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New Virginia Laws Address COVID-19 Needs, Social Justice Demands

Northam speaking
Gov. Ralph Northam is joined by several top Democrats in announcing legislative priorities for 2020, prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Gov. Ralph Northam signed a series of bills into law recently, addressing several issues advocates have been drawing attention to for months.

Some of the new laws address issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, including one which gives local health districts more funding flexibility during public health crises. Another establishes programs to manage career fatigue for healthcare providers, and another expands Medicaid to cover up to 12 months of birth control.

The new legislation addresses health needs directly, but also confronts the secondary impacts  of COVID-19. On the economic front, one allows restaurants to sell alcohol for delivery and take out until July 2022, a temporary change made at the beginning of the pandemic to stimulate local economies.

Northam also signed a law removing the witness signature requirement on absentee ballots during declared public health emergencies. Last year, advocates argued that signature requirements disenfranchise voters who live alone and could expose them to illness while the coronavirus continued to rage.

Another new law expands eligibility for the Child Care Subsidy Program, which helps families in need pay for childcare. Childcare has been made a priority during the pandemic, as many parents continue to work out of the home while students attend classes remotely.

Northam also signed laws responding to racial justice demands raised during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

One of the new laws allows for the removal of the statue of Harry Byrd, Sr. from Capitol Square. Byrd, a former Democratic governor and U.S. Senator, led the “massive resistance” movement against school desegregation in the 1950’s. The law’s signing follows the removal of several Confederate monuments throughout Virginia in the last year, including 14 in Richmond.

The governor also signed off on the renaming of part of U.S. Route 29, currently named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, in Arlington County. Richmond took similar action in December, renaming the former Jefferson Davis Highway, which was named after the president of the Confederacy, into the new Richmond Highway.

Two new laws will also encourage diversity in state government. One requires state agencies to establish diversity, equity and inclusion planning, codifying Northam’s ONE Virginia Plan. The other establishes a Virginia LGBTQ+ Advisory Board to inform the governor on policy issues that impact those communities.

On climate, Northam signed a bill that requires the state to develop policy proposals for electrifying Virginia’s transportation system, and another that requires car manufacturers to sell a certain percentage of electric and hybrid vehicles in an effort to cut air pollution.

According to his office, Northam signed a total of 14 bills this time around, bringing his total to over 100 in the last few weeks.

He sent back two bills with amendments for legislators to consider. One regards the research and notification process of the Virginia Parole Board, with an amendment to move up the law’s effective date to December 15, 2021, rather than July 1, 2022. The second amends a gambling law to prohibit “games of skill” beginning July 1, 2021.

The amended bills now head back to the General Assembly, where legislators will reach a final decision next month.