Alexandria, VA

Alexandria City Councilwoman Del Pepper never saw it coming.

At Tuesday night’s virtual City Council meeting, Mayor Justin Wilson diverted from the agenda and took a moment to reflect on an important year — 1985. It was the year that “Back to the Future” came out in theaters, Ronald Reagan was sworn into his second presidential term, and Pepper was elected for the first time to the Alexandria City Council.

Lawmakers from around the region congratulated Pepper and council also adopted a resolution honoring her for 35 years of public service.

“Dell who started as a tireless voice for the West End has left her mark on virtually everything in Alexandria,” said U.S. Senator Mark Warner. “Del, for all you and F.J.’s tremendous support for our city, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Pepper, now in her 12th term on council, has served with six mayor and served as vice mayor from 1996 to 1997, 2003 to 2006 and 2007 to 2009. A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Pepper moved to the city with her husband, Dr. F.J. Pepper in 1968. She is credited with focusing on improving the West End of the city, working to approve Alexandria’s Eco-City Charter in 2008 and co-chairing the committee overseeing the shutdown of the GenOn Power Plant in 2012.

Congressman Don Beyer said that when he proposed to his wife, Megan, that she agreed to live in Alexandria only because Del Pepper had recently been elected to the City Council.

“Thank you for your years of sterling service to the people of Alexandria, making this the best place to live,” Beyer said. “I look forward to 35 more years of your public service.”

State Senator Adam Ebbin said he appreciated Pepper’s visibility in the community.

“You are there, whether it’s a new business, a scout troop, an award for someone from Alexandria. If a garage door opens in Alexandria, some might say that you’re there,” Ebbin said. “Del, you were here in Alexandria to take a leadership role in the NAACP, and not as many white people can say that… (T)hank you for the foresight for the issues you’ve worked on, the commitment you’ve worked on them, and always being there.”

Pepper seemed genuinely shocked by the presentation.

“I can’t believe it!” she said, as Virginia Democratic Majority Leader Del. Charinele Herring then spoke about how Pepper has helped her as a personal friend.

“Our community is so lucky to have you with your knowledge and experience,” Herring said. You’re a valuable resource for us.”

Del. Mark Levine said that Pepper used a George Washington lookalike to endorse her during her first campaign for office.

“Has anyone ever served this city longer or better?” Levine said. “Ask Del about some street corner. Just named a street corner and she’ll tell you not only what’s there today, but what was there 10 years ago, and 20 years ago, and 30 years ago, and 50 years ago.”

Wilson said that nobody has served with the level of Pepper’s commitment in the city’s history.

“We are so lucky to have the opportunity to serve with Del,” Wilson said. “We thank you for your service. We know it will continue long into the future. We look forward to serving alongside you.”

Pepper said she was completely taken by surprise.

“Oh, thank you so much,” she said. “Gosh, I feel like my life flashed before me, and that was certainly unexpected. Thank you very much.”

Photo via City of Alexandria

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While supportive of the city overall, Alexandrians have issues with the cost of living and housing affordability in the city, according to a survey of 634 residents that the City Council will receive at its meeting tonight (Tuesday).

The Community Livability Report’s Resident Survey 2020 includes opinions on the livability of Alexandria, and while the reviews are mostly positive there are a number of areas that need work, according to the respondents.

“As with many attractive communities, affordability was an issue,” the report says. “The cost of living and housing affordability were rated positively by fewer than two in 10 community members. These ratings were lower than the national benchmarks and received the lowest quality ratings of any items on the survey.”

The city plans on working with a number of city departments, as well as Jacqueline Tucker, the city’s Race and Social Equity Officer, to “further analyze and use these results to inform and continuously improve City services,” according to a powerpoint presentation that will be provided to council.

According to the report:

  • Most residents were positive about the quality of life in the city, with 58% rating it as good, 28% as excellent, 12% as fair and 2% as poor
  • A majority of residents said the city was a nice place to live, with 45% rating it as excellent, 46% as good, 8% fair and 1% poor
  • 85% have an overall feeling of safety
  • 77% said Alexandria is a good place to raise children
  • 58% said the police department is excellent
  • 56% approve of the overall quality of city services
  • 46% said the city is a good place to retire
  • 41% said there was a good sense of community
  • 37% said the city was excellent or good at repairing streets
  • 31% said there is enough public parking
  • 18% approved of the cost of living

Staff photo by James Cullum

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(Updated 6/24) A new mixed-use development featuring a ground-floor daycare facility is scheduled to go to the City Council for approval this Saturday (June 20).

There’s extensive redevelopment underway at the northern end of the Braddock neighborhood just south of Potomac Yard. A seven-story residential building with ground-floor retail and the aforementioned daycare is planned for the very northern point of that neighborhood on a triangular lot at 1200 N. Henry Street.

The 115 unit multifamily residential apartment building was initially approved in 2018, but the applicant — 1200 N. Henry LLC — is coming back to the City Council for approval of changes that include placing the daycare entirely on the first floor of the building at the cost of some of the planned retail development. The project was initially approved with 17,000 square feet of retail development, but that has dropped to 6,423 square feet. The change will raise the number of units to 119.

The change is emblematic of some hesitation on the part of Braddock developers to focus ground-floor space on retail. A nearby development at 701 N. Henry Street also prioritized lobby space on the ground floor, saying the area is “not really a good spot” for retail.

“Since the 2018 approval, the applicant discussed the daycare and retail configuration with providers and leasing brokers,” the applicant said. “Through these conversations, there was a strong preference for the daycare to be located entirely on the ground level with an adjacent playground to improve access and appeal to more age groups. Additionally, the retail space was considered too large and disjointed, with the space too dark to engage pedestrians.”

The building is described in the application as a “gateway” to the Braddock Neighborhood for those traveling south along Route 1.

A signature gateway feature at the northern corner of the building marks the entrance to the plan area with a tower element. The base of the tower contains diagonal columns that form an abstraction of the letters “AV” to represent Alexandria, Virginia, welcoming those headed southbound on Route 1 to the Braddock neighborhood. These columns face onto a publicly accessible park/plaza. The northern tip of the park/plaza is a potential location for public art, drawing pedestrians into the space and offering respite to those heading south from Slater’s Lane and Route 1 to the nearby Braddock Metro.

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Few things outside of the Seminary Road diet can rile the public comment portion of an Alexandria City Council meeting like proposed gun control legislation.

At a City Council meeting on Tuesday, the Council unanimously approved moving forward with a sweeping ban on firearms on or near city property — including parks — or on streets near permitted events.

According to the city ordinance:

The poession, carrying or transportation of firearms in any building, or part thereof, owned or used by the City or by any authority or local government entite created or controlled by the City for government purposes or in parks owned or operated by the City, or by any authority or local government entity created or controlled by the City in any recreational or community center facility operated by the locality, or by any authority or local government entity created or controlled by the City and in any public street, road, alley, or sidewalk or public right-of-way or any other place of whatever nature that is open to the public and is being used by or is adjacent to a permitted event or an event that would otherwise require a permit, is prohibited.

Exceptions are made in the legislation to military personnel acting within the scope of their official duties, law enforcement officers, private security personnel hired by the City and historical reenactors or other persons who possess a firearm that is inoperative and not loaded with ammunition, provided the reenactor is participating in or travelling to or from a historical reenactment.

Anyone violating the law would be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanour.

The ordinance was unanimously approved at the City Council meeting and is scheduled for a public hearing and final passage on Saturday, June 20. If approved, the ordinance will go into effect on July 1.

The ban had been previously approved but the City Council has since gotten the legislative approval necessary to implement it.

After the issue received some attention from the NRA website, many of the speakers were staunchly positioned against the ordinance. One speaker, Mark Shinn, said the ordinance was part of the “liberal anti-gun agenda” that Alexandria will turn into the “violent, gang-infested warzones of Chicago and Baltimore.”

Some said the ordinance would make it effectively impossible for legal gun owners to travel through the city, with parks and streets near permitted events swept up in the ban.

“This creates an undue legal burden on gun owners as it’s virtually impossible to know or identify all buildings or parts thereof owned or used by the city or any authority or controlled by the city for government purposes,” said Michael MacKay. “As you can see, this maze of constantly shifting obstacles jeopardizes all legal gun owners’ ability to possess, carry or transport firearms without unknowingly committing a Class 1 misdemeanour.”

Speaker Timothy Angers requested that the city make an exception for those with concealed carry permits, arguing that they have been properly vetted and trained.

“[Othewise] the city becomes a minefield for permit holders,” Angers said. “Just cutting through a pocket park or going near an event could land a permit-holder in jail for a year.”

The ordinance did have some defenders in the public hearing, though. Local resident Sarah Bagley argued the ordinance protects local areas the same way federal government offices are protected.

“[The ordinance] is an effort by our Council to prohibit possession, carrying and transportation of firearms in city buildings and parks,” Bagley said. “Whatever is good enough to protect our President and the Senate is good enough for our schools and public spaces.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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The Alexandria City Council unanimously agreed last night (Tuesday) that the city should Endorse a resolution condemning systemic racism and establish a community police review board. That vote was preceded by hours of heated debate on Council over red tape.

Some members were concerned that a new community police review board — which would investigate alleged abuses and use of force — would overlap with the City’s Human Rights Commission, the body which currently investigates instances where force is used.

“My only concern is trying to identify the gaps in what we currently have with the Human Rights Commission,” Wilson said. “Our end state is the set of functions and responsibilities for whatever that oversight of policing is to be. I guess my pause about the final resolve statement is — I read it as hyper-prescriptive to what that model looks like.”

After Police Chief Michael Brown said earlier in the meeting he was concerned that the two bodies might overlap, Mayor Justin Wilson said he thought the language should be tweaked to allow more investigation into how to put a community police review board together.

Chief Michael Brown offered to put something together with Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks and present it to the City Council.

“I do not disagree with the concept of oversight,” said Brown. “I may be mincing words here, but a ‘review board’ as it’s phrased in our world, in policing, has a very negative connotation. It might be worth accomplishing the same things and accomplishing what Councilman Seifeldein wants to do and create our own that works for us.”

Wilson said the proposal could benefit from working with the Human Rights Commission before their authority to oversee use-of-force by the police is extricated and given to another body.

“I would be interested in learning more about how that structure occurs before endorsing a specific model,” Wilson said.

Others noted that the Human Rights Commission has a much broader scope of work than just police accountability and its membership is not chosen specifically with police oversight in mind.

The three council members of color expressed concern that passing a resolution condemning systemic racism discussing police brutality without making forward progress on actually putting a review board together made the condemnation hollow.

“Now it’s time to act,” said City Councilman Mo Seifeldein, who authored the resolution. “We’re trying to do something in action that is so basic and fundamental to government and democracy, and it’s being met with bureaucracy and red tape and other sentiments that don’t make much sense.”

Councilman Canek Aguirre said at the several vigils held over the last few weeks in Alexandria it was reiterated that talk is cheap and many Alexandrians are demanding action.

Councilman John Chapman said he remembered having similar conversations in 2010 and 2011 with the NAACP.

“In my view it is better to bring it this way and have some thoughtful conversation around it [as opposed to] a higher agency telling us we have to implement it,” Chapman said. “This is an opportunity to provide governing and transparency to an area most residents and citizens don’t fully understand.”

The Council acquiesced, but Seifeldein made it clear that the final result must be something that works as an arm of the City Council, not as a project of the City Manager and law enforcement.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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During a City Council meeting last night, the city moved to settle on a discrimination case involving the Alexandria Fire Department reprimanding and disciplining a captain requesting medical leave to handle a disability.

Last December, EMS Captain Michael Cahill — who has worked for the Alexandria Fire Department since 1994 — filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that he faced discrimination and retaliation as a disabled person requesting medical leave.

The lawsuit said that Cahill’s disabilities include post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, both of which had a substantial impact on his activities. Cahill’s son also suffers a congenital heart condition. As a result of both his disabilities and his son’s, Cahill said his use of sick leave began to increase around January 2018, before which he said it was rarely used.

By July, Cahill said he received a disciplinary memorandum accusing him of an excessive level of unscheduled sick leave and ordering him to produce doctors’ notes “each time [he] utilize[d] sick leave of any type.” Cahill said during this time, he had a positive/high leave balance and had never taken more than one day of sick leave in a row.

Cahill said in the suit that he had a balance of 800 hours of sick leave and had only taken 511 hours, while still working 1,888 hours.

Throughout late 2018, Cahill listed instances of paperwork he submitted to his commander to be filed with Human Resources that never arrived at that office, and said no action was taken on leave requests because the reasons were listed as “too vague.”

When Cahill challenged disciplinary action taken against him, the suit says the hearing officer ruled in Cahill’s favor and ordered that Cahill’s leave be restored, but the lawsuit says the AFD never restored those hours.

“Mr. Cahill submitted his medical leave paperwork on August 6, 2018, yet he was forced to wait an entire six months before his medical leave was finally approved on January 15, 2019,” the lawsuit said. “AFD’s actions in this regard were unlawful, especially in light of the fact that AFD failed to engage in any timely interactive process.”

In another scenario, Cahill says he requested four hours of leave to take his son to a cardiology appointment but later canceled the leave when AFD could not find a replacement. But while Cahill worked those hours after AFD canceled the leave, the lawsuit says Cahill was never paid for that work despite proof that he was on duty from two incident reports.

“Mr. Cahill considers AFD’s unwillingness to pay him for the hours he worked after canceling the leave as retaliatory,” the lawsuit said.

The City Council entered into a closed session at the beginning of yesterday’s (Tuesday’s) meeting and emerged unanimously agreed to direct the City Attorney to enter into settlement agreements for the lawsuit.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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The Alexandria City Council will consider a resolution tonight (Tuesday) establishing a community police review board and condemning systemic racism.

Councilman Mo Seifeldein, who drafted the resolution, says he has support from his colleagues and that he envisions the board to have independent authority to review and investigate police misconduct and empower the community and law enforcement members to come forward with concerns without fear of retaliation.

“I am encouraged that we have broad support for this resolution,” Seifeldein told ALXnow. “We demand more from those in position of public trust. I remain hopeful that our better angels will answer this call.”

Thousands of people have protested the death of George Floyd and police brutality in Alexandria over the last several weeks.

Seifeldein said he hopes people of color will be well represented on the review board and that the city will have 90 days to present a detailed proposal of what the body will look like after engaging with the public.

The full draft resolution is below.

Establishing a Community Police Review Board and Condemning Systemic Racism 

WHEREAS, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, died of asphyxiation as two police officers sat on him and held him while one other police officer pressed his knee and full body weight on Mr. Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for his life and repeatedly said “I can’t breathe.”

WHEREAS, the death of Mr. Floyd ignited a Nationwide protest for over 12 days demanding justice for Mr. Floyd and an end to police brutality against Black and Brown people. Mr. Floyd’s death follows the murder of Eric Garner, Dominique Clayton, Atatiana Jefferson, Yassin Mohamed, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria recognizes that these deaths are just the most recent in a tide of victims who have lost their lives due to police brutality; the recurrence of acts of violence and oppression committed by those sworn to serve and protect is the result of systemic racism.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria stands in solidarity with the Floyd family, his friends, the Minneapolis community, and the empowered activists and organizations calling for meaningful reforms to reverse discriminatory practices.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria condemns the use of force by law enforcement to suppress the protestors’ right to assemble peaceably.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria acknowledges that the plight of Black and Brown Americans is not always explicit and present in the form of police brutality, but also entrenched in institutions such as the judicial system, the electoral process, career advancement, education, housing, and the health care system.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed racial disparities in health and economic wellbeing.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria and all government officials have a duty to ensure the protection of all communities through actions and reform, including in the justice system.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria condemns police brutality and racism in our Nation.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City of Alexandria calls upon state and federal elected officials to pass meaningful laws to prohibit the militarization of law enforcement, to reform the criminal justice system, and to reform police immunity laws.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria recognizes that gathering data on the demographics of police encounters with the public is an imperative step in holding law enforcement accountable and shall be added to the City Council work plan.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria recognizes the urgent need to adopt a police body worn camera policy and it shall make it a priority in the City Council work plan.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria is committed to exploring new 21st century public safety models.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria hereby establishes a Community Police Review Board within 90 days of passing this resolution. The City Manager and the City Attorney are directed to return to Council in the first Legislative Meeting of September with a proposal to establish the Community Police Review Board.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, the City of Alexandria reaffirms that Black Lives Matter.

Photo via Alexandria Police Department/Facebook

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Morning Notes

City Leaders Participating in Town Hall to Discuss Race Relations — “Tuesday’s town hall (at 7 p.m.) will feature a range of speakers including Councilman John Chapman and School Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr, Chief of Police Michael Brown and the City’s Race and Social Equity Officer, Jaqueline Tucker. There will also be opportunities for small group conversations and for participants to weigh in on the topics for future town halls.” [ALX Community]

Local Company Sees Strong Sales After May 1 ‘Shark Tank’ Appearance — “It really was a huge blessing because we just can’t be in stores right now, and we understand that, so we’re really grateful for the ‘Shark Tank’ episode to give us that push on e-commerce.” [Washington Business Journal]

Emergency Rent Assistance Applications Available Until Friday — “Funds in the amount of $600/month for up to three months will be provided directly to property owners on behalf of eligible tenants. Financial assistance will be provided regardless of citizenship status. Applications received through Friday, May 29 will be reviewed as part of the first application cycle, with priority given to applicants in the Tier 1 income range. Applications received after May 29 will be reviewed on a rolling basis contingent on funding availability.” [Facebook]

Councilman Chapman Decries Racist Emails from Public — “I wish someone would FOIA the city council for all of the racist emails and messages we get and post them publicly. Hell, if you don’t live in Alexandria, you should do that for your elected officials of color… cause we all have them.” [Facebook]

Alexandria to Distantly Honor of Class of 2020 Graduates — “On Saturday, June 13, 2020, residents of the most wonderful City of Alexandria will light up their homes in red, white and blue to support the graduating Class of 2020 from T.C. Williams High School. The George Washington Masonic Temple will be illuminated in red, white and blue on June 13 in recognition of our graduates. Let’s light up the whole city! Do your part, as best you can, to light up your home in red, white and blue to honor our graduates!” [Facebook]

AWLA Gives Away 5,000 Pounds of Pet Supplies — “The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria stepped up for pet parents in need, providing more than 5,000 lbs. of pet supplies to Alexandria residents in need since mid-March.” [Alexandria Living]

ACPS Provides Updates on Food Distribution — “ACPS has multiple distribution meal site locations throughout Alexandria for all ACPS students and children over the age of two.” [ACPS]

Parking Lots, Restrooms Reopening at Parks Along GW Parkway — “Parking lots and restrooms at parks along the George Washington Parkway in Virginia will reopen on Wednesday, June 3, after being closed to help slow the spread of coronavirus.” [WTOP]

City Advises Preparedness as Hurricane Season Begins — “June 1 marks the start of Hurricane season. Alexandria can be impacted by strong winds, heavy rain and flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes. Be Prepared: visit ready.gov/Hurricanes to learn how, sign up at alexandriava.gov/eNews for notifications and be #WeatherAware.” [Twitter]

Old Town Crier Prints June Issue on Wrong Paper — “Well….when it rains it pours! Just picked up the June issue at the printer and they printed the entire issue on the WRONG DAMN PAPER! No time to have it reprinted soooo….this issue is a throw back to the late 90’s!!” [Facebook]

New Job: Contact Tracer — “The Contact Tracer is an entry level public health professional responsible for identifying and contacting individuals who may have come in contact with persons recently diagnosed with an infectious disease associated with an outbreak or pandemic.” [Indeed]

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The following Letter to the Editor was written by Alexandria City Councilman John Taylor Chapman, who also owns Manumission Tour Company.

As we progress through this quarantine, like many business owners, I was forced to figure out how to keep my business from permanently closing. Like many of the tourism industry, we have seen one of the best times of the year for our business become a time of great uncertainty.

Like many, I was forced to pivot my business. 

That meant buying a 360-degree camera to set up virtual history tours. Prior to buying the camera, the most photography I had done was with a couple of clicks with my phone’s camera, and this piece of equipment was pretty new to me. I have since appreciated renewed views and perspectives of different sites within Alexandria.

I believe that this pandemic has allowed us to see Alexandria and its people in some new ways, and I am quite appreciative of that as well.

You have impressed me with your thoughtfulness of each other, your flexibility to adapt to this public health emergency, and your strong sense of community that we can and we WILL get through this TOGETHER, as people, as businesses and as organizations alike. 

During this period, I believe we all have a new appreciation for the relationships that we have with each other. We probably chat with members of our family and our circles of friends more than we ever have. I know for me, this pandemic has given the opportunity to reconnect with old friends I haven’t been in contact with just because we have gotten too busy. 

Some of us have also found some time to get some of those projects done, those plans executed or those ideas implemented that we promised ourselves we would do “one day.”

As we look to phase into what will be a new normal, I want to say thank you. Thank you to those of you who went out of your way to help one another.

I also implore you to celebrate what can be our new normal:

  • Celebrate our relationships with one another
  • Appreciate the roles that each of us play in making this community thrive
  • Find time for self-care and also time for each other
  • Support our businesses and organization which make us unique
  • Show concern for your health and fitness and also for those who you care about

While this pandemic is not over, I ask that we work together in our neighborhoods and communities to make Alexandria’s new normal the best it can be. 

ALXnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor for consideration, please email it to [email protected] Letters may be edited for content and brevity, at our discretion.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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With Alexandria health officials expecting the total number of COVID-19 cases to go up during Phase 1 of reopening, the City Council discussed the line between what coronavirus restrictions can be put in place and what can be enforced — particularly when it comes to playgrounds.

During a City Council discussion last night (Tuesday), James Spengler, Director of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, said city playgrounds could not open until Phase 3 of the reopening, which could be in the fall.

Spengler argued it wouldn’t be feasible to have children slotted for playtimes on the equipment, clean the equipment off, then bring in another group of children.

That prospect did not sit well with the City Council.

“We’re bringing dogparks back but not playgrounds?” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “I understand the contact, I understand the difference, … [but] we have to rely on the community to rely on rules and regulations. If they don’t, we have to go in another direction. We might have to take that approach on some of these reopenings.”

The question of enforcement has lurked around many regulations concerning coronavirus, from a mandatory summer school program to social distancing restrictions.

Wilson said not bringing the playgrounds back until September “might be a challenge for the community.”

In general, Spengler said the summer is looking rough for the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. The required summer school means a diminished number of students to participate in programs, and Spengler said many of the city’s parks facilities have been repurposed for other coronavirus related uses.

Spengler said the department is only looking at offering programs for 20% of the usual population served and will put together “needs-based enrollment.”

Meanwhile, Health Director Dr. Stephen Haering said that the city is fully expecting the number of COVID-19 cases to increase as the city moves into Phase I of reopening. Haering reminded the Council that the goal of the quarantine was not to eliminate the virus but slow the spread enough to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

“The virus is still with us, and it’s going to be with us for some time,” Haering said. “You’re still going to be safer at home, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. Our numbers will go up. We’re anticipating it will go up. Look at Georgia after the relaxation of the stay at home order. The goal is to keep the numbers from going up so high that we’re not in a situation like Italy where the hospital capacity is exceeded by the demand.”

Haering said the x-factor is how human behavior will impact the spread. Officials have warned the public that reopening does not throw social distancing precautions out the window, but many in Alexandria have had difficulty adhering to restrictions even before the phased reopening.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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(Updated on May 21 at 2:30 p.m.) A majority of the Alexandria City Council wants to know more about a month-long police teleworking initiative during the pandemic, and one member wants to see a full internal report.

Between April 6 and May 2, the Alexandria Police Department reduced its enlarged patrol presence (with added school resource officers, K-9 officers, traffic safety section officers and community relations officers), and on any given day had one-third of assigned patrol officers (18-24 officers) teleworking at home.

City Manager Mark Jinks and Police Chief Michael Brown declined to comment on the subject, and the city will not release information on how many officers were on vacation during that period.

City spokesman Craig Fifer said that the teleworking provided a “less stressful time for officers and their families.”

“Having an unnecessary level of patrol staffing would have needlessly exhausted limited supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), increased risk to officers and their vehicles from potential exposure to the virus, and failed to model the stay-at-home guidance everyone in the community is expected to follow,” Fifer said.

Last week, Jinks said there was “significant telework,” and that police were made available to respond to a “much worse situation.” Officers were paid full-time to turn on their work laptops and answer a handful of daily calls for service, according to sources inside the department. The impact on crime is debatable, since crime was down in April from the previous month, although increased by 10% when compared against the same four week period last year.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that he expects the city to evaluate this practice, in addition to many other government decisions during the COVID-19 crisis for years to come.

“Some we will likely get right and some we will likely get wrong,” Wilson told ALXnow. “We just hope we make more good ones than bad ones.”

The city, which says APD maintained minimum staffing levels, said it was an “innovative” solution.

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker did not agree with the decision, but said sending 911 operators home to take calls was “innovative.” In Arlington, for instance, the 911 call center was shut down because of a suspected coronavirus case.

“It’s clear that as we move forward, public safety is one of many areas we will have to continually evaluate as to how to maintain the balance with public health until there’s adequate testing and a vaccine,” she said.

Last month also saw more than 700 positive COVID-19 cases in Alexandria.

City Councilman John Taylor Chapman wants to engage with the city manager on Alexandria’s teleworking philosophy.

“I know that is something beat officers should not be doing,” Chapman said. “I think it doesn’t pass the smell test for the public, so a conversation about why that was used, even in light of coronavirus, needs to be discussed.”

A source familiar with the situation, but who remains anonymous for fear of reprisal, said the rationale behind the decision is flawed.

“The stories don’t add up and people are scratching their heads,” the source said. “Chief Brown claims he started teleworking in order to protect his officers by reducing their exposure to coronavirus. If it was such a great idea then why did he stop doing it?”

Councilman Canek Aguirre wants to know more.

“At this point I don’t have sufficient information to comment but will be inquiring further of staff,” Aguirre said.

Councilman Mo Seifeldein wants a full review on police teleworking.

“The most I know about this matter is from the media,” Seifeldein said. “I will wait for a full internal report. Public health and safety are the foundations of a healthy government, which makes inquiries about them important.”

City Councilwoman Amy Jackson is against the teleworking move.

“We need to be responsible about this virus,” Jackson said. “This pandemic will hold us accountable. If this decision wasn’t a mistake in April, it most certainly would be in May and the coming months.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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An earlier plan to close a portion of King Street for pedestrian-and-bike-access-only could be making a comeback as restaurants look for ways to do outdoor dining as a social distancing measure.

In a virtual town hall, Mayor Justin Wilson addressed questions about the possibility of closing streets to promote pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The prospect has gained ground in New York City, San Francisco, and other urban localities. There has been pressure from some advocates in D.C. for the city to do the same.

In Alexandria, however, the prospect of shutting down roadways to give more room for pedestrians and cyclists has been famously tempestuous.

“We’ve gotten that question a lot over the last couple of weeks,” Wilson said. “We’re looking at alternatives to facilitate outdoor dining when that returns. We received a proposal from a number of Old Town restaurants to see what can be done.”

The City Council has already permitted some encroachment into the public right of way for takeout and delivery at local restaurants. With Alexandria’s reopening delayed but still on the horizon, part of the plan to support small businesses while maintaining social distancing includes allowing more outdoor dining.

The pedestrian zone plan was, originally, to close the block between Lee Street and Union Street on weekends. The idea was popular enough that some officials were already discussing making the change permanent before the pilot was even implemented.

Those earlier plans were altered to include car traffic and were ultimately shelved for being too costly, according to Wilson.

“The city already entertained the idea of some form of closure on King Street that would have allowed expanded outdoor dining,” Wilson said. “That idea got shelved because of budget challenges, but we are continuing to look at those. I suspect you’ll hear more over the next couple weeks.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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