Black lawmakers in Virginia are unhappy with Gov. Ralph Northam's plans to begin reopening most of the state later this week amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying the move is akin to treating people of color as “guinea pigs for our economy.”
Northam announced Wednesday that the state, except for Northern Virginia, would start the first phase of gradual reopening on Friday.
In a letter to the governor, black lawmakers said the state does not have the proper testing capacity and infrastructure for a safe opening and that many workers who are minorities will be placed at unfair risk.
“Throughout our country’s history, Black and Brown people have been experimented on and used as unwilling test subjects before — we cannot allow that to be repeated here,” the letter from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said.
Black people are dying in disproportionate numbers from COVID-19 in the United States and Virginia. People of color are especially exposed because they are more likely to hold many of the jobs that were deemed essential; and, as the reopening starts, they are likely to be among those whose workplaces open first.
Northam said he's basing his decision to reopen on positive trends in key metrics related to the virus’ spread, like hospital readiness and testing capacity. At a news conference Wednesday, Northam stressed that his reopening plans are slow and deliberate.
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“Phase one represents a small step forward,” Northam said.
Under Northam's plan, there will still be severe restrictions in place. Some retail businesses will reopen with limited capacity, but indoor gyms would remain closed, beaches would remain closed to sunbathers and restaurants would still be prohibited from indoor dine-in service.
Beauty parlors and barber shops will be by appointment and will be able to operate only if both employees and customers wear masks. Entertainment venues, like theme parks and bowling alleys, will stay closed.
Northam delayed the reopening in Northern Virginia by two weeks after elected officials there said the region, which accounts for about 30% of the state's total population, wasn’t ready. He’s also come under fire from some Republicans for not moving more quickly to reopen the state like some other governors have done.
Northam has a complicated relationship with black lawmakers, many of whom forcefully called on him to resign last year after a racist yearbook photo surfaced. Northam has since largely repaired those relationships and has won kudos from black lawmakers for his focus on addressing long-standing racial disparities in criminal justice, health care and education.
Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the black caucus, said Northam should be commended for his overall handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his efforts to address the needs of communities of color. But he said the caucus strongly disagrees with the timing of the state's reopening.
“We’re still seeing a number of people saying they fear having to return to work," Bagby said.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the governor is “absolutely committed to moving forward in a gradual manner that protects all Virginians, particularly low-income individuals, essential workers, and communities of color.”
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The Virginia Department of Health includes probable cases in its county-level data. For the state total NBC Washington is only including confirmed cases.