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Virginia Restaurants grapple with plastic foam container ban

From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such takeout containers.

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By David Tran

From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.

After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.

“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”

Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. Remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation.

Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having Styrofoam in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”

This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packaging, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.

Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.

“The places that give me these Styrofoam containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lost more than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.

Dominic Pham, owner of Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives.

Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.

Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.

The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversed or delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report.

The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 report in the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegrades slowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.

MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.

“I think that it’s the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment and partnership manager.

DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.

“If it’s a statewide change, that’s kind of the best case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it’s driving demand for the product up and costs down.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers.

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Trevor Dickerson is the co-founder and editor of RVAhub.com, lover of all things Richmond, and a master of karate and friendship for everyone.

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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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Community

Train Derailment Near Hollywood Cemetery Again

This derailment occurred Friday afternoon. A train also derailed in the same vicinity on June 9th.

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All photos courtesy of RFD Twitter.

Posted by RFD Twitter on July 23rd

At approximately 1:26 p.m., crews responded to an area down the North Bank Trail near Hollywood Cemetery for the report of a train derailment. Once on scene, they found multiple freight cars that had been tipped over. The cars were carrying coal.
Some of the load spilled onto the track and ground in the area, but there was no coal in the water. No injuries reported. The incident was marked under control at 1:59 p.m. and turned over to CSX.

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Suspect Sought in West Clay Street Burglary

At approximately 4:57 p.m. on Thursday, June 24, the man in the photos climbed a wall in the rear of a house, located in the 00 block of West Clay Street, broke into the residence and stole a computer and credit cards.

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Richmond Police detectives are asking for the public’s help to identify the individual in the attached photos who is a suspect in a residential burglary that occurred in the Jackson Ward neighborhood last month.

At approximately 4:57 p.m. on Thursday, June 24, the man in the photos climbed a wall in the rear of a house, located in the 00 block of West Clay Street, broke into the residence and stole a computer and credit cards. A photo of his distinctive pink and black sneakers is also attached.

 

Anyone with information about the identity of this person is asked to call Fourth Precinct Detective J. Land at (804) 646-3103 or contact Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app for smartphones may also be used. All Crime Stoppers methods are anonymous.

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