Virginia’s eastern region, outlined by the state’s beaches, has seen an explosive spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks as trends for the rest of the state have seen slight upticks.
But as a slew of states to the south face devastating spikes in cases and new lockdowns, Virginia’s localized surge has prompted questions about how the state will avoid following suit.
State officials say the answer may lie in a regional approach to examining trends and levying public restrictions that they hope could stem surges early without reversing the state’s reopening.
That could mean more restrictions in eastern Virginia, where daily cases surged from an average of less than 100 a day to more than 400 a day in the past few weeks.
Virginia as a whole remains in the third and most relaxed phase of its reopening — what may become the new normal until there is a vaccine or effective treatment, Gov. Ralph Northam suggested last week. There are no plans for a Phase Four.
Stricter restrictions and enforcement loom, however, if the trend of new cases doesn’t hold flat.
“I would do it regionally, if we make that decision. When all of this started, we made guidelines statewide, that was to flatten the curve,” Northam said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters. “Now it’s about mitigation, and depending on where that’s needed, we’ll direct those changes.”
The Northam administration had in the spring rejected a regional approach to reopening, eventually relenting in the face of disparate trends in Northern Virginia and elsewhere. Now, with more testing, data and a better understanding of the virus, state and local health officials said breaking the state into five regions may be the right compromise between making blanket statewide rules or applying restrictions by locality.
The eastern region, which includes all of Hampton Roads, the Eastern Shore and more, has become the epicenter of the virus’s surge in Virginia in recent weeks. There, health officials say, summer socializing coupled with the flouting of social distancing restrictions has disrupted a declining number of daily new cases.
The region has seen a precipitous increase in new cases that began over the last week of June. On June 26, the area matched its previous record for new cases reported in a day with 157, previously set on April 30. Over the last week, the seven-day average of new cases has continued to rise to more than 400 cases a day.
Part of the increase in new cases could be chalked up to increases in testing statewide, but not all. The region saw its peak on Wednesday at 526 cases, more than half of the 972 reported statewide.
Trends for hospitalizations have also risen in the region in recent days. Trends for deaths at the regional level remain steady in the eastern district and others. (The New York Times, citing its own analysis, reported Friday that additional testing in the U.S. may mean a bigger lag between a diagnosis, and hospitalizations and deaths.)
Todd Wagner, a health director in the eastern region, said the area’s beaches and connected attractions have created an environment ripe for new cases, particularly among young people.
In his particular health district, Western Tidewater, which includes Suffolk and Southampton, Wagner said many outbreaks have been traced back to house parties and private social gatherings where one infected individual infected a broader group. Nearby outbreaks in the region could contribute to the frequency of those “clusters,” he said.
Wagner said his district fields visits by people traveling to and from the Outer Banks in North Carolina, another popular beach destination.
“There’s a natural move toward the beach that happens every year in the summertime. When you go to the beach, there’s closer proximity among people, than say, if you go to the mountains and hills of western Virginia,” Wagner said.
“You have whole rows of restaurants and bars. They don’t have as much of that in the western part of the state,” he added. “Any time you have a setting like that, if restrictions aren’t properly followed, you’ve got a natural breeding ground for viral transmission.”
The central region, which is anchored in the Richmond metro area, has seen an uptick in new cases this month. But the number of cases remains far below the area’s peak in late May, when the area saw 279 cases reported in one day. The region’s seven-day average of new cases was at 139 on Friday.
In the northern region, which includes Northern Virginia and is the smallest geographic region, new case trends have held steady and far below the region’s explosive peak in late May. The area’s seven-day average of new cases was 165 on Friday, compared to its peak of 685 cases on May 31.
The northwest region of the state — which borders Hanover, reaches up to the border with West Virginia and down through Charlottesville — has seen a slight uptick in cases over the past three weeks. Friday’s seven-day average of new cases was 105 cases.
In the southwest region, which includes Roanoke down to Wise County, cases have been rising over the last week after an initial rise and fall at the end of June. The seven-day average of new cases was 98 on Friday.
All are trends officials continue to watch, said Stephens and Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky.
Yarmosky did not rule out the possibility of future statewide restrictions, but said that better data will allow state and local officials to use target approaches to respond to surges. The shift is happening as localities debate the reopening of their schools in the fall.
“Now that we have increased our capacity, the commonwealth has more options to deploy targeted mitigation strategies,” she said, citing the work to contain outbreaks in poultry plants and stricter enforcement of restrictions at beach-area restaurants.
“While this situation continues to be fluid and quickly changing, a regional mitigation approach gives us increased flexibility to address specific problems as they arrive.”
Nicole Riley, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents many small businesses in the state, said the organization supports targeted enforcement and restrictions that allow as many businesses as possible to stay open.
“We feel that the governor is now open to regionalism in a way, and at the end of the day, if that’s the system we need for Virginia’s economy to be open, we support it,” Riley said. “But, with the caveat, that state government and localities still follow a transparent process.”
With a Thursday morning run near Brown’s Island in the books, there’s something about John McGurn’s workout attire that catches the eye.
On the back of his royal blue T-shirt is a colorful array of flags: El Salvador, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mexico, South Sudan, United States. The significance of the shirt’s design is rooted across town, at West End Presbyterian Church on Quioccasin Road, of which McGurn is a member.
Near the church is a set of apartment buildings, whose residents include a melting pot of immigrants, from Africa, Europe and Latin America.
In the years after WEPC’s founding in the area in 1993, it put in place outreach programs to assist some of its neighbors as they settled in Richmond. McGurn’s love of running helped sprout a pair of initiatives that birthed a diverse band of running enthusiasts.
First was a summer track club for kids. Several years later, a Monument Avenue 10K run team called “Good News Can’t Lose” was established for more experienced runners. The groups reflect the multicultural community near the church.
They’ve brought together runners of varying ages and backgrounds for not just the workouts, but also for meaningful dialogue on life — a “word of truth.”
“Every time we get together, we want to share what we call the word of truth,” McGurn said. “You get them running, you get them tired, sit them down, give them a water and a Popsicle and it gives you a couple minutes to say, ‘Let’s talk about life, let’s talk about God, let’s talk about your purpose, your destiny.’”
WEPC, when it was established, first met in what’s now Quioccasin Middle School. After seven years, it moved down the road to the former home of Best Products, a defunct consumer goods chain.
As the church remodeled the building for its own use, it ventured out to discover who lived in the area nearby. It found that many of the surrounding apartments were inhabited by immigrants, some of them refugees.
It also found that there were many children there, so it put together a program it dubbed “X Games.” Members of the church would pick up kids on Saturday mornings, take them to a nearby park and run them through relay races, obstacle courses and the like.
While running that program, WEPC members met kids’ parents and discovered that some could use help as they acclimated to America. That led to outreach initiatives assisting them with networking, job interviews and more.
Meanwhile, WEPC over time realized that there was a gap in activities for kids in the summer. By this point, in 2009, the church had a paid staff position in charge of outreach. Amanda Krieger, who held the position at the time, spoke with McGurn about what they could do. Krieger mentioned she was a runner.
“I said, ‘Well I am, too, and I love it,’” McGurn said.
From those talks, WEPC’s track club was born. The first iteration 11 years ago included about a dozen kids, from a mix of countries. They’d get together for workouts on the track at Mills Godwin High School.
The format, with a training session followed by a word of truth, was inspired by Eric Liddell, who was depicted in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Liddell was a standout Scottish rugby player and runner — who won a pair of medals in track at the 1924 Olympic Games — and was also a missionary.
The run club, as years passed, grew from that initial dozen to include more than 60 some nights.
In 2012, the church hired Changjwok Deng, a former refugee, as its outreach director. Deng was born in what’s now South Sudan. In 1989, at the age of about 7, Deng was sent to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, by his father, because of war.
Six years later, Deng joined his older brother, sister-in-law and niece in Syria, where he finished school and where he also picked up running. He competed in short distance events in high school.
Deng also got married in Syria. He and his wife, Matbien, were granted refugee status to relocate to America. They arrived in Richmond in 2004, where they lived initially in one of the apartment complexes near WEPC. Their resettlement agency was Commonwealth Catholic Charities, which has relationships with multiple apartment complexes in the area.
They took ESL classes at WEPC and began getting involved in the church.
Deng assisted with the track club, even before he was hired to the church staff.
“It just became a great event where kids who didn’t know anything about track before now started to really get interested in running,” Deng said. “And so a lot of kids started getting into their school and started running for their schools.”
But the club is a summer activity. A few years ago, a couple of runners came to McGurn and Deng and expressed that they wanted to continue training beyond the summer.
McGurn and Deng had previously run the Monument Avenue 10K together, so they proposed a 10K training team as an extension of the track club. That became “Good News Can’t Lose,” which was founded in 2016.
While the track club was for all ages, and an introduction to running, the run team provided a more intense option. The group has run four Monument Avenue 10Ks together.
“And every year they’ve gotten stronger and stronger, and they improve every year,” Deng said. “Every year, they got a better time.”
The team has typically met to run on Saturdays. It took a break earlier this year due to the coronavirus, but picked back up in smaller groups, typically of eight to 10, on Thursdays and Saturdays. The members typically run around the area near Brown’s Island. The run club has been on hiatus this year because of COVID-19.
But just like the tradition that started with the run club, the group, after some core work and stretching, sits down for a word of truth.
Over the past several weeks, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, those sessions have taken on additional impact. With protests against racism and police brutality going on around the world, the run team’s chats became a safe space for the diverse group of runners to share a variety of thoughts and perspectives on the issues.
“Obviously, we all have our opinions. We will tell them how we feel about it as Black people. I’ve dealt with police brutality myself. So I would express that. And they’re understanding,” said Bronson Vuninka, a 28-year-old run team member who immigrated to Richmond from the Democratic Republic of the Congo with his family in 2000 and who has participated in WEPC activities since he was a kid.
Willy Lusengo, one of Vuninka’s cousins, began training with the run team three weeks ago.
The church brought in five Henrico County police officers on Wednesday as well, to chat with a group of about 25.
“It just helped me understand more of their perspective, how they felt about it. They also helped me open up and understand things I was kind of confused about,” said Lewis Waweru, who came up through WEPC’s track club and is a current run team member. He’s also a rising senior cross country and track runner at Douglas Freeman High School.
In a word of truth following the run team’s workout this past Thursday, Deng shared with the group a message centered on three keywords — awareness, relationship and commitment — in the context of current events.
“John and I, we’ll talk about this stuff,” Deng said. “I’m from Africa, I’m a Black guy. He is from America, he’s a white dude. We talk. And because we have a relationship, we can challenge each other. And that’s very important.”
That’s the tone of the environment that’s been created by WEPC’s running groups, one where members feel comfortable enough to have important talks.
The group’s plan now is to continue training in anticipation of participating in the rescheduled 10K in September.
Along the way, it’ll keep creating a space for dialogue and keep bringing a diverse group of running enthusiasts together.
As McGurn, Deng and Vuninka walked off together after Thursday’s workout, the flags on the back of McGurn’s shirt — the Good News Can’t Lose team’s 2019 10K shirt — showed clearly.
“The reason we started is because we love running,” Deng said as he spoke with other members of the team Thursday. “But also, we love the people that we’re running [with]. We love being in a community.”
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Courtney Henson knows the spot outside Cup Foods on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis where George Floyd’s life ended under the knee of a police officer on May 25.
Three decades ago, Henson, then a teenager and now a resident of Virginia’s River North Correctional Center, lived with his mother across the street from the store where Floyd allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill, prompting a call to the police.
Reached by telephone last week, Cup Foods’ owners, Samir “Sam” Abumayyaleh and his brother, Nabil “Billy” Abumayyaleh, remember Henson from the neighborhood.
“He’s definitely a local,” Nabil recalled last week. He said the Abumayyalehs’ world was turned upside down following Floyd’s death.
“It’s sad that George had to pass away. Nobody deserves to [lose] his life. But it made a movement for Black people that they needed for a long time. They needed this because they’ve been getting stepped on for so long and this actually made a movement where they’re getting justice,” Nabil said.
Henson, 46, could not agree more.
He and another inmate, Askari Danso, whose legal name is Dale Pughsley, said they are helping bring that movement to River North, located in the town of Independence in Southwest Virginia, by starting a Black Lives Matter chapter.
“I used to patronize that store and even worked a few weeks one summer with the owner, Sam. So it was VERY close to my heart,” Henson wrote to the Richmond Times-Dispatch last week about Floyd’s death.
Henson is the author of a 2017 book, “Life Is So ... You Know,” in which he described his own encounter with the Minneapolis Police Department more than 20 years ago.
In the book, he describes his arrest, at 17 years old, by a police officer in Minneapolis. He said he was stopped while driving, ordered out of the car, placed in the back of the police cruiser, called racial slurs and then told by the officer that he could kill him and no one would care.
“I was a street dude by nature at the time, but I was still terrified,” according to Henson’s account in his book.
He added, “I will never forget it as long as I live, the anger he had toward me was startling. What did I do to him? Why was he so angry? I wonder, if I were to see him again today, 25 years later, would he still feel the same way?”
“Mind you, my book came out two years ago. I also talk in the book about the effects of the Confederate statues and race relations,” he added.
Henson owns up to his criminal conduct in the book, and he also has no patience with black-on-black crime. “Why are we not outraged?” he asked.
In an email to The Times-Dispatch last week, Henson contends that, “Police abuse and corruption is directly tied to mass incarceration, over-sentenced minorities and systemic issues inside of Virginia’s criminal justice system.”
Danso, 40, has been active politically behind bars for years.
According to the Department of Corrections, both men are serving long sentences for serious crimes: Danso, 53 years for second-degree murder and firearm offenses in Lynchburg; and Henson, 40 years for rape, sodomy and burglary in Alexandria. Danso has been in prison since 1999 and Henson since 2003.
In a blog last year, Henson wrote: “Let me be the first to say that punishment is needed for wrongdoing. I have accepted my punishment and sought redemption from it. But we can’t give up on our fellow human beings so easily.”
One focus of Henson and Danso is on the truth-in-sentencing reforms that ended parole for crimes committed on or after Jan. 1, 1995, and increased the sentences for many violent crimes. Defendants must now serve at least 85% of their sentences.
With the help of an outside advocate, Henson and Danso sent out an announcement last week:
“On July 1, 2020 many long term prison activists and organizers from different prisons around the state organized themselves as the Black Lives Matter Virginia Prisoners Chapter and produced a Racial Reconciliation Policy Proposal to be submitted to state lawmakers. The prisoners are attempting to gain public support for this initiative by calling on loved ones, activists, organizations, and media to urge lawmakers to sponsor and ultimately enact these proposals into law.
“The prisoners say that Virginia’s “Truth in Sentencing” policy established in the mid 1990s was done with racist intent thereby making all black prisoners in Virginia political prisoners. They believe that any discussion on criminal justice reform must include the activists and organizers who suffered abuses for years by VDOC for attempting to reform what is a racist and unjust system.”
Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said the inmates can start an informal group at the prison but whether they become a formal, recognized Black Lives Matter chapter is up to the Black Lives Matter organization.
“At this time, no offenders have requested any formal recognition of their group or any accommodations from the River North prison or the department. It is unclear whether this group has requested formal recognition by the national BLM Chapter, which is a 501c3 organization,” Kinney wrote in an email.
She said inmates are not allowed internet access. She added that, “While offenders have access to secure email, video visits, and phone calls at their facilities to keep in touch with loved ones on the outside, they cannot communicate with prisoners at other prisons.”
In an email sent via a service provided prisoners, Danso wrote to The Times-Dispatch that, “I believe it’s imperative that we finally get a chance to speak for ourselves about what [truth in sentencing] is and has been to the Black Community in Virginia.”
He contends, “There can’t be any reform without it. Our voices (long term prisoners) are critical for ANY Criminal Justice Reform initiatives.”
Danso was the subject of a 2018 story in The Times-Dispatch after he was transferred to a high-security prison and placed in isolation in a move supporters feared was retaliation for his activism.
The story noted that Danso promoted Black history and Rastafarian groups in prisons and had organized a petition asking for better medical care and staffing at Sussex II State Prison, where he formed a human rights committee for prisoners.
Proponents of truth in sentencing argued that it would protect communities victimized by violent crime. Danso disagrees and argues truth in sentencing, what he calls “TIS,” was in part racially motivated.
“Today the children of men who were the first victims of this policy are summoning the spirit of our ancestors and demanding justice. So for me I believe it’s imperative that we finally get a chance to speak for ourselves about what TIS is and has been to the Black Community in Virginia,” Danso wrote.
Henson wrote in an email that most inmates: “Cling to the news for info about the movement. We cringed while watching officer [Derek] Chauvin’s arrogance while kneeing George Floyd. We cheered while watching black, white, brown, and all ethnic groups protest all over the world. We are humbled as the statues of hate come tumbling down from the viewpoint of human aesthetics. WE ARE WOKE!!!
“In the same vein, we watched last Friday as Mr. Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone for crimes of Lying to Congress, Witness tampering, and Obstruction of Justice. The world and it’s politics seem rogue to us. How could he do that and get away with it???”
He added, “To that we say — where is our second chance???”
Henson’s mother, Ruth Henson, who now lives in Temple Hills, Md., said she and Courtney moved to Minneapolis in 1989 and lived in a double bungalow house at 38th Street and Elliot Avenue.
She remembers “Sam” and “Billy” of Cup Foods. “They were nice guys. ... They would let you buy things on time and you pay them later. They really worked with people in the community. I know they hurt about this, too.”
“It was 38th where he got killed, 38th and Chicago [Avenue], right out my back door,” she said of Floyd’s death. “Courtney had an incident with police there, too.”
“That has been a trauma for Courtney,” she said, adding that she stayed in Minneapolis until 2005. “The people there, we didn’t have any racial problems with the people in the community — it was mostly the policemen.”
She said, “Some of my close friends were white. ... We got along.”
She was shocked by Floyd’s death. “I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s right across the street from where I used to live.’ I couldn’t sleep for several nights and Courtney was just really devastated by it because he said, ‘Mom, it could have been me back then.’”
It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re on a cross-country road trip, particularly when you’re in Arizona in the summer and parts of the state are on Daylight Saving Time but most of it isn’t.
Which is why Jordan O’Donnell was calling an hour later than he had proposed.
I was afraid he had run into problems on the road; he simply thought it was still 1 o’clock where he was. (In fact, it was 2 p.m.)
Actually, the day before, there had been “a little mishap” in his modest caravan of a modified old school bus and a pair of other vehicles pulling trailers.
“A tire blew out, and were sending sparks down the road,” he said matter-of-factly, noting all was well once the tire was replaced and the journey continued. “For the most part, it’s been awesome.”
“Awesome” is relative, considering the current times. The long-planned trip is essentially a book tour, a most conspicuous way for O’Donnell, a Richmond native, to promote his first novel, a prescient political allegory, “Zoon Garden: The Decline of a Nation.”
In the scheme of things, a pandemic is not the most advantageous time to set out on a road trip with the goal of connecting with America to sell books, but O’Donnell had poured his savings into this project, publishing his book, converting the school bus and planning the trip for more than two years. He postponed the original launch in May, but eventually decided to make a go of it, leaving the East Coast in late June with somewhat modified ambition along with his extensive team, a bunch of face masks and a supply of hand sanitizer.
“I try not to think about” what could have been, he said.
On the other hand, he said, “I’m the type of guy that thinks you should save up your resources and take one big shot, instead of taking a couple of small shots here and there. I figured, what is an unorthodox, really cool way to promote this book? I’d always wanted to take a wild road trip with a bunch of fun, awesome people.”
This is definitely “one big shot.”
O’Donnell, a graduate of James River High and Virginia Tech (where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees), grew up “more along the jock lines,” he said. He wrestled at both places, but started to “get kind of philosophical and started to be a little more artistic and had a lot of ideas I wanted to express.” He said he always had a knack for storytelling, so writing seemed a natural direction.
After college, he was hired by the FBI, where a grandfather and an uncle worked. He spent 2½ years there, working on Freedom of Information Act projects that gave him “a deeper look at the underbelly of Washington.” He grew frustrated by the toxic atmosphere, among other things, and his disillusionment was part of the inspiration that led to the book project.
He started working on the manuscript in 2018 while he was at the FBI, which he left to finish writing, living part of the time on a friend’s farm in Maryland while he helped build a house there.
The story, which is in the vein of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” tells the story of the fictional Clarendon Zoo, where the animals are granted their freedom to govern themselves. The situation deteriorates as the animals divide into competing factions, truth becomes impossible to discern and chaos rules the day.
“The chief motivation was recognizing how polarized and divided we are right now,” O’Donnell said of his reason for writing the book. “I felt compelled to write a book that would make people look into the mirror and really reflect on what’s happening in the nation right now and potentially move away from the tribalism and dogma and try to get to more of a middle ground.”
I congratulated him for accepting the simultaneous challenge of building a house, birthing a book and launching a business (that included publishing and marketing the book). He laughed, and said, “You’re telling me! I picked the most torturous things I could and decided to do them at the same time.”
He’s financing the project largely with money he saved during his days with the FBI. He’s hired a team of college-age interns to do marketing and social media and help produce a documentary on the trip itself. The pay is low — a percentage of book sales — but for most of them “the motivation is a free cross-country road trip,” O’Donnell said. “For the most part, it’s about the experience. I can’t emphasize enough how close everybody’s gotten. People are already talking about summer plans with each other for next summer. It’s been one heck of a time.”
As they’ve motored across the country, they’ve camped in parks, the driveways of friends or in winery parking lots.
There have been some book events, but much of what they’re having to do — because of social distancing — is interviews with local newspapers and broadcast stations to drum up interest in the book or online virtual events, such as the one he did with a Pennsylvania library as he was traveling through Arizona. He describes himself as a wanderer, so this adventure fits right in with someone who aspires to be a “homeless millionaire.”
His crew camped at Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona the night before our conversation and were headed toward the Grand Canyon and then Zion National Park, then Southern California where they were resting up over the weekend at the cabin of an intern’s aunt while waiting for an axle to be repaired on one of the trailers. Then it will be up the coast to Oregon.
The trip is scheduled to conclude in Maryland in mid-August, at which point O’Donnell plans to return to Richmond and “sleep for a couple of weeks” and then get back to promoting the book.
“The way I see this trip, this is sort of the rocket launch of the book,” he said. “Once we get it into orbit, we’re still going to travel a long distance. I genuinely believe in this book.”