determine how to best protect the citizens of Arlington during one of the more frightening days in modern American history when a mob of Trump supporters rioted at the U.S. Capitol.

In an exclusive interview, de Ferranti tells ARLnow that he heard from more than 300 Arlingtonians via emails and calls throughout the day. He was also in conversation with County Manager Mark Schwarz and Alexandria mayor Justin Wilson.

Based on those conversations, he convened a closed meeting of the County Board at 4:45 p.m to discuss “the events that have occurred” in D.C. and protecting Arlington from “potential terrorist activity.”

This is where last night’s curfew, requested by the Board and approved by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, was decided.

“We felt it was in the safety interests and the best interests of our residents to have a curfew starting at six o’clock,” said de Ferranti. “We thought it was best to air on the side of precaution and safety, given the disturbing images that we saw in Washington and at the Capitol.”

And last night, Arlington was calm.

“I checked with the county manager this morning and last night, there were no incidents at all in Arlington,” says de Ferranti, referencing a lack of activity related to the Capitol chaos. “The curfew was the appropriate step out of an abundance of caution.”

He was aware of at least one hotel in Arlington that hosted group of Trump supporters. The situation was monitored, he says, but he was not aware of any behavior that rose to a level of concern.

Scanner traffic and social media reports also suggest that groups returning from D.C., including individuals flouting mask requirements, were congregating at the malls in Pentagon City and Ballston around the start of the curfew. They quickly dispersed, apparently after getting dinner. ARLnow reporters driving through Arlington’s Metro corridors spotted no large groups congregating outside after the curfew.

“Arlington was safe last night and is safe now,” said de Ferranti. He does not anticipate a curfew in Arlington tonight.

As reported, Arlington County Police did receive and agree to a request from D.C. police to send officers to the District.

“We got a request and we felt that it was in the interest of safety as we were watching, really, what I would describe as rioters, not protesters, but rioters,” de Ferranti says. “Our officers helped the D.C. police department.”

ACPD received a mutual aid request from MPD for today as well, which they are fulfilling.

However, de Ferranti says the intention was to assist D.C. police and not federal government agencies.

“We were very clear that they were going to only operate under an incident commander who was with the D.C. police. We are not at all interested in working with the federal government at this stage because of what we saw in June,” he said, referring to the controversial use of Arlington officers as mutual aid to U.S. Park Police outside the White House this summer.

When asked if ACPD received any mutual aid requests from any federal government agencies yesterday, de Ferranti responded, “no, not to my knowledge.” He noted, however, that the police department did receive a mutual assistance request from U.S. Capitol Police for today, but are unable to provide officers due to already fulfilling the request for MPD.

More than 50 Capitol and D.C. police officers were injured, some seriously, in Wednesday’s violence, the U.S. Capitol Police Chief said in a statement.

The County Board Chair said none of the Arlington officers who were deployed across the river were “seriously injured.” He says one fell “in the course of trying to protect,” but beyond a bit bruised, that officer is “fine.”

Last night Arlington officers in riot gear could be seen alongside Virginia State Police — who were also deployed en masse at the D.C. mayor’s request — protecting the front of the Capitol.

As for inauguration which is less than two weeks, de Ferranti says the county is preparing for it.

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The Arlington County Board unanimously elected Matt de Ferranti as its Chair and Katie Cristol as its Vice-Chair during a virtual meeting on Monday.

Elected in 2018, de Ferranti is serving as Chair for the first time, succeeding Libby Garvey. During the year that he occupies this role, he will set the Board’s meeting agendas and preside over the meetings. The first regular Board meeting of 2021 will be held on Saturday, Jan. 23.

Colleagues heaped praise on the new chair.

“One of the most under-sung attributes in an elected official is earnestness, [and] our colleague, Mr. de Ferranti has earnestness in spades,” Cristol said. “[With] a pandemic, a reckoning over racial injustice, it is a moment that calls for a chair like Mr. de Ferranti.”

Cristol, elected in 2015 and a former Board chair, fills a role that was vacated in April, when then Vice-Chair Erik Gutshall resigned after doctors discovered a brain tumor. He died shortly after, and his successor, Board Member Takis Karantonis, was elected in July.

Board member Christian Dorsey lauded Cristol for her activism for accessible, affordable childcare and her work with regional partners on transportation in Northern Virginia.

Dorsey said he nominated Cristol “with great confidence that she will not only be able to perform the role of Vice-Chair, but that she will join Mr. de Ferranti in a dynamic duo for leading Arlington.”

During the meeting, de Ferranti and Cristol commended Arlington for coming together during the pandemic, and outlined their visions for recovery. The new Chair said in his remarks that recovery efforts must focus on stabilization, recovery and a systematic commitment to racial and economic equity.

“Our response to COVID-19 is the biggest test we face as a community,” he said. “As difficult as this winter is and will be, spring will come: More and more will be vaccinated and a new Biden administration will lead our nation’s recovery.”

De Ferranti’s other stated priorities for 2021 include addressing hunger and food insecurity, preventing evictions, and boosting the production of missing middle housing.

“Without changes in our housing supply the 60% of Arlington residents who currently rent cannot realistically save up to buy a place,” he said. “We risk becoming as unaffordable as San Francisco if we do not plan for replacement of existing moderately priced housing and grow in a thoughtful, managed way.”

In her remarks, Cristol said that like 2020, the new year will be characterized by the coronavirus, as cases continue to surpass the peaks seen in March. With the vaccine, however, comes a chance to reimagine Arlington, the Vice-Chair said.

“Rebuilding after this once-in-a-century pandemic is a unique opportunity to think afresh about what future we want for ourselves and our children in our County,” she said.

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Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the authors’.

By Katie Cristol and Matt de Ferranti

In a conference call, Progressive Voice editors asked Arlington County Board members Katie Cristol and Matt de Ferranti about their insights on the challenges of being a leader in local government during the trying time of the COVID-19 epidemic.

PV: Tell us about the challenge of making pressing leadership decisions, such as on the County budget, when there are fewer known facts, data and projections about 2021 and beyond.

MD: This isn’t an easy budget. In normal years, we have about 10-12 budget work sessions. You have time to learn, synthesize. This year, the fiscal reality has changed during the middle of the process, so it’s challenging to accept the new reality and adjust quickly.

Ultimately, we have to focus on values and what we must do: keeping people safe, making sure people are not evicted, and meeting our commitments and basic human needs. So we will do a pretty basic budget, and in the coming year, may come back and make adjustments. It’s a dynamic environment.

KC: It helps that Arlington’s fiscal fundamentals are still strong. Arlington is in very good fiscal health–such as our bond rating, our fully funded pension plan. What we are really talking about is lost opportunities–the investments we hoped to have made in this budget to attract good people to work here, expand human services, expand our capacity to fix street lights more quickly.

There may be harder times ahead. But what enables me to tell residents we can weather the pandemic as well as the economic challenges is that the fundamentals are still there. We have excellent public health and emergency response teams. We have staff who were with us during 9/11, during the recession starting in 2008. Our public health director got us through H1N1. I hope people feel confident by the amount of expertise brought to bear. We [County Board] are the faces on policy, but a lot of the pandemic response is at the professional expert level.

KC: I was reading through comments, a chat that the county manager did with staff, and it was a reminder of how dedicated the people who work for government are…. EMS, Fire are top of mind but also people who administer food stamps…they are risking their own safety to do that.

PV: What ways have you found to balance necessary health and safety (such as physical distancing) with the desire to shore up the economy, small business and workers? Any new insights about the role of government?

MD: Local governments and state governments have had to step forward, particularly because of an absence of leadership from the federal government, so the breadth of what local government can do is more clear to me than ever. There is an opportunity for innovation as we seek to serve all of our residents well.

KC: At the policy level, we’ve been providing small business technical assistance through BizLaunch, trying to help owners navigate SBA loans.

KC: We’ve been wrestling with how to support our restaurants, which are hurting so deeply. Very quickly, DES [Department of Environmental Services] traffic management set up free parking zones marked with signs outside the restaurants. Those are safer and easier for people [to pick up takeaway orders].

Doing things so quickly now will carry over to expecting it to always be so quick. When people discover how quickly we can do these changes…[laughs] without so much public engagement. People are used to [a long time of] hashing out pros and cons for something like curb space management.

PV: Will there be lingering after-effects on public engagement, move more quickly after the emergency passes?

MD: I think there will be some changes in public engagement. People will still want input and we will engage fully, but I think we will evolve a bit, so our input is both thorough and effective in making sure we hear from our whole community.

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