Arlington, VA

Virginia started Phase 3 of its reopening on Wednesday, allowing more activity in indoor public spaces like restaurants and gyms.

While the Commonwealth remains one of just over a dozen states where the COVID-19 epidemic is in decline, some fear that further reopening could send us in the direction of Texas, Florida and other states currently seeing a virus resurgence.

In recent days, both Florida and Texas reversed course and closed bars. California, which has also seen a big jump in coronavirus cases, yesterday announced that it would “shutter indoor operations at restaurants, museums, bars and other venues” for at least three weeks. And New York is delaying its plans to reopen indoor restaurant dining rooms.

A growing body of research suggests that restaurants — indoor settings where where diners sit near one another and converse for extended periods of time — are fertile ground for coronavirus infections. More evidence of that from USA Today:

Money spent in restaurants and supermarkets could offer insight into how fast or slow the coronavirus pandemic may spread.

According to a note from Jesse Edgerton, an economist with JPMorgan Chase, the level of spending in restaurants three weeks ago – most notably in-person versus online – was the strongest predictor of a surge in coronavirus cases during that time period.

Based on spending by 30 million Chase credit and debit cardholders, Edgerton found that higher spending in supermarkets predicted a slower spread of the virus, suggesting consumers are practicing “more careful social distancing in a state.”

Outdoor settings, meanwhile, are believed to be safer, as the respiratory particles that spread the virus are quickly diluted in the open air. That’s why Virginia’s Phase 1 reopening included only outdoor dining and why Arlington has allowed restaurants to expand their outdoor dining areas.

Do you think Virginia should stay the course and see what happens, bring back Phase 2 restrictions, or try to preempt a possible resurgence by closing indoor dining areas altogether? That latter, while perhaps safer, could be a death knell for many already-struggling local restaurants, however.

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A three-day Fourth of July weekend is fast approaching.

This would usually be one of the busiest travel times of the year. Instead, airports have barely a quarter of the travellers as last year, and traffic maps are mostly a sea of green. The pandemic has affected nearly all aspects of normal life, including the willingness of people to leave one’s house and visit other places or people.

The anemic level of air travel is expected to continue, though driving may take up some of the slack: this summer is being dubbed the summer of the road trip.

How has coronavirus affected the Independence Day travel plans of Arlingtonians? Let’s find out.

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Washington-Lee High School in Arlington is now Washington-Liberty. Robert E. Lee High School in Fairfax County will be getting a new name, after a vote yesterday. Jefferson Davis Highway, meanwhile, is now Richmond Highway.

Is it time for Lee Highway — also known as Route 29 — to get a new name?

At a time when racial justice has taken center stage in Arlington and around the world, when Confederate monuments are being removed or toppled by angry mobs, keeping the leader of the Confederate army’s name on one of the main east-west thoroughfares through Arlington might be untenable.

(Granted, Arlington itself is named after Robert E. Lee’s house, and the county’s logo is a stylized version of the home, which is now more closely associated with Arlington National Cemetery.)

Lee Highway, once part of an auto trail that ran from New York City to San Francisco via southern states, is now partially a commuter route and partially a commercial strip for North Arlington neighborhoods. It is currently subject to a planning process — albeit one stymied by the pandemic — that is attempting to envision a new future for the corridor.

In 2017, after a white nationalist rally and violence in Charlottesville, the Arlington County Board released a statement saying it was seeking the legislative authority from the state to rename both Jefferson Davis Highway and Lee Highway. It received authority to rename the former thanks to an opinion from Attorney General Mark Herring that the county only needed permission from the Commonwealth Transportation Board, not the then-GOP-controlled legislature.

With Democrats now firmly in control in Virginia, renaming Lee Highway should be achievable, though it may not be the highest priority during a global pandemic and a budget crunch.

What do you think? If you do think it should get a new name, let us know any suggestions you might have in the comments.

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Following protests over the killing of George Floyd, there’s now a national movement to #DefundThePolice.

Most proponents say they want to redirect a portion of sizable police budgets to social services, investing in community rather than punishment.

The idea has yet to catch on with most Americans. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey opposed reducing police funding.

Here in Arlington, the police department makes up about 5% of the county’s general fund, less than that of the Dept. of Human Services, which provides health, housing and social services help. Aside from the decision to send officers to help control protests in D.C., at the request of U.S. Park Police, the police department has faced few major, recent controversies.

(There have been four officer-involved shootings in Arlington over the past decade, all deemed justified uses of force in subsequent investigations. Complaints against police rose in 2019, but remained relatively low given Arlington’s population.)

In the upcoming 2020-2021 budget, ACPD will get a slight boost in funding, to just under $75 million. With less funding for the department in subsequent budgets, more could be spent on social services and community programs. With more funding, ACPD might be able to increase training and provide body cameras to all officers.

What do you think should be done?

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Arlington and the rest of Northern Virginia are set to begin the first phase of the region’s reopening on Friday.

With coronavirus cases increasing steadily, but not exponentially, and hospitals having sufficient extra capacity, local health officials say localities can start reopening relatively safely. (Much of the rest of the Virginia started reopening on May 15. D.C. is also partially reopening this coming Friday.)

Wearing masks indoors in public spaces will be mandatory in Virginia starting Friday, with some exceptions, and businesses will only be partially reopening, with extra safety precautions. More from a county press release:

Highlights of the Governor’s Forward Virginia Phase 1 – Effective May 29

  • Non-essential businesses can open at 50 percent capacity, with strict requirements.
  • Take-out and curbside pickup for restaurants and beverage services can continue and outdoor seating will be allowed at 50 percent capacity (see more on this below).
  • Gyms and fitness facilities can offer limited outdoor exercise options.
  • Outdoor swimming pools may be open for lap swimming only, with one person per lane.
  • Beauty and nail salons, barbershops and other personal grooming services can provide services by appointment only and must follow strict guidelines.
  • Places of worship can open for drive-in services or services inside at 50 percent capacity.
  • Spray parks, basketball courts, and racquetball courts must remain closed, as well as entertainment facilities such as movie theaters.
  • Social gatherings of more than 10 people are still banned.

There are mixed feelings about reopenings, in debates that have played out in states and counties across the country.

Some say reopenings will unnecessarily cause further disease and death. Others say the stay-at-home orders are no longer needed and are only causing more economic hardship. Still others are just happy to be able to get a haircut and spend some more time outside of the house.

In a word, how are you feeling about Arlington’s reopening?

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The D.C. Council is reportedly considering making some pandemic-era alcohol rules a new fixture of the local dining scene.

Barred in DC reports that the provision, in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget, would make restaurants’ newfound ability to offer beer, wine and cocktails for delivery and takeout permanent. It would be a shot in the arm for struggling restaurants that have seen business drop precipitously during the coronavirus crisis.

With dining rooms closed, table service restaurants lost their main profit driver: alcoholic drinks. Both D.C. and Virginia have responded with emergency rules allowing restaurants to let customers carry out beer, wine and cocktails in sealed containers, or to have those adult beverages delivered.

Making such rules permanent can help the industry recover, and perhaps avoid the worst of the “restaurant apocalypse” that some predict could result in 20% to 40% of U.S. restaurants closing for good.

Do you think Virginia lawmakers should make the temporary takeout and delivery drink rules permanent?

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At its meeting this weekend, the Arlington County Board is set to formally approve an ordinance granting the county emergency powers to hold public meetings online instead of in person.

That codified what has been the county’s improvised practice during the pandemic, including during the recent county budget process. County Board meetings are being held online, as are public information sessions about things like plans for the revamped Metropolitan Park in Pentagon City and proposed changes to a crash-prone section of Route 50.

At a time when in-person meetings are not possible due to health concerns, online meetings have been deemed a good enough alternative to simply shutting down public processes or delaying local government decision-making on important issues.

The downside of these meetings is that there are still those — the elderly, the impoverished — without readily-available internet access. In the U.S., some 23% of the population still did not have a smartphone as of 2018.

But the upside is that for the majority of the population that does have internet access, it’s a lot easier to attend a virtual meeting at home, or watch it later online, than it is to show up at a physical location and spend an hour or more of a weekday evening or weekend morning at an in-person gathering. That’s doubly true for parents of young children and those with non-standard work schedules.

Indeed, a criticism leveled against the “Arlington Way” — the uniquely Arlington system of citizen engagement in county decision-making that has been in place for decades — is that such meetings are difficult for all but the most motivated residents to attend, and decision-making processes can drag on for months or even years.

An online poll conducted by ARLnow in late 2018 found that nearly 55% of respondents would prefer a streamlined community input process. More virtual meetings and online input, even beyond the pandemic, could be a step in that direction.

The ordinance being considered by the Board keeps the current state of affairs “in effect for six months from the end of the COVID-19 disaster, unless sooner repealed by the County Board.”

Should the county consider making virtual meetings a more regular feature of citizen participation beyond that? Not totally replacing in-person meetings and input, but maybe becoming the predominant way to engage residents. And perhaps the current slate of virtual meetings can be expanded beyond Board meetings, town halls and project information sessions to incorporate the “cancelled until further notice” commission meetings.

What do you think?

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Arlington County’s parks are closed, a safety precaution intended to prevent overcrowding and the spread of the coronavirus.

While trails are open, the closure of parks has reduced recreation options for those seeking to get outside as the weather gets warmer. That, along with the county deciding against closing vehicle lanes for extra space, may be factors contributing to more crowded sidewalks and trails.

“While we recognize how important our parks are to our community, we also recognize the trust the community has in us to do the right thing,” Dept. of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Susan Kalish said. “Arlington parks remain closed for play; crossing through parks to get to a trail or non-park destination is allowed. Our trails and community gardens are open as long as people practice social distancing.”

Kalish said that the county is working with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to arrange a safe reopening of amenities on a regional level.

“It is essential that we continue to coordinate across borders to combat this virus and plan for our economic recovery,” Kalish said.

In Maryland, state parks and beaches are reopening today. Parks have reopened recently for passive recreation — walking, sitting, etc. — in parts of New Jersey and Florida.

In Arlington, the park closures are being lightly enforced, with police issuing warnings and working to remind residents about the closures instead of making arrests.

Might it be time, however, for Arlington to consider loosening the park closures? Specifically, do you think it would be a good idea to open parks for passive recreation?

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There’s growing evidence that the outdoors are, other than one’s home, the safest place to be during the pandemic.

A study in China revealed that the vast majority of outbreaks reviewed were the result of indoor transmission of the coronavirus. Former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb discussed the findings on social media and on CNBC Thursday.

“I think local governments, state governments should be looking at what activities we can move outside, because things can be done outside,” Gottlieb said. “You want to have religious services, you should think about moving them outside. Gym classes, restaurant tables, anything that we can move outside heading into the warm months I think you’re going to have a safer environment for doing things.”

The coronavirus is a highly contagious and deadly disease that is not going away anytime soon. There are no miracle cures at this point, just ways to slow the spread.

Staying quarantined until a vaccine comes, if a vaccine ever comes, might be necessary for those most at risk — those over 65 and with certain chronic health conditions — but it’s not a viable long-term option for the entire population. Many months of home isolation would likely lead to an economic calamity and, well, human nature seems to suggest that lots of people would eventually rebel against it.

Thus, some level of opening up is coming. As Bill Gates wrote on his blog yesterday:

Most developed countries will be moving into the second phase of the epidemic in the next two months. In one sense, it is easy to describe this next phase. It is semi-normal. People can go out, but not as often, and not to crowded places. Picture restaurants that only seat people at every other table, and airplanes where every middle seat is empty. Schools are open, but you can’t fill a stadium with 70,000 people. People are working some and spending some of their earnings, but not as much as they were before the pandemic. In short, times are abnormal but not as abnormal as during the first phase.

The rules about what is allowed should change gradually so that we can see if the contact level is starting to increase the number of infections. Countries will be able to learn from other countries that have strong testing systems in place to inform them when problems come up.

Urbanists have been calling for closing some streets to cars to allow better social distancing for pedestrians and cyclists for weeks now. So far, Arlington has not responded with any solid plans to do so. But what if closing some streets not only allowed safer outdoor recreation, but boosted local small businesses?

Such a scenario might be possible as the curve bends and growth of new COVID-19 cases goes down.

Imagine Clarendon and Wilson Blvds closed in Clarendon, at least on weekends, allowing restaurants and shops to spread out tables and store shelves while pedestrians strolled in the street — a giant sidewalk cafe. Gyms could get in on the action as well. And that could be repeated in Ballston, Crystal City, Westover, and other business districts.

Sure, you would have to have a way to ensure it doesn’t get too crowded. And those who are not dining should be wearing masks to help prevent spreading disease to others, even if it’s less likely to happen outside. Also, such activity would be weather dependent, labor intensive (for businesses, police and county officials), and wouldn’t necessarily be the salve that keeps restaurants in business through the end of the pandemic, whenever that may be.

But as we discussed around the 40 minute mark of last night’s Zoom chat with local business owner Scott Parker, it could be a start and a source of hope and normalcy.

What do you think?

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On a Wednesday four weeks ago — which seems like a lifetime ago — Arlington had 36 known cases of COVID-19 and ARLnow conducted an unscientific poll.

Of nearly 2,800 respondents, 0.76% said they had tested positive for COVID, 4.4% said they had COVID-like symptoms, and 11.6% said they had a close personal connection who had tested positive.

It’s now April 22 and as of Tuesday there were 625 known coronavirus cases in Arlington. Let’s conduct the same poll and see (again, unscientifically) where we stand.

Please answer honestly and select the options that apply to you. Note that the typical symptoms of COVID-19 are cough, fever, tiredness and — in more serious cases — difficulty breathing. Loss of taste and smell is also a common symptom.

As before, you should not use this poll response data for policy decision-making — but do use it as a reminder of the importance of social distancing, practicing good hygiene, wearing a face mask when out, and flattening the curve.

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There’s a global-pandemic-slash-economic-crisis going on, but you know what apparently isn’t affected? Towing.

Just like death and taxes, being towed is inevitable if you park without a permit in a private lot patrolled by a towing company. Even now.

That hasn’t stopped some people from trying, though, with predictable results. One local resident contacted ARLnow to suggest that trespass towing presents unnecessary risks during this time.

I live in a condo association in South Arlington that has parking policies that during normal conditions ensures that there is enough parking spaces for its residents at night. The policy is in effect from 8PM to 8AM. Virginia is currently under stay-at-home orders. My neighbors are not having gatherings or parties. Parking spots are not taken to local traffic visiting bars and restaurants. There are adequate spaces for residents and their guests. The parking policy does not hold.

However, the condo association is upholding a parking policy. Since my car was towed because I had not shown the proper permit, I need to get an Uber to the towing company in Falls Church and I would need to interact with the towing company to pay for any fees. I am putting my health in jeopardy, along with every person that I interact with. All of these risks could have been avoided if my car was not towed in the first place. I am not sure if towing from a residential property constitutes as essential business.

Who is looking out for our community’s well being for nonessential business that might put us at risk? How do we uphold stay-at-home guidelines when businesses are operating as business as usual?

I suspect that my circumstance is not the only one. I am not confident that Alrington can lower its positive Coronavirus cases if we do not take social distancing seriously.

(ARLnow has received similar messages about the county’s parking enforcement: “I noticed all cars being ticketed on my street this morning… Might be a good article to publish / investigate given the federal government’s recommendation that people not leave their homes / condos.”)

Given the current public health emergency, do you think it would make sense to suspend all trespass towing on private lots — kind of like The Purge but for parking? Or should parking restrictions should continue to be enforced?

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