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Eviction, rent, mortgage relief in works for Virginians affected by pandemic

Mike Still • Jun 26, 2020 at 3:00 PM

RICHMOND — Relief for utility bills and an extended moratorium on evictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic are in the works for Virginians, Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Thursday.

In what he said was his last of 47 regular COVID-19 briefings since March 7, Northam said he had consulted with Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Lemons, who agreed to issue a request to the state’s circuit court judges to extend the moratorium on evictions for rent or mortgage late payments.

The moratorium first was enacted in March as part of a package of emergency orders from Northam and Lemons, and it had been extended for three weeks ending June 28 before Thursday’s announcement.

Northam also announced three programs starting in June and July to help residents with late housing payments and utility bills caused by financial stresses from the pandemic. The Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, operated by the state Department of Housing and Community Development with $50 million in federal CARES Act money, will help eligible residents with late rent or mortgage payments. Details on the program will be released on Monday, the governor said, and lenders and landlords should contact Housing and Community Development as soon as possible to work with the program.

The state Department of Social Services will also announce in coming weeks, two energy assistance programs to help with past-due utility bills. The programs are aimed at assisting residents before the state’s moratorium on service cutoffs expires on Aug. 31. Details on both programs will be announced by the DSS, Northam said.

While the Department of Motor Vehicles has had some customer service centers open for curbside service by appointment, state residents have found appointment slots filling before license or registration renewals are coming due. Northam said that, under previous emergency orders, residents whose licenses or vehicle registrations expired on or before July 31 would have until Aug. 31 to renew them. He said customers now will have until Oct. 31 to complete those renewals.

Northam also pointed to the state’s move into its Phase Three reopening on July 1, noting that Virginia and several other states implemented COVID-19 testing with little or no help from the Trump administration. In the more than three months since the pandemic began, he said, Virginia health officials had learned much about how the novel coronavirus spreads and infects people. State quarantine and testing efforts have helped keep Virginia’s infection and positive test result curves in a decline, he said.

State testing work group coordinator Karen Remley, who will be taking a position with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the state’s testing program has evolved with infection control measures so that the rate of positive COVID-19 test results has dropped to 6% while the rolling seven-day average for daily tests administered is consistently at 10,000 tests.

Remley said Virginia is moving into an arrangement where its consolidated laboratory services will work with three contracted private laboratories to support state testing efforts. In July, state officials hope to begin a surveillance testing program to better track coronavirus spread and infection across Virginia, she added. That testing effort will involve tracing COVID-19 and flu.

Contact tracing of infected people and those they have exposed is still expanding, Remley said, and the goal is to have each health district with that capability.

“It’s a success story for now,” Remley said, “but I would say as a mom and a grandmother and a public health physician and a pediatrician, nobody let your guard down because it’s going to be a long summer and a long fall for COVID.”

On schools systems reopening in the fall, Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said the Recover, Redesign, Restart 2020 school return plan is guidance and not law when it comes to how school divisions decide to reopen “responsibly.”

“I would encourage you to get to know your local school board members and discuss those reopening plans,” Mercer said, adding that school systems in areas where the coronavirus transmission rate is low should still consider Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

“We do not want to see Virginia in the position of several other states that are seeing sharp increases,” Mercer said. “That’s the worst thing that can happen.”

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