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Healthcare, Reopening Virginia, and Enforcing Distancing Restrictions: Political Analysis for Friday, May 1, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between them.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include healthcare and the health of Virginia's economy, early steps in reopening Virginia, and varying enforcement of social distancing restrictions.

Craig Carper: From VPM news in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper. Joining me now from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is political columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro. Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro: Hi there, Craig.

Carper: More than seven weeks into the coronavirus lockdown, Governor Ralph Northam, the nation's only physician governor, is increasingly focusing on the health of Virginia's economy.

Schapiro: And the hospitals and the doctors couldn't be happier. Of course, healthcare, a big slice of the Virginia economy, generating at least 12% of its jobs. The governor is lifting the ban on elective surgery today, after five weeks. So this means Virginians who perhaps had scheduled cancer surgery, or plan to have a knee or hip replaced, perhaps planned a coronary bypass, procedures that had all been on hold under the governor's order, they can, you know, now get with their docs. Of course, some of these procedures are potentially lifesaving; some are cosmetic. Either way, they mean a lot of money for doctors and the hospitals with which they are affiliated. The governor, of course, imposed this restriction to preserve supplies of personal protective equipment. The hospitals have been pushing hard for the ban to be lifted. Two weeks or so ago, the hospital lobby put out a statement calling for the restrictions to be lifted. The governor not only said “no,” he extended them until today, Friday. Some of the biggest hospitals were taking the biggest hits under the governor's order. Up at Charlottesville, at UVA, it announced this week that it lost $85 million during this restrictive period. It says it does not expect to recover all of those dollars. The hospital imposed pay cuts, told workers they'd have to take unpaid vacations or furloughs. UVA even stopped making contributions to the pensions of doctors and healthcare workers. Over in Roanoke a private hospital, Carilion, took similar steps. It employs about 13,000 people, and that is a lot of jobs in a metropolitan area of about 310,000.

Carper: And it's been a week since Northam, at least publicly, began his pivot toward reopening the Virginia economy, naming an advisory group of businesses, big and small, to recommend ways for them to reconnect with their customers.

Schapiro: And we have seen the administration announce the formation of a committee of businesses, small and large. But not only that committee, there are a number of cabinet-level aides who have been assigned to work with this committee, again, on ways for them to reengage. No one believes that the Virginia economy is going to match anytime soon the vigor it was showing before the pandemic hit. Of course since March, more than a half-million people have applied for unemployment benefits. In the past week, another 74,000 applied, and actually that's a decline. It's the third week that enrollment or the application for benefits has declined. Now, how many of these people will be able to get back to their old jobs? That is not clear. Of course, they are receiving enhanced fattened benefits because of that federal relief bill. And those enhanced benefits will run into summer when the tourist economy in the state is, you know, usually at full boil. And maybe we should talk a bit about that using Virginia Beach as an example. What is it going to look like? So even if these Northam-imposed restrictions, social distancing, masks, the stay-at-home order, which is in place until early June, even if they are eased, will tourists feel comfortable visiting a place like Virginia Beach? What will it mean for employment in Hampton Roads, of which Virginia Beach is one of the big cities? Tourism is one of three legs of the regional economy. It's been in decline because of the coronavirus, but so too, has traffic through the port of Hampton Roads. It's the region's second biggest economic engine. And the premier, a third leg of that stool, if you will, is the military. It seems to be doing just fine.

Carper: Now Jeff, how and where Northam-ordered restrictions are enforced seems to vary region to region, but in Northam’s home turf, the Eastern Shore, the authorities are serious about them.

Schapiro: Yeah, now I know this is serious business, this pandemic, but there was a somewhat amusing story on one of the Delmarva news web sites this week about citations being issued in Chincoteague and Northampton county where people were cited for violating the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. Of course, violations are punishable by up to a year in jail, a fine of $2,500, or both. Now in Northampton, apparently there was a house party in which there were at least 20 people in attendance. Over in Chincoteague, there were 18 people apparently partying at a closed restaurant. And get this, also in Chincoteague a pastor was cited for a Palm Sunday service in which there were at least a dozen people in attendance. And as well, there is a legal challenge unfolding in regard to the governor's shutdown order. In Lynchburg this week a circuit judge, siding with gun rights advocates, says that the governor exceeded his authority in applying this directive to an indoor gun range. The judge says that federal and state gun rights take precedent to the governor's power to protect public health. An appeal is expected. There is another case out of Culpeper. There a circuit judge did not side with the operators of a gym franchise, also shuttered by the Northam order. That case, and it is going to be appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, got a lot of attention because the business was represented by two Republican state senators, Ryan McDougle from here in the Richmond area representing Hanover, Bill Stanley from Franklin down in the southwest corner of the state. Bill Stanley, of course, a close friend of Ralph Northam’s.

Carper: Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Jeff, we will catch up again next week.

Schapiro: Safe weekend to you.

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