Thursday marked five weeks since Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a pandemic emergency in the Commonwealth. Thirty-five days of teleworking, social distancing, and the myriad other creative ways Virginians are using to navigate the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic. As the newness has worn off — it no longer feels like an unplanned vacation — the realities of dealing with longer-term emergencies are beginning to take hold. Distance learning has begun in Fairfax County public schools, as students and teachers do classwork via laptop and Web interfaces. A trip to the grocery store now has to be well planned, as some stores, to observe social distancing, are limiting the number of shoppers admitted at any one time. No more stopping in for a quick item or two.
Social distancing efforts in Virginia appear to be reducing the spread of Covid-19. Modeling by the University of Virginia noted that the situation is changing rapidly, and warned that lifting social distancing advice too soon could lead to another wave of infection. The good news is that hospitals in Virginia are prepared and have sufficient resources for the next couple of months. In the INOVA health system, virtual visits to health care providers soared to nearly 1000 per day in early April, proving that technology can be effective and efficient, negating the need for many face-to-face visits during the pandemic.
Don’t forget the all-important face mask. The governor has not made wearing face masks mandatory — like most personal protective equipment (PPE), face masks are in short supply — but they are crucial to reducing the spread of Covid-19. Yes, a face mask may cause your glasses to fog up momentarily, but the mask can protect you, and others, from becoming a Covid-19 statistic. Face masks are simple to make, and some can be put together without sewing. A man’s large handkerchief can be used, or a bandana, by folding and securing with rubber bands or hair ties. Might not be the most stylish facial covering, but it will do the trick. You can Google simple instructions. I made a face mask from a cotton handkerchief my mother brought back from New Zealand decades ago. Just the right size and weight, and with a little stitching and elastic, I have a two-sided mask: a little map of New Zealand or tropical flowers, depending on my mood. I made a lavender one with leftover sheet scraps from a long-ago decorating project. With large wedding gatherings curtailed, some local bridal shops are making face masks instead. Those must be some gorgeous masks- silk, satin, lace — mostly in white, of course! The important thing is not the color or the style; it’s the usage. Put one on whenever you leave your house or apartment.
Tuesday, the entire Board of Supervisors, for the first time ever, met by electronic means. Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik and I participated in board and committee meetings remotely a few times in March, so our learning curve was a little less steep. This time, all Board members, the county executive and county attorney, and necessary staff were in separate locations across the county, conducting essential county business on screen and by voice. The meeting was aired live on Channel 16, with provisions for public testimony via phone or video. Robert’s Rules of Order never imagined electronic meetings, but the system worked. At regular Board meetings the chairman hands the gavel to me as vice chairman when necessary. Using a “virtual” gavel is a bit challenging. The responsibility is the same, but the physicality is different, especially when Board members, remotely, seek recognition to speak. The raised eyebrow or finger point used at the dais is not as readily discernible on a screen of faces in little boxes.
When emergencies occur, local government preparedness is an important measure for maintaining continuity of basic public services. Fortunately, Fairfax County’s investments in information technology made it possible for the Board to address the Covid-19 emergency’s effect on the county, and address essential needs to maintain continuity of government. The emergency legislation that allows virtual meetings, authorized by the Virginia General Assembly, must be re-adopted after 60 days. Hopefully, by early summer, re-adoption will not be necessary. One can only wish.