Anxieties are high as states across the country are either being pressured or are making plans to reopen businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Virginia is one state that is gradually opening, with the first phase occurring on Friday (with the exception of northern Virginia). However, lawmakers are urging the governor to consider the impact openings can have on Black people.
According to ABC 13 News, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus addressed Gov. Ralph Northam in a letter saying the move to reopen Virginia later this week would be like treating Black and brown people like “guinea pigs for our economy.” They explained that the state doesn’t have the necessary testing capacity and infrastructure for a safe opening and that many workers who are minorities will be put at an unfair risk.
“Throughout our country’s history, Black and Brown people have been experimented on and used as unwilling test subjects before — we cannot allow that to be repeated here,” the letter read.
Similar to the rest of the country, Black people are dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate in Virginia. Black and brown folks are especially at risk because they are more likely to have jobs that are deemed essential and as reopenings begin, they are probably going to be the ones who return first.
Northam said he’s basing his moves on positive trends in key metrics related to the virus’ spread, like testing capacity and hospital readiness. At a Wednesday press conference, he said, “Phase one represents a small step forward.”
Under his plan, some retail businesses will reopen with limited capacity, while gyms and beaches will remain closed. Restaurants would still be prohibited from indoor dine-in service. Barbershops and beauty parlors will be by appointment and can only remain open if both customers and employees wear masks. Entertainment venues such as bowling alleys and theme parks will remain closed. The opening of northern Virginia was delayed by two weeks after elected officials argued that the region wasn’t ready.
A spokesperson for Northam, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor is “absolutely committed to moving forward in a gradual manner that protects all Virginians, particularly low-income individuals, essential workers, and communities of color.”
However, this statement clearly isn’t enough for many Black leaders who are calling for more concrete actions such as free protective wear and testing for underserved communities.
Virginia joins other states that are gradually reopening. Some states, like Alabama, have adapted a “Safer at Home Order” rather than the stricter “Stay At Home” order, however, even this order is loosening by the end of May.
Some Black business owners have been divided on reopening, considering 90% of businesses owned by people of color have been, or will likely be, shut out of the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal program meant to help small businesses during the pandemic. However, in general, Black business owners have acknowledged the dangers of the coronavirus in the Black community.
Meanwhile, mostly white protestors have taken to the streets and had all-out stand-offs with cops because they were ready for businesses to reopen. Meanwhile, there has still been limited federal and state response to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black people.
“We’re still seeing a number of people saying they fear having to return to work,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the black caucus in Virginia.
You can find a full list of how states are handling reopenings here.