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After divided start, Charlottesville officials coalesce around pandemic response, emails show

After sparring over Charlottesville’s response to the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic, the city’s elected officials and top administrators settled into a routine and appeared to improve communication as the pandemic widened.

The Daily Progress obtained emails between the the city councilors and City Manager Tarron Richardson related to the pandemic from March 25 to April 30 through a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

During March, officials bickered, with at least two city councilors saying they weren’t getting effective communication from Richardson, who in turn accused the council of meddling in operations.

However, as the calendar flipped to April, officials appeared able to put differences in philosophy aside and rally to slow the spread of the virus.

Richardson began providing the council with daily updates in April, while officials fielded several emails about people ignoring park closures and violating Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order.

The emails also show a willingness by the city to take further and more swift action than Northam’s office, but included lamenting that the council’s hands were tied.

The emails show the council and Richardson attempting to balance a side effect of stay-at-home orders: a desire to get out of the house and exercise that ran head first into closed parks and playgrounds.

In late April, Richardson passed along a proposal from the Department of Parks & Recreation to reopen the city-owned Meadowcreek Golf Course. The proposal highlighted that courses across the country were slowly reopening and a revenue stream would help cover costs for the rest of the fiscal year.

The proposal came with several safety measures, such as limiting the need to touch the flag on each hole, opening on a partial basis, restricting tee times and limiting the number of riders on golf carts.

But the idea received a cold reception from the council.

“I do not think that allowing people to play golf is an essential need nor worth the potential negative consequences of contracting the virus,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker wrote. “I do understand that people need outlets. … I’m 100% sure that they will be unable to enjoy a golf game if they’re dead.”

Walker also pointed out that if the golf course was reopened, the same argument could be made to reopen basketball courts and swimming pools with capacity limits.

Councilors Heather Hill and Michael Payne said that opening the course also would send the message that it was OK to spend more time outside and in public.

In a later daily update, Richardson wrote that parks and recreation was still receiving “a lot” of calls about the golf course and was working on a safety plan for reopening at some point.

In one email exchange, Richardson said he was staying “optimistic” and thought health officials might “find a cure for this virus by late July.” Although some experimental treatments are being tested, medical experts have posited that a vaccine likely won’t be available until 2021.

Public apathy

Early in the pandemic, Interim Parks and Recreation Director Todd Brown wrote an email to Hill with an anecdote of public apathy about safety measures around the virus.

He said that he watched a mother with a child walk up to a playground closed because of the pandemic. Once her child started crying, she cut the caution tape and let her child on the slide. Brown said that as staff started approaching, she rushed off the playground and left the park.

Parks workers also wrapped up nets and covered the rims at basketball courts, and Brown said he “thought there was no way people would climb up and take all [that] down.”

“I was wrong,” he wrote. “Therefore, we are bringing staff in tomorrow to remove all the basketball rims at parks.”

Hill shared stories of large groups gathering at school facilities and in parking lots, as well, and the council received several complaint emails. One email was about groups gathering at Friendship Court, but Richardson said that there wasn’t much the city could do to enforce social distancing in private parks.

In late March, Walker expressed a feeling of helplessness in getting people to take the virus seriously.

“We have a lot of citizens who are not taking this seriously,” she wrote. “If [the Piedmont Housing Alliance] removes the benches, people will bring chairs outside. And if we tell them to stay inside, apparently, they will have house parties. I’m going to ride around in a bit and check things out. I’m not sure what the answers are.”

Positive cases at the jail

One email highlighted an outbreak at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, where jail Superintendent Martin Kumer told the council that he was among staff members who tested positive for the virus in April.

Kumer provided occasional updates to the council about measures within the jail amid the pandemic. The facility is the source of one of six outbreaks in the Thomas Jefferson Health District.

Kumer was among eight staff members who tested positive for the virus. He wrote that one inmate had been tested, but the test came back negative.

Kumer wrote that he was asymptomatic and had received an immunogolbulin test, which tests for antibodies developed to battle the virus. He wrote that he had developed antibodies, and that he was cleared to return to work. At the time, all of the other affected staff members were recovering at home and two were preparing to return to work.

Frustration with the state

Some emails from constituents and among councilors show a frustration that the city can’t implement stricter safety measures to slow the spread of the pandemic.

In late March, city officials sent a letter to the governor calling for more stringent restrictions, criticizing Northam for not doing enough to slow the virus.

One resident asked the city to require face masks in public, but Hill responded that it was not in the city’s purview to implement such regulations.

Mental health days

The emails also show the mental health toll that dealing with a global health emergency is taking on local officials on the frontlines.

In late April, Richardson and Walker discussed allowing staff to take two mental health days in May, which the council supported.

“I am also in favor of applying it to the top as well,” Councilor Lloyd Snook wrote. “You have a very competent staff that seems to be wrestling most of the crises to the ground.”

On April 5, Richardson sent his daily update two days late and apologized to the council, citing the toll on staff.

“I was exhausted and not feeling my best,” he wrote. “There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes in relation to COVID-19 that has been keeping us here later at night. … it has been every night for the past few weeks.”

On Friday, Richardson said that the work has been “physically and mentally exhausting.”

“I recognize all of our employees are facing challenges both at work and at home,” he said. “We will get through this together and we will keep the focus on the health and safety of our employees and residents.”


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