Northam: Coronavirus Budget Cuts Coming
This article has been updated with additional information.
Gov. Ralph Northam is warning that the state will be making significant cuts to the $140 billion two-year budget approved by the General Assembly last month. During his Friday media briefing Northam said the crisis will have major impacts on both the current budget and the new one, which will begin on July 1.
“We can expect to have significantly less revenue than even our most pessimistic forecast,” Northam said. “And our response to this crisis requires us to make significant investments: purchases of PPE, investments in hospital space and aide to support Virginians who need it the most.”
Yesterday, Northam directed state agencies to begin taking steps to reduce spending. Virginia is eliminating discretionary spending for the remainder of the fiscal year and asking agencies to prepare for budget cuts starting in July. Northam said he is directing “budget experts” to re-examine funding for new initiatives.
“We have to rearrange our priorities now. Virginia had a strong economy and was in a good financial position before this pandemic. I have confidence that we will manage our budget responsibly through this situation and when the pandemic is finished, we will again be strong.”
Yesterday the federal government approved the public assistance portion of Virginia’s request for a federal major disaster declaration for the commonwealth. The money will pay for equipment and supplies to combat the COVID-19 epidemic.
Included is $2.5 million to shelter homeless Virginians. The governor’s office says that roughly 1,500 Virginians are currently unsheltered or rely on shelters that can’t comply with social distancing or require them to leave daily. The emergency funding will provide temporary housing for these individuals as well as for people in shelters who need to be quarantined.
The homeless will be provided hotel and motel vouchers as well as food, cleaning supplies and medical transportation.
Hospital Overflow Preparations
Under the disaster declaration, Virginia, the United States Corps of Engineers and the National Guard, will work together to identify alternative care facilities. In Northern Virginia the Dulles Expo Center could accommodate 315 acute or 510 non-acute beds. The Richmond and Hampton Roads Convention Centers will serve as alternative care sites for those regions. Hampton Roads can accommodate 360 acute or 580 non-acute beds. Richmond can accommodate 432 acute or 758 non-acute beds. The centers are now working to complete contracts and approve designs before construction can begin on the projects.
Northam hopes these facilities can free up capacity in the existing hospital system by May when Virginia expects a surge in COVID-19 cases.
This week 114,104 Virginians applied for unemployment benefits in Virginia.
“This is a very large number,” Northam said, “but by next week this will unfortunately seem small.”
The governor says the high numbers are overwhelming the unemployment system and slowed the state’s website. They have since upgraded the online portal and expanded server capacity and increased call-center capacity by 20 percent.
The federal department of labor has announced that they will also provide unemployment benefits to self employed individuals, gig-workers and others who didn’t previously qualify.
More individuals are also now eligible for Virginia’s Medicaid program. This week Virginia hit its target of 400,000 new Medicaid enrollees, made possible by the state’s expansion of the program 2 years ago. However Northam said that is nothing to celebrate given the circumstances.
Health Updates and Social Distancing Guidance
Dr. Norm Oliver, Virginia Commissioner of Health said the official total number of Virginia cases stands at 2,012 but widespread shortages of tests mean that number is likely low. That is more than 500 new cases since Wednesday. The total number of reported deaths is 46. Five of those deaths were reported in the last 24 hours. The highest number of cases continue to be in the urban crescent of Northern Virginia, Central Virginia and Hampton Roads.
This week the CDC listed Virginia as a state that has widespread community transmission of COVID-19.
Northam said nursing home and long term care facilities are particularly vulnerable to the virus. In Richmond, Canterbury Rehabilitation and Health Care Center “has been particularly hit hard.”16 residents have died and another 92 have tested positive for the virus. All residents and staff have now been tested. Of those who tested positive, 53 had no symptoms and were unaware that they had the virus.
“This demonstrates how absolutely critical it is that everyone stay home and stay away from other people,” Northam said. “Because people can have this virus without knowing it or feeling sick.”
“As I’ve said before we are in the early stages of dealing with this situation in Virginia. The actions that we take now will help shape what happens in the next few weeks and months. We can get through this but we must all work together.”
Northam urged people not to gather in groups and to socially distance in state parks and other public lands.
“Parties on the beach, sandbar or boats are strictly prohibited,” Northam said. “So is rafting of multiple watercraft and large gatherings, so are littering, vandalism and failing to observe posted use restrictions.”
Northam suggested that he may have to close these public areas if social distancing guidelines are not followed.
“We will be watching this weekend,” Northam said. “I do not want to have to close these lands to public visitation because of a few irresponsible people.”
Northam urged Virginians to safely celebrate upcoming religious holidays like Easter, Passover, and Ramadan.
The governor is scheduled to deliver his next briefing Monday.