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In a release to parents and staff put out today (Sunday), Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) said everyone in Alexandria schools will still be required to wear a mask despite an order issued by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to the contrary.

The state executive order came as a result of a back and forth between Virginia Democrats and Republicans over requiring masks in schools. Both Arlington and Fairfax County have issued similar messages to parents and staff.

ACPS and other school districts’ legal authority to defy the state order is still in question.

The full release from ACPS is listed below:

Dear ACPS Staff & Families,

We hope you are enjoying the holiday weekend and we look forward to welcoming everyone back to school on Tuesday.

We want to address any questions or concerns about whether masks will continue to be worn in our schools in order to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) will continue to abide by the health and safety guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Alexandria Health Department (AHD) and continue to require all individuals to wear masks that cover the nose and mouth in ACPS schools, facilities and buses.

Masks, combined with multiple other ACPS mitigation measures, have been effective in helping to protect the collective health and safety of our students and staff and keep our schools open for in-person learning. This continues to be our commitment as we grapple with the challenges that this pandemic has posed for our schools.

We have begun to receive shipments of KN95 masks for students and staff, and expect deliveries to be completed by Wed., Jan. 19. ACPS will continue to be diligent in exploring all options to place additional orders for the KN95 masks and continue to work with a community partner to secure additional masks through a donation. We have also delivered additional surgical masks to schools for double-masking as an alternative option.

Thank you for all you do to help keep our schools safe and open! For up-to-date information about ACPS’ health and safety guidelines, please visit www.acps.k12.va.us/domain/1607.

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On New Year’s morning, Luke Shlagel of Shlagel Farms was among a handful of vendors at the weekly Del Ray Farmer’s Market. Some customers asked why he wasn’t hanging out with his family and taking the day off, and he had a simple answer.

“If I hadn’t come on New Year’s Day, that would have been 20 days since the last market,” Shlagel said. “Christmas was on a Saturday, New Year’s Day was on a Saturday, and if I waited for the following Saturday, the eighth, that’s too long for the community to be without us.”

The Waldorf, Maryland, farm raises approximately 150 acres of fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy products and flowers through a variety of avenues. Their bread and butter has been a 29-year-long contract supplying vegetables to Giant Food with vegetables, followed by directly selling their products to consumers at half a dozen farmers markets in Maryland and Virginia.

Del Ray is their biggest market, and customers can pick up pre-ordered boxes or shop in-person every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. Getting to this point, though, took a lot of work. Farmers markets were not deemed essential in Virginia at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Within weeks, though, Shlagel Farms was back in Del Ray with a new e-commerce site, and selling pre-ordered and boxed products for pickup.

“Maryland deemed farmers’ markets as essential, but not Virginia, and that hit us like a ton of bricks,” said Russell Shlagel, the company patriarch. “But now, thanks to our online sales, we have surpassed 2019 numbers. We were able to pivot, and we get emotional about it, how people said they needed us to supply them with fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat.”

More than half (54%) of Virginia farmers market vendors started or expanded an online platform after the onset of the pandemic, according to the Virginia Farmers Market Association.

“The COVID-19 pandemic had far reaching effects on farmers market managers, vendors and customers during the 2020 market season,” the association reported. “Amidst supply chain shortages and panic buying, farmers markets were deemed non-essential infrastructure by the state during the pandemic.”

Sales are good, but there’s a catch, Russell Shlagel said.

“Within the last year, fuel costs have gone up drastically,” he said. “Crop protected costs, fertilizer, and labor have gone up drastically.”

Luke Shlagel said he compiled a customer email list before March 2020 in Del Ray, and that the company was ready. After all, his mother, sisters and wife are all ER nurses, and they warned the family of what was coming. For many Saturdays after Covid hit, the vendor was alone at the Del Ray market.

“We has a notebook and we asked customers to jot down their emails for us,” Luke said. “Then it was unbelievable. All of a sudden we have more than 300 orders coming in, and all of a sudden I’m in the position of shopping for your family, making sure that the product that I’m putting in these boxes is the very best. Really, it was the support of the people of our people in Alexandria that made the whole thing successful and made it come together and work well.”

Via Shlagel Farms/Facebook

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In a City Council meeting last night, Inova Alexandria Hospital and local health officials shared a look at the current COVID-19 situation in the hospital and what the state of emergency declaration means for the city.

Inova Alexandria Hospital President Dr. Rina Bansal told the City Council that the hospital is prepared for any potential surge.

“The good news is, if there is good news, is that we’ve been dealing with this for 22 months so we’re well versed with handling another surge of Covid,” Bansal said. “While we are extremely busy, we’re well within our capacity from a bed perspective as well as a resource perspective. We are actively planning for any surges that we may see in the next few weeks, as noted in the predicted models.”

Bansal said the emergency declaration from Gov. Ralph Northam gave the hospital more flexibility to tackle any upswing in hospitalizations:

That’s why the emergency that was recently issued by the governor is key. It’s key from an in-patient perspective because it allows us to increase our licensed bed capacity beyond our current license, work in staffing ratios that may not be what we do right now, and it allows vaccinations to be given by any healthcare provider which increases our ability to provide vaccinations in this community and telehealth services, which allows increased access to our patients within Virginia and in Maryland if they were previously our patients. It allows us to use providers licensed in other states to provide are.

Bansal acknowledged that staffing has been a challenge at the hospital.

The hospital has reverted to earlier visitation restrictions and Bansal said the majority of patients being hospitalized are unvaccinated ones.

“The sicker patients are the unvaccinated patients,” Bansal said, “and if you look at it proportionally the unvaccinated patients are the ones getting admitted to the hospital.”

Inova Alexandria Hospital spokeswoman Melissa Riddy also noted that the hospital is critically short on blood, and will be holding blood drives on January 25 and 27.

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It will take three-to-five years for Alexandria to economically work its way out of the pandemic, according to the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP).

That’s according to a recently released Alexandria State Of The Market 2021 Mid-year Report, in which AEDP outlined business trends and impacts.

“The hardest-hit industries continue to be tourism, restaurants, and retail, and the use of office buildings and mass transit, and attendance at live entertainment venues remain low,” the report said. “The onset of COVID-19 in 2020 not only created new trends but also accelerated those that were already underway and hastened the demise of others. That said, it is expected cities will bounce back in three to five years, largely due to the appeal and vitality of entertainment, finance, technology, and education.”

AEDP President and CEO Stephanie Landrum says that business owners have been through the worst days of the pandemic.

“We made temporary things permanent, like the closure of streets, the ability for businesses to use sidewalks,” Landrum said. “The things that we were scrambling to do last year when these first surges happened, we’ve learned how to do all of them and we’ve made them all permanent. We’re in a much better place as a community and as businesses to get through this next surge.”

AEDP has distributed millions in Back To Business grants to businesses all over the city, and has been a hub for relief-related information. The nonprofit has also been central to bringing major business development to the city, including Amazon’s HQ2 and the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for the level of uncertainty and the length of this pandemic,” Landrum said.

The city has experienced a dramatic drop-off in hotel occupancy and revenues. Mayor Justin Wilson noted in a social media post that hotel revenue fell from $1.1 million in July 2019 to around $200,000 in July 2020, and Landrum believes that hotels emptied by the pandemic could be converted into affordable housing.

More people are also working from home, and the city’s office vacancy rate increased to 15.9% (as of June 2021) over 13.1% in 2020.

The report outlined the following rising trends:

  • Telework
  • Suburban Migration
  • Safety/Health Concerns for Indoor Public Spaces
  • Affordable Housing Crisis
  • Demand for Public Open Space
  • Retail Sector Transformation
  • Concerns about Racial Equity
  • Federal Deficit
  • Use of Bikes and Scooters
  • Worker Shortages

The report outlined these slowing trends:

  • Appeal of Cities and Density
  • In-Person Meetings/ Conferences/Business Travel
  • Experiential Retail
  • Growth of Health/Wellness Establishments
  • Tourist-Oriented Retail/Leisure Travel/Tourism ö Mass Transit Use
  • Apartment Amenity Wars
  • Live Entertainment/Movie Theaters

Retail investments may never fully return to pre-pandemic performance, the report said.

“Typical storefront retail will lose value as customer foot traffic counts decline over an increasing preference toward online purchases and home deliveries,” the report said. “Consumers may forever shift to e-commerce shopping for most apparel, food, and household items.”

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The Alexandria City Council will likely extend the city’s state of emergency from the end of January to June 30, 2022. Tuesday night’s (Jan. 11) vote will be the fifth extension of the declaration since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The declaration, which was first approved by Council in March 2020, has been continually updated, and finds that “the emergency continues to exist and will exist into the future.”

If approved, the city will end up being under a state of emergency for 27 months.

There have been 162 deaths and 23,737 reported cases of COVID-19 in Alexandria, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The full emergency declaration is below.

WHEREAS, the Director of Emergency Management of the City of Alexandria, Virginia finds that the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a Communicable Disease of Public Health Threat for Virginia and is of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant a coordinated response by City departments, agencies, and voluntary organization.

WHEREAS, on March 14, 2020, City Council adopted Resolution No. 2928 confirming the Director of Emergency Management’s Declaration of Local Emergency which extended through June 10, 2020. On June 9, 2020, City Council amended such resolution extending the Declaration of Local Emergency through September 30, 2020. On September 22, 2020, City Council amended such resolution extending the Declaration of Local Emergency through March 31, 2021. On March 23, 2021, City Council amended such resolution extending the Declaration of Local Emergency through September 30, 2021. On September 14, 2021, the City Council amended such resolution extending the Declaration of Local Emergency through January 31, 2022.

WHEREAS, the Director of Emergency Management finds that the emergency continues to exist and will exist into the future.

THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY DECLARED, that a local emergency exists throughout the City of Alexandria; and IT IS FURTHER DECLARED AND ORDERED, that during the existence of said emergency, the powers, functions and duties of the Director of Emergency Management shall be those prescribed by state law and the ordinances, resolutions and operations plans of the City of Alexandria, and that any actions taken under this declaration shall be directed at the prevention or response for, damages, loss, hardship or suffering threatened by, or resulting from, the emergency. The declaration for COVID-19 effective as of March 9, 2020, at 8:00 am and shall remain in full force and effect until June 30, 2022, at midnight unless sooner amended or rescinded by resolution of the City Council.

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Fresh from a bout with Covid that left Mayor Justin Wilson isolating in Spain, Wilson’s first virtual town hall of 2022 launched with a discussion of the current situation with COVID-19.

Alexandria has seen record-high levels of confirmed Covid cases thanks to the highly infections omicron variant. Wilson implored locals to swap out the simple cloth masks for more effective N95 or KN 95 masks.

“We need to up our masking game,” Wilson said. “The simple cloth masks are not going to be sufficient in the face of this highly transmittable variant. We’re encouraging people to get K-95 to prevent spread.”

Wilson said mask-wearing indoors was ubiquitous in Europe, which has helped keep the virus under control. But when asked about a mask mandate, Wilson deferred to the governor’s office, noting that the Dillon Rule makes Alexandria’s authority to enforce that mandate unclear.

“The authority on masking requirements has always been a little murky from the beginning,” Wilson said. “The city was one of the first jurisdictions to adopt a masking ordinance back in 2020. That ordinance was later replicated by the state and applied state-wide. We did not include enforcement in our ordinance, largely as a nod to some of the authority concerns in a Dillon Rule state.”

Wilson said a mask mandate would have to come from state authorities.

“In my view, and I’m not an attorney, but the governor has much clearer authority which is why we preferred those orders to come out of Richmond, and at this point that’s where they need to come,” Wilson said.

Today (Monday), Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in Virginia as a result of the spike in COVID-19 cases, which gives hospitals authority to expand bed capacity, but stopped short of issuing a mask mandate or other Covid mitigation measures.

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The number of COVID infections in Alexandria continues to rise at an alarming rate, as the number of reported infections has reached 23,325, an increase of nearly 2,500 cases in less than a week. In the meantime, staff at Inova Alexandria Hospital are seeing hospitalizations rise to 2020.

“The staff is working overtime,” Inova Alexandria Hospital President Dr. Rina Bansal told ALXnow. “We’re making sure that they’re not working overtime to the extent where it compromises their safety or patient safety.”

There are about 20 patients in the hospital seeking treatment for COVID-19, according to the Virginia Department of Health.  The number of fatalities due to the virus remains at 161, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Visitation is also restricted at the hospital, although patients are allowed into the facility with a companion — just like the visitation policy that was in place at the beginning of the pandemic. Consequently, Bansal is asking that residents not come to the hospital unless they specifically need hospital-based treatment.

“Clinically we’re much more comfortable in managing the disease itself,” Bansal said. “At this point, we have almost two years of experience under our belt.”

By the numbers

  • The seven day average of daily new cases is now 475.7, up from 399 last week
  • The seven-day average of positive COVID-19 tests is now 30.9%, up from 28.6% last week

Vaccine stats

  • There are 29,495 unvaccinated Alexandria residents
  • About 69% of residents (106,456 people) are fully vaccinated
  • 81% (124,385) of residents have gotten at least one dose
  • 42,506 residents have gotten a booster shot

Find vaccine providers in Alexandria here. If you feel sick, get tested.

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Alexandria School Board members say they want to keep in-person instruction going, but amidst a surge in Covid cases the Alexandria City Public Schools system now has an official plan to revert to virtual learning on a school-by-school basis.

“There may be cases in the future where we have to transition into a virtual learning setting due to that and we want to just prepare for that,” Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., told the Board Thursday night.

The ACPS Protocol for Transitioning to Virtual Instruction is a roadmap for how schools will operate based on COVID infections within a particular school. Like stoplights, the plan is broken up into three zones — green for in-person instruction; yellow for the consideration to transition to virtual learning; and the full-blown transition to virtual learning.

More than 15,000 ACPS students haven’t been back to school since Friday, Dec. 17. This week’s snowstorm prompted ACPS to take immediate action by reverting to virtual learning, like a test run in case schools have to do the same thing because of a rise in Covid infections.

“The decision to transition temporarily to virtual learning will be made after careful consideration of the factors that impact instruction and operations at each school on a daily basis as conditions warrant,” ACPS said. “Note that regardless of the instructional plan, all students will bring home their devices at the end of every school day.”

With Covid numbers surging since Thanksgiving, the Health Department expected cases to rise again after the winter break. That break was extended, so to speak, after in-person classes were switched to virtual all week after Monday’s snowstorm. Just prior to the winter break, 174 reported cases within the school system in December alone. There have been 411 positive cases reported within ACPS since school began in August.

“I strongly believe that it is of the utmost importance to keep our schools open for in-person learning,” Vice Chair Jacinta Greene told ACPS staff at the meeting. “But there are segments of our community that are truly afraid right now to send their their kids to school. And many we’re not going to send them back this week. You know, had we not had snow they weren’t going to send the kids back because of the extreme surge and Omicron cases.”

Greene asked about the possibility of hybrid learning (both virtual and in-person instruction) for families who are concerned about exposing their children by sending them back to school. Hutchings said that the hybrid model, which ACPS used in the fall of 2020, was not successful.

“The hybrid model, it was just not the best practice,” Hutchings said. “It was not providing for our students who are home, a lot of times (teachers) couldn’t engage with the students who were in class.”

ACPS also reported to the Board that, upon returning to school, all students and staff will get brand new N95 surgical masks.

“I am so exhausted by Covid,” said Board Chair Meagan Alderton. “I just look forward to this being over. I can’t emphasize enough the effect that this has had on our education system. It’s almost dumbfounding at times. I feel like I don’t have words anymore, but I just appreciate everyone for digging in. I appreciate families as well. The uncertainty causes a lot of anxiety, and you know the more that we are all in this together the end will come hopefully sooner rather than later.”

The full ACPS description of the plan is below the jump.

Read More

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After six months of waiting for the city’s Permit Center to approve an expansion of her nail salon, Kathleen Le was ready to throw her hands up in resignation.

“I tell my staff that if they hear me talk about opening another location or expanding to please kill me instead,” Le told ALXnow. “Don’t let me do it.”

Just last month, with the grand opening days away for an expanded Salon Meraki, Le failed an inspection. A sprinkler head in her new salon had paint on it, and after replacing it, she says she was told that all of her paperwork was going to have to go through the city from the beginning.

“I called City Hall to reschedule the final inspection the very following day, because I had the grand opening party, but they said I couldn’t do that,” Le said. “They told me I was going to have to bring in my permit drawing and they would have to review all of my paperwork all over again from square one.”

Le turned to Danielle Romanetti, the owner of fibre space and last year’s winner of the Chamber ALX small business of the year award. The move worked, since Romanetti is well connected.

The multi-department Permit Center is intended to streamline the approval process for residents and business owners. Like many city services, the Permit Center closed at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, although the city says that its online APEX permitting system was still up and running. In November 2021, after 19 months of the pandemic, the city says it fully reopened to in-person business. During the interim period, though, Le said her messages and calls were seldom returned, prolonging what should have been a simple exercise.

“The first phase started with in-person services by ‘appointment only’ in the summer of 2020,” said Kelly Gilfillen, the city’s acting director of the Office of Communications and Public Information. “The second phase began in April 2021 with permit technicians located on the first floor of City Hall. On November 15, the fourth floor Permit Center reopened to in-person customers. Online services continue to be available.”

Gilfillen said that some processes will remain electronic for larger projects submitted by major developers and contractors, although small businesses and residents (to include their contractors) will continue to be provided same day services.

Soon after contacting Romanetti, Le’s permits all got approved and she got the green light to open.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had a one-stop-shop expediting service for small businesses that allowed us to schedule a time to run a project through all departments at once,” Romanetti said. “That is gone. It existed for a reason. We can’t wait 30 days to get permits for a sign on a new business.”

Le said she appreciated the approval, but that the process was unfair.

“It’s not fair for other business owners who have to go through the same thing that I went through,” she said. “What if they don’t have the connections I have? It’s not fair, because the city is supposed to work for the public.”

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With the pandemic and snow prompting a completely virtual ceremony, the new Alexandria School Board was sworn into office on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

Board Chair Meagan Alderton was also unanimously reelected by her colleagues to serve as leader for another year, and Member Jacinta Greene was named vice chair.

“I am looking forward to another fun ride with you all this coming year,” Alderton told the new Board. “I really appreciate the support, and I definitely will always hope to never let you guys down.”

After a tough term overshadowed by COVID-19, only three members sought reelection in November — Alderton (District C), Greene and Michelle Rief (both in District A).

“Thank you for your everyone for your vote of confidence in me in this role, and I will to the best of my ability wholeheartedly serve you as vice chair,” Greene told her colleagues.

Also in District A, former City Councilman Willie F. Bailey took the oath. In District B, Ashley Simpson BairdTammy S. Ignacio and former School Board Member Kelly Carmichael Booz were sworn in, as were Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi and Christopher Harris representing District C.

The School Board’s next meeting is on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

Via Zoom

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