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Virginia localities take precautions to protect voters, workers

Virginia localities are taking a number of precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at polling places even though masks will not be required.

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By Sam Fowler

Virginia localities are taking a number of precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at polling places even though masks will not be required.

 Saturday marked the last day to cast early, in-person ballots before Election Day, but voters can still cast in-person ballots on Nov. 3. They also can mail or return absentee ballots by that day. Election officials have been working to keep voters and workers safe during an election that has yielded a record number of early votes.

More than 5.9 million Virginians were registered to vote as of Oct. 1, with the cut off date in late October. Early voting commenced 45 days before Election Day, due to a new law. Legislators also recently changed laws to allow no-excuse absentee voting and made Election Day a state holiday. More than 2.7 million Virginians had voted as of Nov. 1, with around 1.8 million individuals voting or casting an absentee ballot in-person, according to the Virginia Department of Elections website. More than 886,000 voters have cast absentee ballots by mail and nearly 1.1 million mail-in ballots have been requested.

Voters are encouraged to wear a mask, and will be offered one, Andrea Gaines, director of community relations at the Virginia Department of Elections, said in an email. They will also be offered the opportunity to vote without leaving their vehicles.

“Ultimately, a voter will not be turned away if they are not wearing a mask but the Department strongly encourages them to do so to keep themselves and others around them safe,” Gaines said.

Even though there is a state mandate requiring individuals to wear masks when in close proximity with others, it’s against state law to “to hinder or delay a qualified voter in entering or leaving a polling place,” regardless of whether they have on a mask, Gaines said.

Poll workers and voters will be buffered with a number of measures. Such precautions include enforcing social distancing as well as placing plexiglass between voters and poll workers, according to Gary Scott, general registrar and director of the Fairfax County Office of Elections. Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed, according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.

Fairfax County workers will also have shields, gloves and masks, which will be replaced throughout the day, Scott said. To avoid the chance of voters sharing pens, Fairfax County will provide voters with “I voted” pens that they can use to fill out their ballots and keep instead of offering stickers.

The Virginia Department of Elections distributed $9 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding that could be used to help secure personal protective equipment needed by local election offices, Gaines said.

In Charlottesville, poll workers will have sanitizing wipes and ponchos to help provide an extra layer of protection, said Taylor Yowell, the city’s deputy general registrar.

“We have plenty of sanitizing wipes and the sterilizing spray and paper towels in order to wipe down each polling booth after every voter throughout the day,” Yowell said.

Danville poll workers checking identification will be buffered by the use of a shower curtain placed on PVC pipe, said David Torborg, a chief poll worker at one of the city’s 16 precincts.

Torborg, who has been an election worker for about 20 years, decided to serve as an election worker again this year because he believes the precautions in place are good and will be enough to protect workers and voters from the coronavirus.

“I’m aware of COVID, I’m cautious as I can be,” Torborg said. “I’m not freaking out over it.”

Others, like former Danville poll worker JoAnn Howard, have decided against working at the polls this election to mitigate the chance of contracting the coronavirus.

“I was given the option and I did feel guilty because I’ve been working the polls for 10 years, and I really enjoy it,” Howard said. “Something could go wrong, I just didn’t want to take a risk.”

Election workers in Fairfax County are trained every three years or when laws impacting election workers or voters change, Scott said. The county has been training election workers since July on how to follow and implement social distancing measures. In Charlottesville, training sessions for new election officers were kept small to stay within Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

“All election officers do get trained on protection and making sure they’re wiping down, sanitizing,” Yowell said. “Our chiefs get trained more thoroughly with helping with de-escalation and sanitizing throughout the day.”

Virginia Department of Elections also provides training along with each locality’s specific training, Gaines said over email.

Around half of registered voters had voted in Fairfax and Charlottesville, according to Scott and Yowell.

Around 9,000 people have voted in Charlottesville as of Oct. 28. Around 5,000 to 6,000 mail-in ballots were sent out, Yowell said. The number of in-person and absentee requests accounts for nearly half of the city’s 33,000 active registered voters.

“We’ve already gone over 50% of our anticipated turnout in five days of in-person voting,” Scott said. “We anticipate close to 60% of our voters will have voted prior to elections.”

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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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CDC says the vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas with high infection rates

Federal health officials on Tuesday urged Americans in areas of the country with the highest surges in COVID-19 infections to once again wear masks when they are in public, indoor settings — even if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

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By Laura Olson

The updated recommendations marked a sharp shift from the agency’s guidance in May that Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear a mask in most situations, indoors and outdoors.

The updates also included changes for schools, with federal health officials now urging everyone in K-12 schools to wear a mask indoors. That includes teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status and the level of community transmission.

The update in CDC guidance was prompted by new data indicating that although breakthrough infections among the vaccinated are rare, those individuals still may be contagious and able to spread the disease to others, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wearing a mask indoors in areas with “substantial” or “high” transmission of the virus could help to reduce further outbreaks of the highly contagious delta variant, she said.

Some 39 states have infection rates that have reached “substantial” or “high” levels of transmission, according to a data tracker on the CDC website. The CDC rates Virginia, with 56.4 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days and a 5 to 8 percent positivity rate, as having a “substantial” level of community transmission. However, that varies widely by locality.

“As always, we will thoroughly review these recommendations,” said Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam.  “The governor has taken a nuanced and data-driven approach throughout this pandemic—which is why Virginia has among the nation’s lowest total COVID-19 cases and death rates.

“As he has said repeatedly, the only way to end this pandemic is for everyone to get vaccinated. The facts show vaccines are highly effective at protecting Virginians from this serious virus — over 98 percent of hospitalizations and over 99 percent of deaths have been among unvaccinated Virginians.”

The agency also tracks infection rates on the county level, and 63 percent of U.S. counties are in those two categories of concern.

“This was not a decision that was taken lightly,” Walensky said. She added that other public health and medical experts agreed with the CDC that the new information on the potential for vaccinated people to have contagious infections required the agency to take action.

President Joe Biden described the agency’s revision on recommended mask use as “another step on our journey to defeating this virus.”

“I hope all Americans who live in the areas covered by the CDC guidance will follow it,” Biden said. “I certainly will when I travel to these areas.”

The mask-use changes may not be the only changes coming as the White House attempts to respond to the spiking infections. Biden also said Tuesday that a vaccination requirement for all federal employees is under consideration.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs already has required its frontline health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

But the new recommendations on masks are expected to be met with resistance.

Areas of the country with the highest spikes in COVID-19 infections tend to be those with the lowest vaccination rates and places that were the fastest to end mask mandates for public settings.

Some have taken legal steps to prevent future mask mandates. At least nine states — Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Vermont — have enacted legislation that prohibits districts from requiring masks in schools, according to a CNN analysis.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, blasted the updated guidance in a statement Tuesday, describing it as “not grounded in reality or common sense.” Iowa’s level of community transmission is rated as “substantial” in the latest CDC map. 

“I’m concerned that this guidance will be used as a vehicle to mandate masks in states and schools across the country, something I do not support,” Reynolds said, adding that the vaccine “remains our strongest tool to combat COVID-19” and that she will continue to urge vaccinations.

Walensky sidestepped a question during Tuesday’s news briefing about the level of compliance that the CDC expects with the new recommendations, saying only that the way to drive down rising community transmission rates is to wear masks and to increase vaccination rates.

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Government

Henrico County asking for public input on proposed safety improvements on Horsepen Road, Glenside Drive

Bike lanes, crosswalks, and turn lanes are among the suggestions for the area between Forest Avenue and Patterson.

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The Henrico County Department of Public Works is looking at ways to improve safety on Horsepen Road and Glenside Drive. Bike lanes, crosswalks, and turn lanes are among the suggestions for the area between Forest Avenue and Patterson.

A description of the project can be found in the below video.

The county is asking residents to submit comments on the proposed changes by August 6th at the following link:    https://forms.gle/JnmEPjKKxPzmRE2Y7

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Business

Unemployment benefits aren’t the only thing keeping workers at home

Business owners, chambers of commerce types and some local officials around Virginia swore that ending enhanced unemployment benefits – of $300 a week from the federal government – would propel folks back into the workforce who’d been home during the pandemic. That may not be the case.

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Business owners, chambers of commerce types and some local officials around Virginia swore that ending enhanced unemployment benefits – of $300 a week from the federal government – would propel folks back into the workforce who’d been home during the pandemic. 

The commonwealth should play a figurative Scrooge, these folks said, because places including restaurants, hotels and small businesses needed these employees. “Turbocharge the cash registers!” they cried.

This line of thinking was a gross oversimplification of the (so-called) post-pandemic economy. Nor do I think it was by accident. Demonizing low-wage workers has been a sport in this country for ages.

Several factors have kept people on the sidelines, not just the government largesse. The recent uptick in COVID-19 infections and persistent vaccine resistance, for example, would make anybody leery of working outside the home.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has repeatedly said the commonwealth will keep doling out the checks until the Sept. 6 deadline, and a spokeswoman confirmed that to me again on Monday. It’s a wise, compassionate decision. 

About half of the states, mostly led by Republican governors, ended their programs early, however. 

Now a study by a university professor of the early impacts of canceling the benefits suggests there’s been no rush to return to the workforce – even after states declined the money. 

“This doesn’t seem to have translated into most of these individuals having jobs in the first 2-3 weeks following expiration,” said Arindrajit Dube, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “However, there is evidence that the reduced (unemployment insurance) benefits increased self-reported hardship in paying for regular expenses.”  

Those checks have been deemed wasteful recently by critics, but several factors are keeping people at home. Shame on those who said otherwise – and depicted many Americans as freeloaders for not waiting on tables, changing sheets, or ringing up customers.

Caveats abound to Dube’s study, as CNBC reported. Some states hadn’t reverted to a lack of federal benefits very long. Dube noted more time and information are needed.

Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer was among those who urged Northam to cut off benefits sooner. His tourist-heavy locality can use workers, especially during the summer. Many of those jobs, though, didn’t pay well and can be physically demanding. Many employers are now dangling fatter paychecks, but finding workers is still a hurdle.

Dyer told me Monday the issue is moot now, since September is around the corner and with it, the end of the peak tourist season. He’d talked to many business owners who were desperate for workers, and Dyer was voicing their concerns to the guv, he told me. 

Dyer also said employers at places like Stihl Inc., which have higher-paying and higher-skilled jobs, have told him they can’t fill vacancies. “Workforce is the biggest challenge we’ve got,” Dyer said. “If we’re going to have businesses, we have to supply the bodies.” 

That’s true. 

Since the pandemic, however, many adults and families are reassessing the necessity of working outside the home. They value spending more time with their children, while giving up lengthy commutes. 

And given our notorious reputation for being overworked compared to the rest of developed nations, many Americans wonder if our former job habits still make sense. Everyone is re-evaluating the trade-offs. 

Vinod Agarwal is an economics professor at Old Dominion University and deputy director of its Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy. I knew he’d give me a balanced assessment of the unemployment insurance controversy.

Business owners who say the enhanced benefits are the sole cause of the labor shortage are just wrong, he said. Since the pandemic started, some workers left the labor force entirely. Many women, Agarwal noted, made less than their male partners, and they often assumed the primary task of helping children who could not go to in-person school. 

Minority women often had the task of taking care of elderly relatives, too. A Trump administration crackdown on J-1 visas for overseas workers also played a role, Agarwal noted, particularly in tourist-heavy areas like Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 

Among formerly low-income workers, some now have greater flexibility and choices. “Unless the wages go up, a lot of these workers won’t return to the marketplace,” the professor said.

From daycare concerns and costs, to the aggravation of low-paying jobs, many families – especially those with two adults – are reassessing what’s important. Should they return to the market, when employers aren’t meeting their goals and conditions are less than desirable?

Enhanced unemployment benefits are going to end. Our place in the revamped economy is just beginning.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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