Black Caucus says it opposes Gov. Northam’s plan to reopen Virginia Friday

Black Caucus says it opposes Gov. Northam’s plan to reopen Virginia Friday
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus laid out their legislative priorities for the veto session in April of 2019 and responded to criticism from Republicans for working with Gov. Ralph Northam on the issues despite their calls for his resignation. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has asked Gov. Ralph Northam to abandon his plan to reopen most of Virginia on Friday, saying a premature reopening would make black and brown Virginians “guinea pigs for our economy.”

The Black Caucus, made up of 23 Democratic state lawmakers, formally registered its opposition to Northam’s proposed timeline in a letter to the governor released Wednesday.

The group said that racial disparities in health care and economic opportunity have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, with communities of color performing many essential jobs and seeing disproportionate infection rates.

“Throughout our country’s history, black and brown people have been experimented on and used as unwilling test subjects before — we cannot allow that to be repeated here,” the caucus wrote in a letter signed by its chairman Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico.

The letter from black lawmakers could intensify the political pressure Northam faces as he weighs how to begin allowing some businesses and churches to reopen during a public health crisis that has led to 927 deaths in Virginia.

In response to the letter, the governor’s office said Northam is “deeply appreciative of the Legislative Black Caucus and values their close partnership with him and his administration as we respond to this crisis.”

“He continues to be guided by public health, data and the CDC guidelines,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. “He is absolutely committed to moving forward in a safe, gradual manner that protects all Virginians, particularly low-income individuals, essential workers and communities of color.”

Though the governor had announced a phased reopening could begin at the end of this week, leaders in Northern Virginia, the state’s most populous region that’s been hit with the most COVID-19 cases, said it was too early for their communities to reopen. The governor carved out an exception allowing Northern Virginia to keep shutdown rules in place for another two weeks, but he appears to be sticking with his plan to allow the rest of the state to begin reopening Friday.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.