Our View: ‘Right in time’

Our View: ‘Right in time’
(Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

Alexandria enters phase one of reopening for business from the coronavirus pandemic at midnight tonight. Ready or not, here we go.

We are cautiously optimistic that this is the right decision.

Two weeks ago, when the rest of Virginia entered phase one, seemed too early for Northern Virginia. We cautioned at the time that our region might still not be ready two weeks later.

But the numbers have continued to improve, and we now meet four of the six metrics for reopening, as today’s Times front page story, “Alexandria prepares to reopen Friday,” details.

Meanwhile, our city’s small businesses are continuing to struggle. Many businesses that received funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, at least the initial round, will see the eight-week time clock expire sometime in June on spending those funds.

Those two rounds of PPP loans were a lifeline to many small businesses – and to the workers who were able to collect paychecks as a result. But there’s an enormous long-term price that our country will have to pay for the stimulus bills already passed, and a reasonable argument can be made that further trillion-dollar spending programs are not wise.

If little additional aid is available to businesses, and by extension their workers, then they need to begin reopening, because the alternative for many is to permanently shutter.

The financial crisis is even worse for those businesses and individuals who don’t qualify for federal assistance. While the PPP was designed to help smaller businesses, numerous larger, even household name companies, such as J.C. Penney Company and The Hertz Corporation, have filed for bankruptcy since the pandemic struck.

And undocumented residents are feeling the double whammy of often being front-line workers who must stay at their jobs and risk becoming sick, or conversely, if they’ve been furloughed, not being eligible for assistance from the federal government.

It’s clear that businesses need to reopen and workers need to work. However – and it’s a huge however – in doing so we must continue to protect those most vulnerable in our midst.

Given the demographics on COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, residents over age 50 – and particularly those age 70 and over – should largely continue to shelter-in-place, religiously practice physical distancing and wear face masks whenever leaving their homes. People of any age with significant underlying health conditions should do the same.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) announcement on Tuesday that residents are now required to wear facemaks indoors and in public places where groups of 10 or more congregate was welcome news – right up to the point where he said enforcement would be the responsibility of the health department and not law officers.

His rationale, that “this is a matter of public health” was ridiculous to the point of absurdity. Does he expect Alexandria’s Health Director, Dr. Stephen Haering and his team of epidemiologists, marvelous as they are, to scooter up and down King Street and Mt. Vernon Avenue yelling “Citizen’s arrest!” like Gomer Pyle from the Andy Griffith show? Of course not.

Which means Northam’s mask-wearing mandate was a meaningless public relations gesture that will not be enforced. Similarly worrisome is our local government’s lack of enforcement on social distancing and open container alcohol consumption on lower King Street and along Alexandria’s waterfront even prior to reopening. What will it be like after?

For Alexandria’s reopening to be successful, law enforcement must be actively involved, particularly along the waterfront. Otherwise, revelers, who are often visitors, endanger not only themselves but also nearby residents, whose age demographics are among the oldest in Alexandria.

It is time to reopen, but we need to get it right.