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What you need to know about the state government’s response to COVID-19

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to grow in Virginia, state leaders are taking several steps to slow the spread of the virus and protect the population at large. Here is what businesses and individuals need to know about the state government’s response to the emerging and evolving threat that is COVID-19.

State Emergency Authority

While the federal government’s police powers are prohibited by the construction of the Constitution, which grants the federal government enumerated powers, the police powers of the states are more implied. Like most states, Virginia’s constitution and statutes grant the governor broad discretionary authority during times of disaster and emergency.

Article V of the Virginia Constitution vests all executive power in the governor and establishes his authority as “Commander-in-Chief” of the armed forces, with power to “repel invasion, suppress insurrection, and enforce the execution of the laws.”

The Code of Virginia specifically sets out the Commonwealth’s Military & Emergency laws in Title 44, a wide-ranging section of code that touches on everything from the physical defense of the Commonwealth to natural disasters and emergency services.

Title 44 specifically declares that the governor’s Executive Orders have the force of law and are punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Emergency authority is also littered throughout other places in the Commonwealth’s laws, granting emergency authority to regulatory bodies, state agency directors, and other state boards and commissions. This includes, specifically, authority to issue public health orders.

Finally, the state also has a detailed document entitled the “Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Operations Plan” that sets out the delegation of authority and the state’s response to specific disaster scenarios.

Actions to Date

Virginia leaders have exercised their broad authority on a slower pace than other states thus far, but the actions ramped up in recent days.

Governor Northam issued an Executive Order declaring a state of emergency on March 12. EO-51 reads in part:

Therefore, on this date, March 12, 2020, I declare that a state of emergency exists in the Commonwealth of Virginia to continue to prepare and coordinate our response to the potential spread of COVID-19, a communicable disease of public health threat.  The anticipated effects of COVID-19 constitute a disaster as described in § 44-146.16 of the Code of Virginia (Code).  By virtue of the authority vested in me by Article V, Section 7 of the Constitution of Virginia, by §§ 44-146.17 and 44-75.1 of the Code, as Governor and Director of Emergency Management and Commander-in-Chief of the Commonwealth’s armed forces, I proclaim a state of emergency. Accordingly, I direct state and local governments to render appropriate assistance to prepare for this event, to alleviate any conditions resulting from the situation, and to implement recovery and mitigation operations and activities so as to return impacted areas to pre-event conditions as much as possible. Emergency services shall be conducted in accordance with § 44-146.13 et seq. of the Code.

On March 13, the governor ordered all public schools to close for two weeks, saying “I recognize this will pose a hardship on many families, but closing our schools for two weeks will not only give our staff time to clean and disinfect school facilities, it will help slow the spread of this virus. This is a fluid and fast-changing situation.”

On March 17, Governor Northam issued an executive directive closing all offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles for 14 days. The governor also ordered the extension of all driver’s license expiration dates and vehicle registration deadlines.

Perhaps the most far reaching order also came on March 17, as Governor Northam issued an “Public Health Emergency Order” to enforce a limitation on the number of people who could gather at restaurants, bars, and theaters.

Previously, the governor had “encouraged” people to limit gatherings to no more than 50 people, but in this order, the governor lowered the number to 10 and gave the public health commissioner and law enforcement authority to enforce the limitation. Under this order, the state health commissioner may suspend operations at any establishment violating the order. Violation of the order is also punishable as anything from a Class 1 to Class 3 misdemeanor.

Other State Government Actions

The action of state government in response to the coronavirus has not been limited to just the governor.

The State Corporation Commission also acted this week, issuing an order in response to a motion from Attorney General Mark Herring that prohibits public utilities from disconnecting electric, natural gas, or water services for 60 days.

The Supreme Court of Virginia issued a “judicial emergency” order on March 16 suspending all “non-essential” and “non-emergency” court proceedings in the Commonwealth. The order, signed by Chief Justice Don Lemons, directed the court to continue all proceedings, except for “emergency matters, including but not limited to, quarantine or isolation matters, arraignments, bail reviews, protective order cases, emergency child custody or protection cases, and civil commitment hearings.”

The Days Ahead

Undoubtedly the response and actions of state government officials will continue to evolve in the days ahead. As the number of cases continues to grow and the spread of the virus multiplies, state action may become more drastic.

Gentry Locke’s Government and Regulatory Affairs team is closely monitoring the developments related to state government as part of Gentry Locke’s coronavirus response team. If you have questions about how your business or organization may be affected by state action, please call us directly at 866.983.0866.

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