Taking the extraordinary step of casting an official vote during a work session last night, the Falls Church City Council issued a formal Declaration of Local Emergency in response to the pandemic caused by the coronavirus and the resulting Covid-19 disease. “The City of Falls Church is facing and will continue to face dangerous conditions of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant coordinated local government action to prevent or alleviate the damage, loss, hardship or suffering threatened or caused thereby,” the declaration stated.
“The condition of extreme peril of life and property necessitate the Proclamation,” it read, authorizing that “during the existence of said emergency, the powers, functions, and duties of the Director of Emergency Services and the Emergency Services Organization of the City of Falls Church shall be those prescribed by State law and the ordinances, resolutions and approved plans of the City in order to mitigate the effects.”
Falls Church Mayor David Tarter introduced the proclamation at the opening of last night’s work session said of the declaration that “it follows actions by the federal and state governments and will provide maximum resources and flexibility to respond as quickly and fully as possible to this emerging crisis.”
“As of tonight,” he reported, “We have no known cases of coronavirus in the City of Falls Church, but there are a growing number of cases in Northern Virginia,” adding, “This situation presents significant difficulties for our community. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are most vulnerable to the virus, but all of us, hourly workers, local businesses, the self-employed, parents and children will all face challenges. Falls Church must pull together for the health and future of all our treasured citizens.”
He cited the recommendation of health experts to maintain a social distancing of six feet from others, to practice good hygiene by washing hands frequently. not shaking hands or making other physical contact, and staying at home if feeling unwell.
An extended discussion among Council members preceded the unanimous vote noting that the President earlier in the day called on citizens not to gather in groups of over 10 people, a number that began at 100 a couple days ago, and adjusted to 50 just Sunday. But it was affirmed that this policy is a recommendation, not a mandate, at least for now. Still, it was noted that Falls Church businesses have begun to simply shutter until the emergency passes, with the popular Clare and Don’s Beach Shack and Thompson Italian restaurants cited along with the Ireland’s Four Provinces, who paid an ultimate sacrifice by closing for St. Patrick’s Day today.
Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields reported that City officials have gone door-to-door to look in on senior citizens, in particular, noting that there was a meeting with all City employees with leaders of the Fairfax County Health Department Monday to share information about the virus and its highly infectious nature. Another City Hall-wide meeting is set for today to discuss the City’s response and whether some at City Hall will be assigned to work offsite. Teams have been formed in charge of vulnerable populations in the City, remote work, service counter operations at City Hall, human resources and long-term planning. Another tasked with public meetings is planning this weekend’s scheduled town hall on the City’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget that will be available to watch live online.
“This is a very stressful time that we’re in, and our focus is to be gentle and kind with one another, to display empathy toward those who are reacting to the tension,” Shields said.
Councilman David Snyder urged a focus on the medical evidence, facts and science. This crisis will not be without costs to businesses and employees, and the harm to humans will be serious, he said, plunging the economy into a recession if not a depression. He said the choice in many cases may be between closing or adjusting to the crisis.
Councilman Ross Litkenhous offered that the Council may play a role in mitigating the economic impacts by urging a deferral of rent payments by landlords, who in turn, could receive a deferral of real estate taxes. He noted that two months of business can provide an entire year of profitability for many small businesses. He suggested the City develop a single phone number for citizens to call into during the crisis for information and support.
Council member Letty Hardi suggested that work be done to urge landlords to avoid evictions of tenants during the crisis. “We’ve got to look out for the little guys,” she said.
Shields said that while a lot more tests for the virus are being made available, mass testing is “not imminent” and criteria remain strict for getting one.
He said that current plans are for the City’s parks to remain open (even as the Community Center and library are now closed) and it remains to be seen if the Saturday farmers’ market will continue.
Councilman Phil Duncan suggested converting the Community Center and Winter Hill center can be used for shelters to help citizens address the crisis, and Councilman Dan Sze noted the increasingly drastic steps taken in places like New Jersey, like its 8 p.m. curfew.
Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly asked for the situation in the jails, and the impact of closing the City’s homeless shelter three weeks early.