End of ‘state of emergency’ in Va. could impact masks, evictions & workplace protections

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Now that all COVID-19 capacity restrictions have been lifted in Virginia, there’s a renewed focus on when the ‘state of emergency’ declaration will end.

The answer could impact workplace safety regulations, eviction protections and the ability to wear masks in public.

The declaration, which has been in effect for more than a year, is currently set to expire on June 30th.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam told 8News that he is not planning on extending it after that. However, there are some complications that still have to be worked out before June 30th, including finding a legal path allowing Virginians to continue to wear masks voluntarily.

“If we’re not in the state of emergency, it is unlawful to wear a mask in public so there are certain things we’re working through,” Northam said. “It’s a month away so I don’t think that’s too extreme.” 

Those comments come as some Republicans are calling on Northam to end the state of emergency immediately. That would open the door for a possible repeal of Virginia’s mandatory workplace safety regulations.

For months, these first-in-the-nation standards have required masks and numerous other COVID-19 mitigation measures in certain business sectors. Now, some argue they are confusing and outdated in light of updated state and federal coronavirus guidelines.

“It’s time for the Governor to end the state of emergency so that these inflexible, unscientific rules can be rolled back and businesses can stop wasting time and money on ‘safety’ measures that are clearly no longer needed,” House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said in a statement on Friday.

“You have a set of rules in Virginia that, in many situations, would seem to conflict with the CDC rules,” said Republican Del. Jay Leftwich (R-Chesapeake). “I think it’s unfair for businesses to have to figure out which rules they should be complying with.”

Asked about this criticism on Tuesday, Northam declined to respond.

“I don’t have any further comments on that,” the Governor said.

Separately, some have concerns about a looming deadline on eviction protections.

Without further action, on June 30th, a federal eviction moratorium is expected to expire. That order from the CDC is already in flux after a judge ruled the agency acted outside of its authority.

If Virginia’s state of emergency also expires on that same day, it will end some–but not all–protections passed by the General Assembly, according to Virginia Poverty Law Center Housing Advocacy Director Christie Marra.

For example, Marra said landlords with more than four units must continue offering payment plans to tenants struggling to pay rent before proceeding with a removal until summer of 2022.

However, as it stands, she said landlords wont be required to apply for rent relief on behalf of their tenants before moving forward with an eviction after June 30, though financial assistance will still be available through the state.

Marra said Northam should extend this protection using an executive order if the state of emergency expires. Otherwise, she plans to ask the state legislature to put it back in the budget during a special session expected later this summer.

“Clearly the economic crisis is not over,” Marra said in a phone interview.

Virginia Apartment Management Association CEO Patrick McCloud said those steps are unnecessary,

“I would argue their concerns are unfounded. It is in the property owner’s best interest to apply for the rental assistance,” McCloud said. “But ending the state of emergency actually helps because it puts some teeth in place for those people who have been unresponsive.” 

When asked about this on Tuesday, Northam didn’t commit to a specific solution but he said he is actively looking at next steps to prevent evictions in collaboration with federal partners.

“I was just actually on the phone with some folks from President Biden’s Administration talking about how we can use the American Rescue Plan resources in Virginia and certainly we want to make sure we prevent anyone from being evicted. So that’s something we are working on as well,” Northam said.

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