If the coronavirus — Covid-19 — is a pandemic, so, too, is the coverage of its effects across the globe. There seems to be little else presented on newscasts, talk shows, print and social media, or between neighbors and family members. Despite repeated information about washing your hands, covering coughs, and practicing social distancing (keeping at least six feet of distance between yourself and others), it appears that many people are not taking the cautions seriously. Reports of large numbers of youth gathering at local playing fields and other open spaces are cause for concern. On Sunday, the soccer field at Mason District Park was full of players, apparently walk-ons since all field reservations have been cancelled, and there wasn’t much social distancing being observed. All parks and park facilities in Fairfax County are closed, including playgrounds, skate parks, off-leash dog areas, and restroom facilities. As of this writing, trails remain open for individual use only.
The Covid-19 pandemic affects the basic operations of local government, too. A recent amendment to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA), sometimes referred to as the “open meetings” law, grants the opportunity for local governing bodies to adopt a written policy, including participation remotely, so that they can continue to conduct county business. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors first had to adopt that written policy before some members could participate from remote locations during the pandemic. VFOIA still requires that a quorum be present, in person, to conduct county business. The meeting was moved to Room 11 at the Fairfax County Government Center, where social distancing could be observed, and 10 or fewer people, with a minimum of staff – the County Executive, County Attorney, and the Clerk to the Board in the room. Room 11 is set up for televising Board Committee meetings via live-streaming and on Channel 16; camera operators work from a control room elsewhere in the building. Participating in a Board meeting via computer screen was unusual, but it got the job done. Public hearings for land use applications are suspended for now; two time-sensitive agenda items allowed public testimony via video from an adjacent room, to accommodate the required public hearing and social distancing. Two important changes to usual county business were announced: effective at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 27, all county buildings will be closed to the public; and the first installment of real estate tax payments, normally due on July 28, will be due a month later, on Aug. 28, without incurring any interest or penalties.
The economic and budgetary effects of the pandemic simply are unknown. The FY 2021 budget proposed by County Executive Bryan Hill just a month ago will have to be recalculated and revised; the state budget passed by the General Assembly is on Gov. Northam’s desk for signature. In a conference call with local leaders on Monday night, Cabinet Secretaries indicated that budget adjustments will be required, without knowing what federal aid, if any, or when, will be available to states and localities. Alarmingly, the president seemed to indicate that the governors are on their own in this crisis.
Of local interest, the deadline for applying for senior citizen tax relief has been moved from April 1 to June 1. The deadline for federal income tax filings has been moved from April 15 to July 15. In Virginia, you must file your state income tax return by May 1, but tax payments are not due until June 1. The Site-Specific Plan Amendment (SSPA) Task Force meetings (March 23 and April 2) to review nominations are postponed; no new dates have been announced. Room reservations at the Mason District Governmental Center have been suspended, as has the prescription drug take-back program in the lobby. The glass recycling (Purple Can) collection point in the parking lot still is open, and my office is operating with limited staff. Please call 703-256-7717 or send an email to [email protected] with your questions or concerns about any county-related matter.
One event not postponed is Census Day, April 1. Look for the invitation that came in the mail earlier this month, log on with your participation code, and take a few minutes to complete the census. It’s easy, quick, and you already know all the answers!