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As Covid transmission in Alexandria remains low and restrictions ease, many workers are returning to the office.

In March, talk of federal workers returning has been more prevalent. According to Axios, the Biden administration viewed the employees as a group who could lead by example with a return to in-person work.

But some employers have welcomed remote work, even closing physical offices. Others are remote still as a precaution after the ups and downs of new Covid variants jerked office plans on and off.

So tell us, are you still working from home or have you returned to work in person?

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There has been another death and 137 new cases of the virus in Alexandria over the last week, bringing the total number of deaths to 185 and the number of cases to 29,946, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Still, the pandemic is winding down in Alexandria. One of the biggest signs is the fact that it’s been nearly two weeks since the Alexandria Health Department last posted a COVID-19 update. The city last released Covid information on March 8 — a stark difference from nearly two years of daily updates from the city, and a surge in January that saw a record-setting 12,822 positive cases.

Additionally, as of March 15, VDH no longer publishes its Level of Community Transmission dashboard, and community transmission is now determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which gave Alexandria a “Low” transmission rating at the end of February.

Mayor Justin Wilson has also not mentioned Covid on social media since March 11.

There have also been 618 cases reported within Alexandria City Public Schools since Dec. 1, an increase of 15 cases. Of those, 529 are children and 107 are staff, although the numbers listed on the school system’s dashboard don’t add up.

Alexandria remains in a state of emergency until June 30.

Vaccine stats

  • There are 24,584 unvaccinated Alexandria residents
  • About 76% of residents (116,712 people) are fully vaccinated
  • 84% (129,296 people) of residents got at least one dose
  • 57,814 residents got booster shots

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

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There were just 75 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Alexandria since this time last week, according to the Alexandria Health Department.

There are now 29,809 reported cases of the virus in Alexandria, up from 29,734 last Monday. The number of deaths remains at 184, and the seven day average of daily new cases is now 21, down from 84.5 this time last week.

On Thursday, March 10, the Virginia Department of Health retired a number of its Covid dashboards, and will no longer list cases by locality. New data specific to Alexandria will have to be pulled from the city’s Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Last Friday (March 11) marked the second year of the pandemic, and Mayor Justin Wilson said that the city is moving into a new phase. Face masks and distancing are no longer required in schools or government buildings — a sharp turnaround from the worst days of the pandemic, which were just two short months ago. There was a record-setting 12,822 positive cases in January, followed by a steep drop-off to 1,227 cases in February.

Alexandria now has a “Substantial” transmission rate from VDH and a “Low” community level of transmission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There have also been 603 cases reported within Alexandria City Public Schools since Dec. 1, an increase of 10 cases. Of those, 517 are children and 104 are staff, although the numbers listed on the school system’s dashboard don’t add up.

Vaccine stats

  • There are 24,733 unvaccinated Alexandria residents
  • About 76% of residents (116,537 people) are fully vaccinated
  • 84% (129,147) of residents got at least one dose
  • 62,440 residents got booster shots

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

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Nicole Burlimann now has a completely different life. Exactly two years ago, she was the food and beverage manager at the Hilton Garden Inn — facing a busy spring full of events. Then COVID hit, her position was terminated and she collected unemployment for months while watching and waiting for restrictions to be lifted and normalcy to resume.

After four months, Burlimann started working part-time at Piece Out Del Ray (2419 Mount Vernon Avenue) when it opened in the summer of 2020. The restaurant is owned by the Ponzi family, and they later promoted Burlimann as general manager at their St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub and Market 2 Market locations in Del Ray.

“I wake up every day feeling very fortunate and thankful to live where I live, to have the support system that I have,” Burlimann said. “Now I just go with the flow. And that’s knowing that it’s so much worse for so many other people… I didn’t think we’d have that second wave that we had. But I am really looking forward to the spring as things are loosening up and an uptick in business.”

Today (Friday, March 11) marks two years since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization, and the first case in the city was reported at Virginia Theological Seminary. That two-year period saw Alexandria tread through dramatic social waters with the Alexandria City Public Schools system’s conversion to online learning and eventual return to in-person instruction, local businesses experiencing dramatic closures, demonstrations against police brutality and much more.

To date, there have been 184 reported deaths and 29,809 cases reported in Alexandria. The worst month of the pandemic was just two months ago, as January saw more than 12,000 cases. The numbers of new cases have dropped considerably since then, and restrictions have been loosened to a point of normalcy not seen since March 2020.

Starting this month, face mask mandates were lifted in City government buildings and within Alexandria City Public Schools, and the Alexandria will soon start charging businesses rent for their use of parklets — parking spaces in front of businesses converted to dining areas.

The decision was made after guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave Alexandria and its neighboring jurisdictions a “Low” community level of transmission. Inova Alexandria Hospital has even lifted its visitation requirements.

No pandemic playbook

Mayor Justin Wilson, who celebrates a birthday on March 11, told ALXnow that the city is entering into a new phase of the pandemic.

“We’re heading into a different phase that’s a lot closer to normal,” he said. “We’re not going to shut things down anymore because we have vaccines, and we can we can protect those who are vulnerable and make sure everyone else can continue living their lives. But I also think there’s gonna be a lot that will probably never return to normal. And some of that’s okay.”

Wilson says the city was faced with a managing a catastrophic emergency situation without a playbook.

“There was no playbook, there were no rules,’ Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson told ALXnow. “In the beginning our big ask was going to all of the utilities like Dominion, Verizon, Comcast, and asking if they could give forbearance and not cut off their customers, and they all agreed, which was great. All of our utilities agreed and actually held to that for a long, long time — a year in-plus. Yeah. Then we sent a letter to landlords asking them to not not evict tenants. Early on, there was so much pain and tumult and everything that you were just trying to address and it was like triaging patients.”

The city extended services made possible through emergency federal funds, millions of pounds of free food was distributed by ALIVE!,

and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership helped businesses receive millions in federal grants.

Wilson, who contracted the virus in Spain in December, has posted COVID-19 updates on social media every day of the pandemic. That practice that ends today, he tweeted.

Back to business

Like many businesses, Bill Blackburn and his partner Mike Anderson of the Homegrown Restaurant Group had to furlough employees, get Paycheck Protection Program loans, and figure out how to keep their six restaurants afloat in Carlyle and Del Ray. While his staff are longer required to wear face masks, a number of changes to his businesses are permanent.

“In regard to the last two years, it feels in some ways like it’s been two decades,” Blackburn said. “In some ways, it feels like two weeks. We’ve gone through so many transformations, we’ve had so many false starts. It just seems like that we we’ve constantly been changing. Staff has turned over, styles of service have changed and we have outdoor service tents, outdoor dining, to-go windows, ordering with QR codes, a new point-of-sale system, adding DoorDash and Uber Eats — all these things have just become such a main part of business.”

The mask rule has also been lifted by Alexandria Restaurant Partners, according to partner Scott Shaw. ARP owns owns Mia’s Italian KitchenVola’s Dockside GrillTheismann’s Restaurant and BarLena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & TapPalette 22 in Shirlington, The Majestic, and opened BARCA Pier & Wine Bar a year ago.

“We’re back to running restaurants again without the complication of the complications of COVID,” Shaw said. “We feel very fortunate to have survived. It was an enormous amount of work by our team. It was just hard work. It was hard work to close the restaurants, and hard work to partially reopen. It was hard work at every stage of the game. We’ve developed a resiliency and, and adaptability that we didn’t know we had.”

Visit Alexandria also predicts that tourism will rebound, but that the hotel industry will continue to struggle.

As for nonprofits, ACT For Alexandria made impressive strides during the last two years breaking records raising millions in their annual one-day Spring2ACTion fundraiser. This year, ACT is asking for $2.5 million for the fundraiser, which is on April 27.

“We have a very generous community, and nonprofits that have been doing incredible work all year,” said ACT for Alexandria’s Brandi Yee. “It’s another chance for community members to support the nonprofits who are still on the front lines helping people who have been affected by Covid.”

Natalie Talis, a population health manager with the Alexandria Health Department, says staff are tired and a little burned out.

“The Alexandria Health Department is still here, whether or not COVID is,” Talis said. ” We will always be that important resource for helping to provide guidance to businesses, to nonprofits, to faith-based entities, as well as to residents, in terms and what are those best ways that you can protect yourself and the people around you.”

Alexandria remains in a state of emergency until June 30.

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As of Monday (March 7), Alexandria City Public Schools staff are no longer required to wear face masks in schools.

Staff were informed of the rule change in an email on Friday (March 4) that wearing masks in ACPS facilities and vehicles is optional, with few exceptions. Additionally, all ACPS staff (not including substitutes) will get paid emergency leave if unable to work due to COVID-19.

“Effective Monday, March 7, 2022, due to the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, masks will be optional for staff in ACPS facilities and vehicles, with a few exceptions,” wrote Melanie Kay-Wyatt, the ACPS acting chief of human resources. “Specifically, ACPS will continue to require school health staff to wear masks when they are providing medical services to students. These staff members are being notified separately of their mask requirements. ACPS strongly encourages all staff to continue to wear masks.”

Teachers will not divide classrooms based on masking status, ACPS recently announced.

The change comes a week after the face mask mandate was lifted for students on March 1 — the same day that Alexandria made the wearing of face masks optional in city government buildings.

Wearing masks is still encouraged during periods of “Substantial” and “High” transmission, which the city has experienced for much of the pandemic. Alexandria and its neighboring jurisdictions currently have a “Low” community level of transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The School Board, which is reviewing the changes at this Thursday’s meeting, is still pursuing a lawsuit against Governor Glenn Youngkin’s executive order removing face mask mandates in public schools.

Substitutes get a raise

ACPS has also increased pay for substitutes.

Daily substitute pay has been increased from $110 per day to $124.50, and long-term substitutes has been increased from $157.59 to $172.09 per day.

“The nationwide substitute teacher shortage has reached such a critical level that ACPS will increase substitute pay for the rest of the 2021-2022 school year,” ACPS told teachers. “In July 2022, ACPS will review the need for extending the substitute pay increase for the 2022-2023 school year.”

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Local businesses will have until the summer to enjoy the fruits of a temporary program that has allowed restaurants to provide curbside pickups, suspend regular operating hours and sell alcohol to-go.

City Council, on Saturday, will consider extending the temporary relief program to local businesses from April 1 to June 30, and expire along with the city’s state of emergency that same day.

The proposed extension would “provide restaurants and retailers the benefit of more time to submit applications for commercial parklets and construct the necessary decking for those who choose to continue use of on-street parking spaces,” city staff said in a report.

Additionally, on Tuesday, City Council approved a staff proposal to start charging annual rent to business owners for their use of parklets.

The following measures are now permanent, and would not be impacted by the new deadline:

Local gyms wouldn’t be able to provide their services in parklets anymore. The city said fitness-related businesses “did not actively participate in the temporary outdoor business expansion program,” and that the parklet program only allows for restaurants and retailers to provide services.

Alexandria’s state of emergency has been extended five times since it was first declared by Council in March 2020.

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Wearing face masks in government buildings is now optional in Alexandria, as nearly two years of the pandemic restriction winds to a close.

The decision, which was announced on March 1, comes after new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave Alexandria and its neighboring jurisdictions a “Low” community level of transmission.

“Effective immediately, wearing a mask is not required in most settings, but individuals may choose to do so at any time,” the city said in a release. “As a result of this new guidance from the CDC and Alexandria Health Department, use of masks by visitors to City of Alexandria government facilities is now optional. Effective immediately, visitors are encouraged to continue to wear a mask indoors based on their personal preference, as informed by their personal level of risk.”

Alexandria will still require masks in health care and congregate settings when the city has substantial or high community transmission.

There have been 29,734 reported Covid cases in the city, an increase of 153 cases since this time last week. The death toll remains at 183. The numbers have dropped in the last several weeks, going from a record-setting 12,822 positive cases in January to 1,227 cases in February.

Masks are also now optional within Alexandria City Public Schools, where there have been 593 cases reported since Dec. 1. The numbers don’t add up, though, since ACPS reports 509 total student cases and 102 total staff cases.

Vaccine stats

  • There are 24,924 unvaccinated Alexandria residents
  • About 76% of residents (116,308 people) are fully vaccinated
  • 84% (128,956 people) of residents have gotten at least one dose
  • 57,108 residents have gotten booster shots

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

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Hours before President Biden made his first State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., gave the first-ever State Of The Schools address.

The hour-long presentation at Alexandria City High School focused on new programs to offer free associate degrees to Alexandria City High School graduates, improving graduation rates for Hispanic males and sticking to the ACPS 2025 Equity For All Strategic Plan. The speech did not focus on more controversial issues, such as Covid-related mandates or public safety issues within the school system.

“Our strategic plan takes us through 2025 and I know it sounds like it’s far away, but we’re already in 2022,” Hutchings said. “And we will still have much to accomplish to fulfill all of these accomplishments.”

Hutchings said ACPS is being liberal in its approach to absenteeism during the pandemic.

“Some of our students are really being faced with a lot of trauma,” Hutching said. “It is our responsibility to make sure that we are providing the social and emotional supports for our students. And we’re doing that through our counseling services within our buildings. So, we’re going to continue to have social workers working with our families. We will continue to do school visits, and our administrative teams and staff will continue working with families who are experiencing truancy.”

By 2024, Alexandria City Public Schools will begin offering a “cradle-to-career” program to Alexandria City High School freshmen, where they will take specific dual enrollment courses to earn a free associate’s degree from Northern Virginia Community College by the time they graduate. The program is being done in partnership with NOVA, George Mason University and Virginia Tech. Hutchings said that the associate’s degree pathways under consideration include information technology, psychology, business information technology, engineering, biology, and education.

“This results in a NOVA associate’s degree that will not only be given when they graduate from Alexandria City High School, but it will align for full transferability to both partnering four-year universities, and that’s George Mason University and Virginia Tech,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings said that the beginning of this school year was unusual and challenging. Without getting specific, he said ACPS needs to make progress on improving graduation rates for Hispanic males and said that a division-wide early warning indicator system is in the second phase of development.

The system “utilizes key performance indicators to proactively engage intervention for students placed at risk of experiencing poor academic outcomes,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings also announced that ACPS will also release its second Equity For All Climate Survey to families, staff, and students in grades 6-12 on March 11.

“We have made progress and yet are mindful that it’s there’s still much work to be done,” he said. “Our team and our students have shown great resilience throughout the past two years and I am encouraged by the progress that we’ve made so far to dismantle some of our racial inequities and to meet the individual needs of our students.”

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Students return to George Washington Middle School (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Alexandria City Public Schools told students in today’s morning announcements to respect the decisions of their peers who choose to not wear face masks in schools or on buses.

Senate Bill 739 went into effect today, allowing for Virginia parents to elect to opt their children out of mask wearing — reversing course on a rule that has been in effect since the beginning days of the pandemic in 2020.

“I would say 95% (of students) are wearing them,” an Alexandria City High School student told ALXnow. “They said on the announcements to respect people’s decisions.”

ACPS staff are asking that parents consider asking their kids to wear masks in periods of high or substantial transmission. Staff are still required to wear face masks, and the school system will continue to provide KN95 face masks for students and staff upon request.

“To the extent possible, we are asking our families to consider the level of community transmission,” Julie Crawford, ACPS chief of student services and equity, told the Board last week. “We also want to acknowledge that this could be a period of anxiety for our families and our students. We’ve been sharing with them for the last almost two years that maskings help to protect you and protect those around you, and this will be a big transition in our schools.”

Some School Board members were not happy with the legislation.

“We still want you to wear a mask, it’s just we can’t enforce it,” Member Rahman Elnoubi said. “We’re not doing this because we don’t want you to wear a mask anymore. We’re doing this because we have to because we want to abide by the law.”

Board Member Michelle Rief said that the decision to go mask-less is really now up to individual students.

“It almost is also leaving it up to the students in some ways,” Rief said. “I mean, unless their parents are giving them really clear directions on Tuesday.”

In the meantime, the School Board is not backing down in a lawsuit against Governor Glenn Youngkin’s executive order removing face mask mandates in public schools. Shortly after taking office in Jauary, Youngkin issued an executive order removing face mask mandates in public schools. Alexandria, along with Arlington and Fairfax County, defied that order.

The case is still pending in the Arlington Circuit Court.

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After nearly two years of the pandemic in Alexandria, Mayor Justin Wilson says it is now time to turn the corner against COVID-19.

In his monthly newsletter, Wilson wrote that more than 80% of city residents have been vaccinated, more than a third have gotten booster shots and anyone can get a vaccine who wants one.

Wilson said that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s newest determination that the city’s transmission level is “Low” is not a reason to immediately get back to normal. The Virginia Department of Health didn’t go that far, and only upgraded the city’s transmission level from “High” to “Substantial.”

There have been 29,581 reported cases of Covid in the city and 183 deaths, according VDH. Numbers have dropped in the last several weeks, going from a record-setting 12,822 positive cases in January to 1,227 cases in February.

“It is now time to turn the corner,” Wilson wrote. “At a time where our community needed heroes, heroes have emerged from every corner of our City.”

Wilson added, “We have seen our brave healthcare workers and public health employees risk everything to keep our community safe. We have seen dedicated public servants ceaselessly serve our community, even at risk to themselves and their families. We have seen the essential workers keeping our supermarkets open, our restaurants functioning, our pharmacies and retailers available, our hospitals cleaned and our public transit running.”

Alexandria has seen nearly 30,000 residents contract Covid, while 184 residents have died so far and the city remains in a state of emergency until June 30.

Wilson will conduct his monthly virtual town hall meeting on Thursday (March 4) at 8 p.m.

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