On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) began gradually reopening the economy on Friday. But he’s given Northern Virginia a bit more time before entering “Phase One.” Northam joined The Politics Hour.
What Reopening Virginia Means For The Capitol Region
- Parts of Virginia began reopening their economies on May 15, but Northam signed an executive order delaying the reopening of Northern Virginia counties. Those jurisdictions will reopen May 29.
- The decision comes after Northern Virginia leaders sent a letter to the governor requesting the delay. Leaders in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, as well as the City of Alexandria, said they were not meeting the metrics for a safe reopening, which include a downward trend of positive tests and hospitalizations for at least two weeks.
- Northern Virginia has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the commonwealth.
- On The Politics Hour, Northam addressed concerns about the state including antibody tests in its COVID-19 testing numbers, a practice that Virginia officials ended this week after facing criticism. “It wasn’t intentional,” Northam said on the show.
- Northam also reconfirmed his commitment to test all residents and staff in Virginia nursing homes. But he has concerns about testing all of them at once: “If we test all of them today, you know, two weeks from now we may need to go back to nursing homes if there are hot spots.”
D.C.’s primary election is just weeks away. What will the public health emergency mean for voting? D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has tapped Tommy Wells, the director of D.C.’s Department of Energy & Environment and former Ward 6 councilmember, to help the Board of Elections facilitate a smooth election.
What To Know About Voting In D.C.
- D.C.’s primary is on June 2. In light of the coronavirus, the D.C. Board of Elections is encouraging residents to request an absentee ballot. The deadline to request the absentee ballot is May 26.
- D.C. residents can request their absentee ballot by phone, by mail, online or through the Vote 4 D.C. app.
- The District is limiting in-person voting, so don’t expect your usual voting site to be open on election day. Instead, 20 voting centers will be set up across D.C., with at least two in each ward. They will be open for early in-person voting starting May 22 and remain open through election day.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is lifting the stay-at-home order on May 15 — the first phase of gradually reopening the state. But nothing’s changing yet in Montgomery County. Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) joins the show.
Montgomery County To Continue Stay-At-Home Order
- Hogan is lifting the state’s stay-at-home order on May 15, Elrich is continuing the restrictions in Montgomery County. He’s issuing a county-wide executive order that will go into effect when the governor’s order expires.
- Elrich has not indicated when he plans to end the county’s stay-at-home order. Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks extended her county’s restrictions through June 1.
- In a press conference on Thursday, Elrich emphasized coordinating Montgomery County’s reopening with D.C. and Northern Virginia counties.
- When asked on The Politics Hour why he hasn’t set an end date for the stay-at-home, Elrich said, “I suspect that everybody will revisit the dates.” Elrich said he doesn’t want to make it seem like he’s misleading residents if the county sets a date and then needs to push it back for safety reasons.
What It Will Take To Reopen Montgomery County
- Montgomery County has tested 3% of residents. Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, would like to see the testing rate get to 5% of residents per month.
- Elrich said that Montgomery County has identified two partners who can collectively perform 20,000 tests per week, which would bring the county beyond the goal of testing 5% of residents per month. The county has already signed a contract with one of these partner organizations and plans to sign a contract with another organization.
- At Thursday’s press conference, Gayles said the county isn’t only looking for a sustained decrease in new cases. It’s also looking for a sustained decrease in the hospitalization rate, which is now 19%. Gayles would like to see the test positivity rate go down to below 15%.
- Gayles announced that the county is creating an advisory panel of local experts that will help guide the county during the reopening process.
Cutting The County Budget
- Montgomery County originally expected to have a $600 million budget shortfall between this fiscal year and the next. But on The Politics Hour, Elrich said that the county will have to reevaluate it based on new estimates of Maryland’s tax revenue losses.
- The Montgomery County Council has slashed $71.6 million from next year’s budget, and will likely cut more, reports Bethesda Beat’s Briana Adhikusuma.
- The council also voted against a pay raise for county employees next year, Adhikusuma reports. “I thought it was unnecessary,” Elrich said on The Politics Hour. He noted that some council members said they could revisit the raises in the fall.
Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we’re at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to the Politics Hour starring Tom Sherwood. He's broadcasting from home. I'm Kojo Nnamdi also broadcasting from home. Tom Sherwood is our Resident Analyst and Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODHello, everyone.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Tommy Wells who is representing the Mayor of D.C. with the coordinating with the D.C. Board of Elections about upcoming elections. But first up is Ralph Northam. He is the Governor of Virginia. Governor Northam, thank you so much for joining us.
RALPH NORTHAMThank you, Kojo and Tom. I appreciate all your listeners. You know, this is a great way to get both accurate and updated information out. So I appreciate you having me on today.
NNAMDIGovernor Northam, you've extended the stay-at-home order for Northern Virginia jurisdictions as well as for Richmond and Accomack County until May 29. The rest of the Commonwealth begins reopening today. In your plan for reopening you introduced five threshold metrics that should be met before transitioning to the first phase of reopening including a downward trend in positive tests and hospitalizations for at least 14 days and increased testing and tracing. Has the rest of Virginia outside of the places you granted with the stay at home extensions, met those requirements?
NORTHAMAbsolutely, Kojo. And, you know, looking at the percent positive rates in Virginia we've had a downward trend actually for more than 14 days. Our PPE supply, I just commend everybody that's been working on this is really good now. Our ability to test, we're approaching 10,000 tests a day getting out into the communities more. Our hospital capacities are good. So I feel comfortable. With those exceptions you mentioned, Kojo, certainly Arlington, Prince William, Loudoun, Fairfax and the City of Alexandria, the numbers are still high in Northern Virginia as they are in the metropolitan area of Maryland and certainly the City of Washington D.C. And so, you know, in discussion with the leaders there we just weren't comfortable moving into phase one. So we have extended the delay for two weeks.
NNAMDIThe Virginia Black Caucus is not comfortable with your plan sending you a letter strongly opposing it emphasizing that a significant percentage of essential workers are people of color and that black and brown Virginians will become what they call guinea pigs for our economy under your reopening plan. How does your plan take into account the issues raised by Black Caucus?
NORTHAMKojo, I have a very close relationship with the legislative Black Caucus. And I deeply appreciate their input and I'm absolutely to moving forward in a safe gradual way that protects vulnerable Virginians including our essential workers, our low income individuals and communities of color. So, you know, we have recognized not just during this pandemic, but over our history that we have significant inequities. The pandemic has certainly brought into focus the healthcare inequity and we actually have a health equity task forced that we've started.
NORTHAMAnd we're getting out into the communities -- we were just handing out PPE a couple of days ago -- I participated in that -- doing more testing in communities. So I'm very sensitive to the inequities and want to do everything that I can to address that. And, you know, as we move forward, Kojo, I just want to do it in a safe and responsible manner. So I have a great relationship with the caucus and I do appreciate their input.
SHERWOODThank you, Governor. I have two questions. The first one, though, is about the testing. There's been something of a controversy about how the state was counting and reporting the various tests for the virus being done. That you were mingling diagnostic and antibodies without testing. Without getting into the weeds on that, you did in fact decide to change as of today how you're reporting. What's the significance of that?
NORTHAMYeah. That's a great question, Tom. And they're two basic tests and I won't get into the weeds especially as a doctor. But one is an antibody test. It determines if you've had the virus in the past. The other is the antigen or what we call the PCR. I realized actually this past weekend and Monday that they were putting both of those tests together in looking at our numbers. I found that to be an issue. I told them that we needed to separate those two. I think what's important for people to know is that by separating them it didn't change our curves at all.
NORTHAMIt would have not changed any of our policy decision making. But here's the issue, Tom. It wasn't intentional. They had been congregating these two tests from the beginning. I realized and recognized there was an issue. I own that and I have fixed it and that's what leaders do. And as we move forward we'll continue to do both types of testing, but it is very important that we separate the two out and that's what I intend to do.
SHERWOODThank you very much. You kind of stayed out of the weeds there. Thank you. I have a lighter hearted question. I was calling around in Richmond this morning and I was told I should ask you two things. That one you still appear very neat on TV. So who's cutting your hair? You used to cut it yourself during the campaign. And secondly, I'm told you are getting out and maybe running some to stay health. Are you wearing a mask?
NORTHAMGreat questions, Tom. The first one, I did cut my own hair for about 15 years when I ran for governor. My wife has a fairly large influence on me, and said, "You know what, it might be a good idea for you to let someone else do that." So I have allowed that. During this pandemic, my wife actually she's an occupational therapist and a teacher as well, but she's been taking care of my hair. I am hopeful that if we can lift some of these restrictions I will be able to get back to the barber shop. And I have asked her, Please, no more haircuts. So anyway, that's number one.
NORTHAMThe second question, I do enjoy running. We have a new Labrador retriever, who I've enjoyed spending time with. My daughter who is in her late 20s lives in Richmond and she came over and asked me to watch "Tiger King" with her one evening. I got through about 30 minutes of that and said, I can't take this anymore.
NNAMDIYeah, that was exactly my experience.
NORTHAMI have been enjoying the "Last Dance," Michael Jordan's career. And I have really enjoyed that.
SHERWOODAre you running? Are you actually running?
NORTHAMI do run.
NNAMDIOkay, good. That's a one word answer. We don't have time for anymore. Daniella Cheslow, our Reporter at WAMU asked if you can provide specifics of how you will protect essential workers.
NORTHAMYes. It's a great question. And I think the first thing to recognize is that they need to have PPE. And as you know, we have competed -- when I say we, governors have competed for this. We finally have a good supply of PPE. So it's very important that our essential workers have that access. And also, Kojo, they need to have access to testing. If they don't feel well or even if someone in their family, you know, has symptoms we need to make sure that they're tested and protect them and their families. So also there are individuals that don't feel comfortable going back to work. We understand that. And so we have an adjudication process. We have an appeals process to let them, you know, enter that and make sure that when they feel comfortable going back to work that's what will happen.
NNAMDIHere's Roxane in Arlington, Virginia. Roxane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROXANEGreat, thank you. Governor Northam, thank you for everything that you've done so far for families in Virginia. I live in Arlington. My husband and I both work. We're both able to work from home. I have a two year old son who normally goes to an in home daycare. So he's not at a center. He's at an in home daycare, but he's been home for about nine weeks. I'm very lucky my mother was able to move in with us and help take care of him. And we're just sort of patching things together and working at night. I realize I'm very lucky in this situation. But I'm just wondering what kind of guidance you're going to be providing and what we can expect in terms of in home daycare and then for other families what about like more formalized center daycares? Thank you.
NORTHAMRoxane, thanks so much for your question and I hope you and your family are healthy and safe. Childcare is certainly something that is of upmost importance. Pam, my wife, has been working on this issue a lot, not only childcare, but early childhood education, and so we are allowing our childcare facilities to stay open. They maintain the social distancing as best they can. As you might imagine, with toddlers that can be a challenge.
NORTHAMThe workers have access to PPE, the facial protection. This is good news, we just received a grant of $68 million that we're going to put to good use for childcare throughout Virginia. So not only is this for essential workers, but those that are, you know, starting to go back to work as businesses open, the childcare will be there for those families as well. So good things are happening in that area.
SHERWOODGovernor, in April the state took a hit of $700 million in revenues and, of course, it's closer to maybe $1 billion now. You have said you will call the legislature back into session to adjust the state budget, the two year budget. When will you do that? Have you set a date for that yet so people can pay attention?
NORTHAMNo specific date. But, Tom, to your point, you know, we have this past year one of the most progressive budgets that Virginia has ever had a significant amount of investment especially in education, higher education, our historically black colleges and universities, K through 12, early childhood education and we've had to put all that on hold. I hit the pause button, and so your question is certainly relevant.
NORTHAMWe will do what we call a reforecast probably in July. And then once we know what our revenue is and you just outlined that we do have a deficit of $700 million thus far, which is significant. But I will call the legislature back probably in early to mid-August to address our budget priorities. And one of those, Tom, just very quickly is higher education. Obviously our colleges and universities need to know where we are with state revenue so that they can plan for the fall.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left, governor, but I have to ask you about nursing homes. Most of Virginia's coronavirus deaths are linked to them. You said this week that you're committed to more testing at nursing homes. When and how can we expect that to happen?
NORTHAMYes. We have about 260 nursing homes, long term care facilities and we are committed to testing all our residents as well as the staff. I just had a great cooperation with the National Guard. The nursing homes also can contract through private labs such as Quest and LabCorp, and so part of the CARES Act is a revenue of resources that we can use to support our nursing homes. And I think the point that we need to understand, Kojo, is that, you know, if we test all of them today, you know, two weeks from now we may need to go back to nursing homes if they're, you know, hot spots, etcetera. So this is a top priority. You mentioned this is our most vulnerable population and we are committed to making sure that we can meet their needs to include PPE and the ability to test.
NNAMDIRalph Northam is the Governor of Virginia. Thank you so much for joining us.
NORTHAMThanks, Kojo and Tom. And healthy to all of you and have a great weekend.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, Tommy Wells up next. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us now is Tommy Wells. He is the Director of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, but joins us today in his capacity as Mayor Muriel Bowser's representative with the D.C. Board of Elections to coordinate upcoming elections. Tommy Wells, thank you for joining us.
TOMMY WELLSThank you for having me, Kojo. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIAnd, Tom Sherwood, talking about Mayor Muriel Bowser, she has extended the stay-at-home order through June 8th. She has tightened requirements on face coverages and starting Monday masks will be mandatory on all of Metro. Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODYes, well, the Metro decision was made by the Metro Board and General Manager Mr. Wiedefeld. The D.C. stay-at-home-order was to have expired today. The mayor did extend it to June 8th. It was a little unclear of what the mask rules are. Initially it sounded like you had to wear a mask everywhere you went. There's been some clarification and more will come from the mayor's office, but basically if you're in any place where people are gathered you should be wearing a mask. If you're in an office and by yourself, that's different than being out in an office where other people are sitting, so that's the difference there.
NNAMDITommy Wells, D.C. is encouraging residents to request their absentee ballot for the upcoming June second primary. How can residents do that?
WELLSWell, the first thing I want to say is that, you know, the mayor is very interested in being sure that everybody, you know, that this works and just support the Board of Elections. But I'm not -- I want to be clear I'm not speaking on behalf of the Board of Elections because, you know ...
NNAMDIThat's an independent agency. Yes.
WELLSThat's an independent agency, but the mayor wants everyone to know that we're providing all the support and help that we can to make this as easy as possible, because this is a very different type of election. And BOE, the Board, is very clear that they want people to vote by absentee ballot if possible. And they're getting the numbers up so that you don't even have to go down to vote. And you need to get your ballot request in, you request for an absentee ballot, by May 26 and that's by regulation. And so I do want to encourage anybody that's trying to do that and looking to do that and the Board of Elections wants you to do that. Go to dcboe.org and it will explain it all right there.
NNAMDIWell, I downloaded the app Vote for D.C. and I can't seem to get past the date of birth. Every time I put in my date of birth it keeps telling me that there's a web error there. But that's another story. Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODThank you, Mr. Wells. Thanks for joining us. Appreciate it. We've talked a couple of times about this. One question I keep hearing from people is why in like Maryland, why didn't the District just simply mail out ballots to all of the people registered to vote? And then have them returned rather than the three step process of asking for a ballot, filling out the ballot, returning the ballot?
WELLSWell, that's a process that I think Maryland has been working on for a couple of years. You have to have a system setup to do that so that you have the verification on both ends. But, you know, again, on something like that I think that you ought to have Michael Bennett or the Board of Elections in to answer that. But I will say that for this election it's already different enough and we want to assure that it goes well. And so we're doing it by absentee ballot. And then early voting, which is very different this year, early voting starts May 22 at the 20 cites that Board of Elections is using as polling sites all across the city. And you can vote at any one of those 20 sites starting on May 22nd. But otherwise, Tom, answer is that the system -- it takes a while to prepare a system like that.
SHERWOODYes. There's going to be 20 vote sites instead of the 144 normally. And you don't have to go to the one in your ward. You can go wherever you want of those 20. But, how will they know if live here in Southwest Washington and I got to a site up in Northeast Washington, Turkey Thicket or something, how will they know? In fact, will they be able to check to make sure that I'm a registered voter in Southwest Washington?
NNAMDIBecause everybody they will recognize you and say, that's Tom Sherwood. He doesn't live around here. But go ahead, please, Tommy Wells.
SHERWOODI'd be happy to live at Turkey Thicket.
WELLSThey have a voter -- a way to use a scanner.
SHERWOODAre I.D.s required?
WELLSIn D.C. you don't require I.D.
SHERWOODI don't think so.
WELLSBut you can use -- they have a scanner bar, so really you can't go to all 20 sites and vote 20 times. I mean, they know. They've got a very good sound system to know when you voted and so that you don't vote more than once.
NNAMDIHere is Linda in Washington D.C. Linda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINDAHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a part of a group called We Vote Remote and we're made up of members of the disability community. We are very -- we've been following D.C. and Maryland's rules for voting remotely. My specific question is about what kind of an assistance are you providing for people with disabilities, who may have a hard time voting by mail in the primary?
NNAMDITom Sherwood. I mean, Tommy Wells.
WELLSWe get confused all the time.
NNAMDIIt's these Toms. Yes.
WELLSYes. For that I think that you should call in down at Board of Elections to ask specifically depending on what kind of assistance is needed. And that can be at 741-5283. Again, 202-741-5283, but I would call Board of Elections depending on the disability that they have. They do have accommodations. But I would talk to them directly.
NNAMDIHere is Marilyn in Washington D.C. Marilyn, your turn.
MARILYNHi. I wanted to report my experience trying to get absentee ballots for my husband and myself. I did that on April 20th for both of us. We got confirmations from the Board of Elections to the effect that they did have our request. And when this Monday May 11th I still hadn't received a ballot I called and was told that they had no record of my request. They asked that I send back to them by email the copies of the confirmations they had sent me, which I promptly did. And the woman had said that when she gets them she will email or call me to tell me she has them and she will send out the ballots. As of Wednesday I still had heard nothing by email or phone. And I called.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt, because we don't have a great deal of time. But, Tommy Wells, have you heard other stories like this before? And what's the Board likely to do about this?
WELLSWell, the Board is really -- they're working at break-neck speed. I have not heard of many issues like that. And I would encourage you to call again down there. But also to, you know, to email them. And I know that they're listening to your show as all good public officials do. And they will be aware when you contact them, Marilyn. So I'm sorry you've had that experience, but even though this is an unprecedented time, Board of Elections is doing a good job. They are. You should have what you need by now. Anybody that's made a request in April there's not a huge backlog. They're getting this stuff out. So you should be able to get that and I'm sorry you're having a tough time with that.
SHERWOODThe voter's guide that's mailed out to all of the registered voters also has an application people can use. But I want to go back to the ADA access of people who have disabilities. At those 20 sites, I would think that, Mr. Wells maybe you know, that all 20 of the sites where you can vote in person beginning next Friday when early voting starts would be ADA accessible.
WELLSBoard of Elections folks went and scoped them all out. There's 20 sites. Residents can vote at any one of those sites. They are fully accessible.
SHERWOODAnd they're listed in the voter's guide.
WELLSThey are listed in the voter's guide, exactly right. And it starts May 22nd 8:30 to 7:00 every day except Memorial Day on the 25th. It will be closed. And then the day of election the polls will be open as normal seven to eight. But you can also -- someone will come out to your car if that's -- if you need assistance with voting, you can pull up, like we've always had this, and they'll be ready. They'll come out to your car and they'll assist you with the voting.
NNAMDIAre you concerned, Tommy Wells, that these changes might impact voter turnout in major ways? Can you tell us how many absentee ballots have been requested so far?
WELLSWell, over 55,000, which is a historic high. They had about 100,000 people vote in total the last primary, which was 2016. And they only had 5,000 requests for absentee ballots. So it's moving pretty well. But I think it's tapered off a bit. And we need people to -- we strongly want them to vote by absentee. But all protections will be there and practiced and observed by the poll workers.
WELLSThey'll be wearing masks. And the voters are expected to wear protective face covering as well, but you will not be turned away.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're just about out of time. Tommy Wells, thank you so much for joining us. When we come back we'll be talking with Marc Elrich, Montgomery County Executive. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us now is Marc Elrich. He is the County Executive for Montgomery County. Marc Elrich, thank you very much for joining us.
MARC ELRICHThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions -- I know Tom and I are. I'm hoping everybody is also well and safe too. If you have questions or comments for Marc Elrich the time to call is now. We don't have a great deal of time. You announced this week that Montgomery County will be remaining under a stay-at-home order even though Governor Larry Hogan is beginning to reopen the state today. Why did you extend the order and what metrics are you looking at to guide your own decision?
ELRICHWell, oddly enough, we were looking at the same metrics that we thought all of us agreed to. The CDC had issued a set of metrics and the governor announced, when he made his initial orders, that we were following these metrics. And they, you know, involved a couple of key things, which was, you know, sustain reduction in cases in the state and sustained reduction in deaths and hospitalization rates over a 14-day period. And we haven't achieved that.
ELRICHWe have the second-highest number of cases in the state. We have the third-highest rate of infections per thousand people. We are, you know, close neighbors with the District of Columbia and Prince George's County, both of which have also high rates of infection. And until we see the numbers come down, we don't want to do something that would rekindle the surge that had come about when this, you know, first hit the county.
ELRICHYou know, you look at the curves that a lot of people have had, those curves, they go up, and then they start going up like a straight line. And we've been able to get to the point where things, I would say, leveled off. But leveled off is not the same thing as declined. And our cases stayed, you know, relatively flat, with some ups and downs and a few spikes. But they have not significantly declined in a while. In fact, over the last couple of weeks we've stayed in a pretty, you know -- I'd say a pretty narrow range. And the occasional spikes taken above that.
ELRICHSo, we need to get the cases down. And the reason, you know, that we're concerned in total is that our hospitals aren't full yet. But if we were to get a spike in cases, if we were to start running up on the curve that we started with, we could very easily exhaust our hospital space. And so it's very important that we be able to bring these metrics down.
ELRICHSo, we sent over to the council today a list of metrics. And what it involves is a sustained decrease in the rolling average during a 14-day period of new cases of increased testing. We need COVID-19-related hospital rates to come down. We need the ICU rate to come down. We need the fatalities to come down. You know, we were originally targeting, I forget whether it was three per day or five per day, as a good sign. We're still generally up around 11 or 12 today.
ELRICHWe need the other illnesses that seem to be similar to COVID. We need that number to go down...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Are these the reasons why you have not indicated an end date for the stay-at-home order in Montgomery County, as the Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks has done? Hers is June 1st. You haven't set a date.
ELRICHWell, I suspect that everybody will revisit the dates, much as the governor. If you remember, you know, he said, you know, the schools were going to open. And then he had another date for opening, had another date for opening. And every time they got close to the date, they looked at the data and said the data's not there.
ELRICHI was reluctant to set a date, not because I don't think we'll reopen, but because if I set a date and the data doesn't support reopening, people are immediately going to say, you said you were going to open, say, on, you know, June 4th. And pick a date between D.C. and Prince George's County. And now you're saying you're not going to open, and so you lied to us. You misled us.
ELRICHAnd, you know, what we've been saying all along is we will open when it's safe. We're not talking about zero, but when we think it's controllable and we have a handle on this...
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to interrupt, because we're running short on time already. Here's Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODThank you, Mr. Elrich. Two quick things. One, I got a message from someone asking that you allow the funeral homes in the county to have funerals, that they can do them safely and have social distancing. But as much as people are dying and hospitals are preparing for sick people, the funeral homes are kind of left out of this.
SHERWOODAnd then, secondly, just before we went on the air, Scott MacFarlane of NBC 4 showed some video from their helicopter of a very long food line up in Gaithersburg at the Bohrer Park, there, that Catholic Charities is doing. And the question is, in one of the wealthiest counties in the country, should more be done to provide food for people who are in need and not depend on, say, just Catholic Charities and these long lines that we're seeing on TV? Funerals and food.
ELRICHYeah, so, let's see, I'll do the food, first. I mean, we're not relying on them. We're providing millions of dollars to nonprofits in order to get food and to support their activities. And we're going to continue to provide money directly to nonprofits in order to carry out these activities. I think I read today that another 1.2 million either went out today or went out yesterday to support these activities.
ELRICHSo, we're continuing to put money out for food. We're putting it out for rent. We're doing everything we can do to support that. And we'll continue to do it. We don't have a point where we said, okay, we've given all we're going to give. We have substantial money from the federal government, and, you know, that money has to last 'til December 30th, unless Congress comes back and gives us more money.
ELRICHBut as long as we have that money we're -- funerals. I've been to funerals. The ones I've been to, not recently, but anyone I've ever been to, I didn't see any sign of what would pass for safe social distancing. If you're going to have a large number of people in some of those rooms, that gets really difficult to manage. It's something that we can talk about. And if people can demonstrate that they have plans that look like they would pass for being safe, we can certainly look at them.
ELRICHThe executive order I sent over today allows us to make changes, with the council's approval. And so we're going to be looking at the new CDC guidelines, which, I guess, were amended by the Trump administration, but we're going to see what we can glean from them. And we're going to look at something the governor referenced in his talk about this pledge, which he didn't make mandatory. He just urged businesses to abide by the pledge, but we're going to look at the pledge and see whether if we actually require businesses to meet the pledge, do we get a higher level of certainty that the places will be safe.
ELRICHI just want to remind people, when people looked at what happened in Chicago and the explosion of cases there, they traced it to two social events. And so if these aren't done right, it is very possible for this to just reignite in the county.
NNAMDIHere's Beverly in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Beverly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BEVERLYHi. Thanks, Kojo. Love the show. Appreciate the support and great news. I wanted to know, as a Montgomery County resident, where can we find information on what's allowed and what's not allowed since we're making decisions different from what the governor has allowed?
ELRICHWell, I mean, the good news is we're not making a lot of decisions that are different. I mean, the governor kept the limit on 10 people gathering. He kept the requirement on facemasks. So, he's not allowing congregation. What he did is he opened businesses at 50 percent capacity. We're not doing that. He opened -- he allows churches to do services at 50 percent capacity. We are not doing that.
NNAMDIBut where can Beverly find information about that?
ELRICHSo, that's going to be on the county website, and I can go there. It's just MontgomeryCountyMD.gov. And if you go there, the first thing you get presented with is this big, blue box that says COVID-19. And you can click on that, and it'll take you to a page where all that information's available.
NNAMDIOkay, Beverly. Thank you for your call. Dr. Travis Gayles, who is the Montgomery County health officer, says that about 3 percent of Montgomery County residents have been tested for COVID-19. He'd like to get to 5 percent per month. What do you need in terms of resources to get to that level of testing?
ELRICHSo, the good news is that we've identified two partners in our life sciences sector who will have the capacity to do tests at this volume. We have signed the contract with one. We're signing a contract with the other, and the second contract I think we're going to be doing 20,000 tests a week. So, to put that in perspective, I've got a little over a million people, 5 percent would be 50,000 tests. Once this thing is up and running, we will be doing 20,000 a week so we will surpass that. And we fully intend to keep going because 5 percent is kind of a minimal standard. It is not where we need to be.
ELRICHThe goal is that every time we do a contact trace, you know, the old rule was tell people to shelter in place. If they contacted somebody -- not because that was best practice, but because there weren't test kits. Now, when we do contact tracing, we're going to be able to get people tested. When we find the positive tests in that contact line, we'll be able to take their contact, and we'll be able to follow these things out. We have not been able to do that before. We will be able to do that now. That's a big deal. So, I think we'll get to the 5 percent pretty easily.
SHERWOODMr. Elrich, you have several big unions in Montgomery County. You negotiated raises with them, but then the council rejected them as too much. And now the council has voted this week, seven-to-two, to eliminate all the union raises. Is this something that's simply a delay, or have they, in fact, been eliminated and you have to start all over? Let me just ask, how tough is the budget battle for you now?
ELRICHWell, the budget battle's basically over. The council passed the budget today, and it'll be done. My view was that, you know, when we renegotiated the raises, it was a totally different climate. I believe we were in the largest expansion in history. And the day I submitted the budget, the world fell apart. So, this was -- you know, all the planning and everything and all the negotiating had been done earlier. The council initially rejected the budgets. We went back to the unions. They're willing to give up their COLAs, but they wanted to keep their steps.
ELRICHWe did an analysis. The steps don't actually cost the county money, because, basically, everybody moves up a step every year. This is the same thing in the federal government. One person replaces another person on the step. People come in at the bottom, people go off at the top. And when our analysts did a study of the difference in the county payroll from one year to the next, it wasn't the steps that increased the county payroll. It was the general wage adjustments, or COLAs. So, the unions gave up the general wage adjustments in COLAs, and just wanted their members to be able to go up the steps. The council said no...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Yeah, the council has eliminated all that, so they're dead. Is that right, they're dead?
ELRICHThey're dead. I thought it was unnecessary. Some council members, I haven't seen the final language. They're still working -- they're still finishing their budget. Their councilmembers have said we can revisit this in the fall. Certainly if the federal government replaces our lost revenue, we're in a different situation than we are now. And, hopefully, the Congress will come together and replace the lost revenues of jurisdictions like ours. Otherwise, you're going to just have a national catastrophe of everybody shrinking. And government will now contribute to the shrinking, which means less buying power, compounded with the shrinking of the private sector. This is not going to be good for the economy.
NNAMDIWhat are you anticipating in terms of revenue shortfall?
ELRICHWell, we've got to reevaluate it, because the state numbers this morning -- I don't know if you followed where the state was, but, in April, they said that they anticipated a loss of $2.8 billion this year. They've reduced it to between, I think, 900 million and 1.1 billion. So, they've drastically reduced their losses.
ELRICHThey said that, actually, withholding had actually kicked up, which surprised everybody. But I've been trying to point out to people that with the new unemployment rules and the additional $600 checks, people are getting real unemployment. You know, an average check will be about $1,000 a week in Maryland. And the withholdings from that money -- I mean, from that income are required. And if you hold -- either they pay it at the end or they withhold it now.
ELRICHSo, I wasn't surprised that things didn't get as bad as they did during the recession, which is what people were basing their assumptions on. Because the recession didn't boost unemployment checks. This crisis has boosted unemployment checks. So, the state's still down a billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at. And then, next year, depending how fast we can recover, we'll have a better picture of what we're losing. The county's, you know, anticipated to lose somewhere around 151 million. I'm going to assume that that number be revised by the state, based on this new data. We'll wait to see.
NNAMDIHere's Brett, in Hagerstown. Brett, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRETTHi, Kojo, thanks for having me. I was just wondering if anyone there had an update on the state emergency business loans, the program that they launched in late March. I applied, I think, the day that they announced it, and, as of today, it's almost been two months, and it stills says in process. I didn't know if any of those dollars have been issued. We've gotten the PPE money in, and I applied for the EIDL loan, as well. But as a small business owner I haven't heard anything out of the state yet.
NNAMDIMarc Elrich, do you know?
ELRICHYeah, I thought that some checks had been issued, but I also read that there's still a backlog, and that, you know, they had closed themselves to applications and there's probably not enough money to deal with all the applications. So, I don't know whether you've been rejected, based on what you told me, or whether the state still has you in their processing line. There's a story about that. I didn't have a chance to read it fully this morning, but it's a continuing issue with the speed at which they get things out.
ELRICHAnd, you know, frankly, you know, we set up a program, and it's gone out slower than we want, because none of us were set up to create criteria and then send out a bunch of money in a short period of time, because that's something we never had to do before. And the states have the same problem. Same with unemployment.
NNAMDIDr. Travis Gayles said that the county is creating an advisory panel of local experts to help the county reopen effectively. What can you tell us about that panel? Will you be relying on that panel?
ELRICHWell, I think he's going to be looking to that panel for additional guidance. I mean, we're trying to put the best brains we can find looking at our health data and helping us determine what the consequences would be of different decisions. I mean, that's ultimately what this is all about. If I reopen tomorrow, I'm pretty sure that would be a totally wrong decision, given our caseloads.
ELRICHWe need to understand, you know, what happens with lower caseloads and what happens with higher levels of protection. I mean, if I could be certain of certain protective measures being taken and aggressively enforced, that's different than where we are right now. Like I said, the governor asked people to follow this pledge which requires people to do certain things in the workplace, but he didn't require them to follow the pledge. And so we're going to look at what's in the pledge to see what happens if you require people to follow it, does that give us a higher level of certainty that people will be safe to return to work.
SHERWOODMr. Elrich, there was some discussion -- beyond your advisory panel, there was some discussion that the big eight, Montgomery County, Prince George's and the other big jurisdictions in the state might actually form together a pact to coordinate how they're going to respond in these more dense neighborhoods of the state of Maryland. Is that going to happen? How closely are you coordinating with other big jurisdictions like Montgomery County, leaving out the District for this question?
ELRICHI think we've talked every day this week, and, you know, we've been on weekly calls for a long time. Then we were doing it three days a week. But we've talked, I think, pretty much every day this week. None of us are embracing the governor's full opening. I think that's clear.
SHERWOODAre you creating a pact among the big eight in the state of Maryland to address what the governor's not doing?
ELRICHWe are talking about that. We have another call today, and we're discussing, you know, how we deal with that. I mean, I think everybody's frustrated about talking about testing, and then many jurisdictions haven't seen any test kits. Or, you know, saying that, you know, things are working when they don't appear to be working.
ELRICHSo, you know, we're concerned. And, you know, Angela was very, you know, blunt about not getting the things that the state says or just have been available. One reason we went off on our own testing track here -- and I've shared the information with the other county executives -- is instead of waiting for tests to arrive, we decided we had to go find tests on our own. And we had experiences similar to the governor. We didn't buy the stuff, but we had opportunities to buy things, but everything was incomplete.
SHERWOODBut, politically, it sounds like you're not in this altogether, that there is some fraying at the edges of what's being done in Maryland.
ELRICHNo. I don't think it's a matter of being not altogether. There are different conditions in different counties. I mean, Angela and I have, you know, 50 percent of the cases in the state. If you add Baltimore and Baltimore County, we have 72 percent of the cases in the state.
ELRICHSo, the conditions are different, in different counties. Steuart Pittman in Anne Arundel has slightly different conditions. Johnny O up in Baltimore county has slightly different conditions. But some of us that share common borders with other highly densely populated areas, that also right now have very high case rates, we're in just a little bit different place. So, we've all agreed, generally, to not fully do what the governor said, but to allow each jurisdiction to map a path that makes sense based on their health data.
NNAMDIHere's Susan, in Silver Spring. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANYes, good afternoon. I wanted to talk about nursing homes, very briefly. It's a tragedy that is occurring there. There was a long article in the Post last week that mentioned that Montgomery County health officials said they've been in contact with all 34 nursing homes, but haven't conducted any in-person compliance visits.
SUSANThen one of the administrators at the Department of Health and Human Services, when asked how the county is ensuring that these facilities are abiding by regulations, he mentioned that the state had sent some inspectors -- well, first of all, he said, at this point, we're taking their word for it. And then it goes on to say state inspectors were declined entry to several nursing homes. So, my question is, how can we ensure the safety of residents in nursing homes, and how can we even allow it that inspectors be turned away from performing their legally mandated functions? Number two...
NNAMDIOkay. Marc Elrich. Well, we have to stop at number one, because we don't have a great deal of time. Marc Elrich.
ELRICHYeah. So, the state is the agency that is responsible for regulating nursing homes. And we have stepped in. We've created a strike team before -- I hate that word, but whatever you want to call it. We created a force of people to work with the nursing homes. We've provided them with equipment. The governor has, I think, established stricter standards.
ELRICHThe nursing homes were like everything else in the state, where the original guidance was, look for people who traveled to certain foreign countries. Huge mistake in guidance. It allowed cases to go undetected. And this is the most vulnerable population. But I also try to remind people, the nursing homes are the canary in the coalmine. It shows what happens when asymptomatic people, people without symptoms, circulate in the population, come in close contact with other people who don't have the virus, and how the transmission happens.
ELRICHNow, the impact is worse in a nursing home because these people have, you now, preexisting conditions. But it's kind of a canary in the coalmine for everybody else, and people need to think about that. These cases didn't start in nursing homes. These cases were brought into nursing homes. But we are still working with them. The state is upping its testing protocol. We are going to be cooperating with them on testing, both of the workforce in the nursing homes and the patients in the nursing homes.
ELRICHAnd one thing that has to happen with the workforce, you can't be tested once a week or even once a month. They need more frequent testing. I could test you today, you could go home, or you could take a walk in your neighborhood, come in contact with somebody, get too close, catch the virus. And just because you were non-symptomatic, or just because you didn't have the virus today doesn't mean you don't get it tomorrow. So, we are working on strengthening that.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, we only have about 30 seconds left.
SHERWOODAre you -- is that exercise equipment in your home still getting dust -- gathering dust, as you said during your campaign? Are you getting any exercise?
ELRICHNo, it is not. I am on my elliptical. I want to say that I have -- I've dropped an amazing amount of weight and have my blood sugar totally in order. And I did that before this broke, and I'm really glad I did that, because my health is much better than it was. I have my weight under control, and a new diet to go with it.
NNAMDIUnfortunately, I won't be running into you in the super market anytime soon to validate that claim that you're making. (laugh) But Marc...
ELRICHYou could run into me in the meat section, because, basically, I'm protein-crazy right now.
NNAMDIMarc Elrich, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIMarc Elrich is the county executive for Montgomery County. Today's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. Join me next Tuesday evening for a virtual town hall on navigating the post-pandemic job market. Whether you're a new graduate, recently unemployed or someone who has been on the job hunt for a while, we'll dig into what you can do to be competitive in this new employment landscape and get hired. It's a free virtual event, but you do have to register to get the Zoom Webinar link. You can find all of the details at kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIAnd coming up on Monday, what are contact tracers doing to stop the spread of coronavirus? And he's too young to drive or vote, but he's not too young to make a price-winning veal saltimbocca with spring pea ragout. MasterChef Che Spiotta joins us on the latest Kojo for Kids segment. That all starts at noon on Monday. Until then, Tom Sherwood, what will you be doing?
SHERWOODI'll be social distancing from my refrigerator.
NNAMDI(laugh) Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst and a contributing writer for Washington City Paper. Until Monday, at noon, you have a wonderful weekend and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.