By Randy Arrington
LURAY, May 6 — When will it be over? When can we open back up for business? What will reopening look like? How soon is too soon?
These are questions facing every government official at every level all across the country, and around the world.
On Tuesday night, the Page County Board of Supervisors voiced their feelings on the controversial issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as they considered lifting a temporary restriction on short-term rentals in Virginia’s “Cabin Capital.”
“The governor can sit in Richmond, and the president can sit in D.C.… but we’re in Page County,” District 5 Supervisor Jeff Vaughn said during Tuesday night’s live-streamed meeting. “It’s a domino affect… and it’s affecting a lot of people. As far as I’m concerned, we need to get back to business.”
Both Vaughn and District 2 Supervisor Allen Louderback both voiced their pro-business stance on the issue at the board’s April 21 meeting and again on Tuesday night.
“I think it’s time for some of our businesses to open back up. We need to use a little bit of common sense,” Louderback said on Tuesday. “You can take statistics and manipulate it however you want. We can not shut the rest of this community down in panic.”
Those comments stemmed from a brief discussion by the board about the dramatic rise since their April 21 meeting in the number of COVID-19 cases (and now related deaths) reported by the Virginia Department of Health. At that time, there were 14 reported cases in the county, with no hospitalizations. Two weeks later, there are now 113 reported cases of COVID-19 (as of Tuesday’s VDH report), with 12 hospitalizations and five related deaths.
However, a large portion of those figures (at least 77 cases), were detected at Skyview Springs Rehab and Nursing Center in Luray. A total of 59 residents and 18 staff members tested positive for COVID-19 after mass testing at the facility on April 22.
On Tuesday, officials at the Luray nursing facility reported that at least eight deaths had recently occurred there that were related to COVID-19. Not all of the deaths have been reported by VDH due to the lag in reporting data. Figures posted each morning by 9 a.m. usually represent data submitted by 5 p.m. the previous day — but sometimes the lag time in reporting is even longer with independent laboratories and private facilities.
All six members of the board of supervisors on Tuesday expressed a desire to reopen business in the county soon, but to do so cautiously.
“I’ve talked to a lot of cabin owners, and these folks are ready to go back to work. We need to get our cabins running, but we need to do it with the least risk,” District 3 Supervisor Mark Stroupe said Tuesday. “I know all our businesses will put good practices in place because this is serious.
“Three of the people they buried from that facility I’ve known all my life,” Stroupe continued. “We don’t want this thing blowing up in our faces.”
Board members discussed that lifting the restriction on short-term rentals would come with “strong recommendations” to follow CDC guidelines, thoroughly clean and disinfect properties between rentals, allow two days or more between rentals, and make inquiries about those visitors coming from potential “hot spot” areas to help prevent future outbreaks in Page County.
“I don’t think we have the manpower to police it,” District 1 Supervisor Keith Guzy noted — adding that he hoped cabin owners and others would follow recommended guidelines to ensure the safety of the community as a whole.
While all of the supervisors wanted to reopen soon, the discussion about timing revolved around the date set by Governor Ralph Northam — May 15.
After initially closing non-essential businesses through April 23, Governor Northam extended Executive Order 53 to May 8. On Monday, he announced that he was extending the order once again to May 15.
“I don’t agree with the governor and what he is doing,” Vaughn bluntly stated.
“I don’t like the idea of government deciding who is essential and who is not,” Louderback said.
After extending the order twice, the governor stated during Monday’s press conference that he did not foresee extending the order again, indicating Virginia will indeed go back to business in mid-May.
The news comes as the number of new COVID-19 cases in Virginia begins to flatten out in terms of daily increases. While the cumulative total has risen to more than 20,000 cases in Virginia, the daily increase that experts are watching closely has leveled off over the past week to 10 days. In the last two days reported (Wednesday morning’s report from VDH was still not posted by mid-afternoon), those numbers actually showed a decrease — short of the 14-day decrease the governor wants before reopening.
“I want to make it very clear, this virus is still here,” Northam said on Monday. “It has not gone away and it will not go away until we have a vaccination.”
Prior to recommending an end to the restrictions on short-term rentals in Page on Tuesday night, County Administrator Amity Moler told the board that enacting stricter guidelines than the state was not an easy decision.
“We basically shut down one of our biggest industries, but we did so with good intentions,” Moler said. “I think all our cabin owners are responsible business owners and would follow [CDC] guidelines, so that’s why I’m recommending we lift the restriction on short-term rentals.”
“I think we need to use a common sense approach, go ahead and bite the bullet,” Vaughn said. “I’m prepared to make a motion tonight to put them back in business.”
A 3-3, tie vote killed Vaughn’s motion to open up short-term rentals in the Cabin Capital immediately, with Louderback and District 4 Supervisor Larry Foltz voting in favor. Stroupe, Guzy and Chairman Morgan Phenix voted against the motion.
A second motion made by Guzy to lift the short-term rental ban in Page County on May 15 to coincide with the governor’s closure expiration date passed unanimously.
Former supervisor J.D. Cave, who recently sent a letter to the board opposing the short-term rental restriction, said he’s ready for his family’s Shenandoah Woods to open back up for guests.
“I’m pleased with the decision, but I wish they had [passed the] first motion,” Cave said on Wednesday morning. “If we have to live with it another 10 days, so be it… although I’m still not sure it was entirely legal for them to do it the first time around.”
Once Phase I reopening plans go into affect statewide next weekend, a number of restrictions will remain in place, such as limiting capacities at restaurants and the continued encouragement of teleworking and social distancing. The governor estimated that the Phase I restrictions would last about three weeks.
“We hope the governor is serious about reopening next Friday. Virginians need a light at the end of this tunnel,” Republican Majority Leader, Del. Todd Gilbert (R-15th) said in a statement on Monday. “The governor’s decision to use a ‘one size fits all’ approach is going to negatively impact certain parts of Virginia worse than others. The ‘potential for division’ the governor mentioned is already a reality, as citizens across Virginia watch their livelihoods wither.”
Struggling with a balance of economic hardships and public health felt worldwide, Vaughn and Phenix summed it up well near the end of Tuesday night’s board meeting.
“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Phenix said. “It’s very, very dangerous no matter what… we just don’t know.”
Supervisors nodded in agreement as Vaughn added: “We’re durned if we do, and durned if we don’t.”