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As General Assembly reconvenes, many Virginians urge legislators to expand Medicaid

A procession of health-care advocates gathered last week to urge state legislators to expand Medicaid and increase funding for Virginians with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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By DeForrest Ballou and Adam Hamza – Capital News Service

A procession of health-care advocates urged state legislators Wednesday to expand Medicaid and increase funding for Virginians with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

At a hearing on the state budget that the General Assembly must craft this spring, dozens of speakers expressed support for expanding Medicaid – an idea advocated by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and other Democrats but opposed by most Republican lawmakers.

The speakers included Nichole Wescott Hayes, a volunteer for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

“ACS-CAN is part of a larger coalition of health-care-related agencies, Healthcare for All Virginians. And we are trying to expand Medicaid so that we can cover the gaps of the 300-some-thousand individuals who are without coverage at this time,” Hayes said.

“The whole ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ is not just about tourism; it’s about helping each other. That’s kind of the bedrock of what Virginia is about.”

Medicaid, which is funded by the federal and state governments, provides health care for low-income Americans. The federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid and promised that the federal government would pay for it. But most Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly fear that the state would be stuck with the bills if it expands Medicaid.

Health care was the dominant topic at the hearing. Of the 82 speakers, roughly half addressed that issue.

For instance, Kelly Brookes of Henrico County has a daughter with cerebral palsy. She advocated for more equitable education.

“My child should not have to prove that she is capable of learning, which she absolutely is,” Brookes said. “She should be able to receive the same education as other kids.”

Rachel Deane, who works for a nonprofit group called the Legal Aid Justice Center, said it’s important to attend events like hearings on the state budget.

“I think it’s always just a good opportunity for us to be at a budget hearing and to talk directly to members of the General Assembly about what funding we need for youth to be successful,” Deane said.

The center provides legal representation for low-income individuals. Deane is the legal director for the group’s program serving children.

Her goal at the hearing was to ask for funding of programs that could keep children out of the correctional system. She sat alongside a group wearing tan shirts with the words, “Guide us, don’t criminalize us.”

Mark Strandquist also addressed the legislative panel. Strandquist is the creative director for ART 180, another program run by the Legal Aid Justice Center. During his presentation, he played a recording of children who have been helped by ART 180.

“We literally view our role as being a megaphone for youth whose voices have been silenced. That’s why I literally played audio recordings made by the youth over the microphone,” Strandquist said.

The General Assembly will convene Wednesday for a 60-day session. The major item on the agenda is to write the state budget for the next two years.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Stoney: City to “cautiously move” into Phase 1 of reopening plan on Friday, May 29th

On Thursday, Mayor Stoney announced that the City of Richmond will cautiously move into Phase 1 of Forward Virginia, the state’s reopening plan. Masks will be required in all indoor spaces and restaurants will be asked to voluntarily connect patrons’ information for contact tracing purposes.

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On Thursday, Mayor Stoney announced that the City of Richmond will cautiously move into Phase 1 of Forward Virginia, the state’s reopening plan.

“When I look at the picture in totality, given the added tools at our disposal, the current trends in our local data and my faith in Richmonders to look out for one another, I believe that Richmond can cautiously move into Phase 1 on Friday, May 29,” said Mayor Stoney at Thursday’s press conference.

During the first delay that the City of Richmond requested, the Stoney administration and Richmond City Health District expanded testing efforts, implemented a contact tracing effort, ensured every COVID-19 positive Richmonder will be able to isolate safely and securely with supported isolation, and advocated for a statewide mask requirement.

The city initially requested a modified Phase 1 reopening that maintained restrictions on places of worship and personal care and grooming services, as mass gatherings and close personal contact for extended periods of time both significantly increase chance of community spread.

Because the governor denied the city’s modified plan for reopening, Richmond will move into Phase 1 of Forward Virginia, the state’s reopening plan, with strong recommendations reflecting the mayor’s proposed modifications. Local guidance and helpful links to state guidance are available here. The state has yet to provide guidance on what Phases 2 and 3 will include.

The mayor detailed a number of best practices for residents and business owners to ensure that the city moves into Phase 1 cautiously. The best practices emerged from conversations between the Stoney administration and members of the business community, faith leadership, and health professionals.

  1. All residents who are medically able to should wear a face-covering that covers the mouth and nose when in public spaces. The wearing of a face covering does not negate the need for 6-foot social distancing.
  2. Faith communities should continue to meet virtually if possible. If in-person meetings are absolutely necessary, the mayor strongly recommends faith groups meet outside while practicing strict social distancing and enforcing the face-covering requirement.
  3. Food and drink establishments that choose to offer outdoor service at half capacity are asked to request a name and contact information of patrons who dine in for contact tracing purposes. This practice is voluntary for both patrons and restaurants. However, collecting this small amount of information for each dine-in party will go far in assisting the Richmond City Health District in tracing and containing outbreaks. Guidance on this practice is available here.

The mayor made two requests of the state: to continue to assist the city in further expanding testing capacity and in providing adequate face-coverings and hand sanitizer throughout the capital city.

“Quite frankly, we’re going to need more support from the state for our residents and our businesses to reopen safely and sustainably,” the mayor noted in his appeal. “I make these recommendations and requests of the state because, as has been my mantra this entire pandemic. Reopening should be slow and steady.”

“When public health is on the line, blindly pushing forward is not an option. Decisions must be thoughtful, and they must be based in our collective knowledge of and love for our city.”

See more reopening guidance for local businesses here: www.rvastrong.org/reopeningguidance.

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Governor Northam announces face covering requirement, denies Richmond’s request to modify phase one reopening

Governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday signed Executive Order Sixty-Three, requiring Virginians to wear face coverings in public indoor settings to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. At the same time, the governor denied a request by Mayor Levar Stoney to place restrictions on places of worship and personal grooming businesses when Richmond enters phase one of reopening Friday.

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Governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday signed Executive Order Sixty-Three, requiring Virginians to wear face coverings in public indoor settings to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Governor also directed the Department of Labor and Industry to develop emergency temporary standards to prevent workplace exposure to COVID-19.

The governor also signed an amended Executive Order Fifty-One, extending Virginia’s state of emergency declaration.

The new executive order supports previous actions the Governor has taken to respond to COVID-19 in Virginia, and ensures workers and consumers are protected as the Commonwealth gradually eases public health restrictions. The Governor’s statewide requirement for wearing face coverings is grounded in science and data, including recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that individuals should wear face coverings in public settings. Face coverings do not take the place of public health guidelines to maintain six feet of physical distancing, increase cleaning and sanitation, and wash hands regularly.

“We are making progress to contain the spread of COVID-19 and now is not the time for Virginians to get complacent,” said Governor Northam. “Science shows that face coverings are an effective way to prevent transmission of the virus, but wearing them is also a sign of respect. This is about doing the right thing to protect the people around us and keep everyone safe, especially as we continue to slowly lift public health restrictions in our Commonwealth.”

A face covering includes anything that covers your nose and mouth, such as a mask, scarf, or bandana. Medical-grade masks and personal protective equipment should be reserved for health care professionals. Under the Governor’s executive order, any person age ten and older must wear a mask or face covering at all times while entering, exiting, traveling through, and spending time in the following public settings:

  • Personal care and grooming businesses
  • Essential and non-essential brick and mortar retail including grocery stores and pharmacies
  • Food and beverage establishments
  • Entertainment or public amusement establishments when permitted to open
  • Train stations, bus stations, and on intrastate public transportation, including in waiting or congregating areas
  • State and local government buildings and areas where the public accesses services
  • Any indoor space shared by groups of people who may congregate within six feet of one another or who are in close proximity to each other for more than ten minutes

Exemptions to these guidelines include while eating and drinking at a food and beverage establishment; individuals who are exercising; children under the age of two; a person seeking to communicate with a hearing-impaired person, for which the mouth needs to be visible; and anyone with a health condition that keeps them from wearing a face covering. Children over the age of two are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering to the extent possible.

At the same time, Northam denied a request by the Stoney administration that sought to modify the City of Richmond’s move into phase one by placing additional restrictions on places of worship and salons, spas, and other personal grooming businesses.

The governor responded saying that Richmond should adhere to the same phase one regulations as other cities and counties in the Commonwealth beginning this Friday, May 29th.

The full text of Executive Order Sixty-Three and Order of Public Health Emergency Five is available here. The text of amended Executive Order Fifty-One is available here.

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Underground Kitchen’s New Food Relief Nonprofit Surpasses 10K Meals Distributed

The food relief operation currently has nine chefs and two bakers working in church kitchens to produce homemade soup and bread, soon to include family-style pot pies, pastas, and casserole dishes to help sustain families for several days.

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Great news from the folks at Underground Kitchen.

In less than two months, the UGK Community First Project – officially registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofit in early May – has provided more than 10,000 nourishing meals to people throughout metro Richmond, primarily to those who are food insecure or whose jobs put them at high risk of exposure during the COVID-19 crisis. The Community First Project was formed by Michael Sparks and Kate Houck, the CEO and COO respectively of Underground Kitchen, an acclaimed Richmond, Va.-based experiential, roving dinner series that’s now on hold until it is safe to resume operation.

The UGK Community First Project initially launched on March 16, 2020, right after Underground Kitchen paused its dinner series in response to the COVID-19 crisis. “We saw an immediate need in our community created by the crisis – both for healthy meals to be delivered to those in need, as well as for those in the food industry to have access to work in a safe environment to support their families,” says Houck.

The first 175 meals were delivered to individuals impacted by the crisis and front-line health workers in the community the week of March 23, 2020. By May 11, 2020 that number had increased to 2,000 meals for the week, distributed to food insecure communities, those who are home-bound or quarantined, front-line health workers, first responders, families and care-givers and others throughout Richmond.

UGK Community First has scaled up its response to help through the generous support of Episcopal Diocese of Virginia member churches in metro Richmond. The food relief operation currently has nine chefs and two bakers working in church kitchens to produce homemade soup and bread, soon to include family-style pot pies, pastas, and casserole dishes to help sustain families for several days.

“We are conscious of the continued impact of COVD-19 and are committed to doing what we can to address the need for meals in the community for the duration of its influence,” says Houck.

“However, we have also seen that, regardless of the agencies that already exist in the region, there continues to be a deep need for healthy, unprocessed, consistently delivered meals even in the best of times. Therefore, we see UGK Community First continuing long after this crisis passes, with a focus on distributing meals to families and children who live in a constant food insecure environment, as well as supplementing other programs who are doing the same,” she adds.

In addition to the Episcopal churches, over the past several weeks, Underground Kitchen has worked with a coalition of community partners, donors, and volunteers including: Better2gether RVA, CARITAS, GoochlandCares, La Casa de la Salud RVA, the Armstrong Renaissance community, Virginia Supportive Housing, and CultureWorks Richmond (through the COVID-19 Arts and Culture Relief Fund).

UGK Community First has also supplied meals to: St. Mary’s Hospital, Memorial Regional Medical Center, Richmond Community Hospital (all part of Bon Secours), McGuire VA Medical Center, Ronald McDonald House Charities® of Richmond, Richmond Ambulance Authority, and The Doorways.

For more information about the UGK Community First Project food relief operation, please visit theundergroundkitchen.org.

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