Fairfax County has made solid progress in combating COVID-19, but still faces budgetary and economic-recovery challenges, Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said March 11 in a virtual “State of McLean” speech to the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce.
Calling the pandemic the “800-pound gorilla in the room,” Foust said that as of March 9, the Fairfax Health District had recorded 68,806 COVID-19 cases, 3,600 hospitalizations and 1,050 deaths.
“It has been all-consuming,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how much time and effort it has taken from the county’s side and it’s not going to go away overnight, obviously.”
The health district’s Hispanic community has been affected disproportionately, possibly because those residents often have jobs that do not allow them to work in isolation and some have crowded living arrangements, Foust said.
About 17 percent of the county’s population is Hispanic, but more than 45 percent of the health district’s COVID cases, he said.
“It’s been painful to watch how hard that community was impacted,” Foust said.
County officials are providing additional testing and vaccinations and using federal funds to rent 455 hotel rooms so infected people can isolate.
Many local hotel rooms are vacant because of the pandemic, he said.
The county is making “great progress” with its vaccination program and has three vaccines available, including Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose shot. About 160,000 people are on the county’s vaccine waiting list. The county’s efforts has been “unprecedented,” Foust said.
“I get so frustrated sometimes with the failures that we encounter, the bumps in the road,” he said, citing as one example early technical failures with the registration system. “But when I step back and look at what staff and others are accomplishing – volunteers out the wazoo at the vaccination center, and so forth – it’s just amazing.”
County officials used $20 million in federal CARES Act funds to support a (since-expanded) program that aims to protect people from being evicted from their homes and help unemployed people pay for food and pharmaceuticals. The county also has used federal funds to hire almost 400 “contact tracers,” and aims to hire even more, to help curb the virus’ spread, Foust said.
Foust, who chairs the Board of Supervisors’ Economic Initiatives Committee, said officials are focusing on post-pandemic economic recovery. Officials are setting aside $15 million for that effort, but likely will devote “dramatically” more funds once additional federal moneys arrive, Foust said.
Some parts of the county have escaped major impacts from the pandemic, with some businesses not only surviving but thriving, Foust said. About 90 percent of jobs lost during the past year were held by people earning 80 percent or less of area median income, he said. Hard-hit industries included retail, restaurants and hospitality.
The county used $52 million in federal moneys to support the Fairfax RISE grant program, which benefited small businesses.
“It was designed to stop the bleeding, basically, to help us get through to a point where we could focus eventually on recovery, but initially on survival,” Foust said.
Supervisors are facing another tough budget year following 2020, which saw the county’s ambitious plans constrained by the pandemic, Foust said. This year’s proposed budget also will be conservative, with no pay increases (apart from one-time bonuses for some employees) and a proposed school-budget transfer increase that’s about seven times less than what school officials have requested, he said.
While County Executive Bryan Hill calculated the proposed budget without assumptions about further federal cash infusions, county officials expect to receive about $234 million more under the newly passed stimulus bill.
Those moneys would need to be spent on one-time items, not recurring expenses, Foust said.
“It’s not going to bail us out, in terms of what our budget challenge is,” he said.
In his district, Foust was upbeat about a new vision for McLean’s Community Business Center. A consultant produced a “very well-received” concept that would feature a pedestrian-friendly, highly developed central zone with ground-floor retail and a public gathering place. This would be surrounded by a zone with moderate-intensity development and finally a less-dense area protecting neighborhoods.
“People want to see a revitalized downtown McLean that provides a little more lively activity and development,” he said.
The Fairfax County Planning Commission is scheduled on April 28 to review comprehensive-plan amendment centered around that vision, and the Board of Supervisors tentatively is set to take up the matter May 18.
The county’s zoning-ordinance modernization efforts are encountering resistance, as witnessed by a five-hour long public hearing March 9. Most of the proposals are non-controversial and merely would simplify the code, but others have sparked community backlash, Foust said.
Foust plans to oppose efforts to regulate the size and reduce the number of flags displayed by property owners.
County staff also have proposed administratively granting permits for accessory dwellings, instead of having obtain them from the Board of Zoning Appeals. Those units now are intended for people who are 55 and older or have disabilities, but the new proposal would eliminate those standards, he said.
While expecting accessory-dwelling rules to be liberalized, Foust said county officials are not proposing to eliminate single-family zoning.
The new rules also would loosen requirements for home-based businesses and their signage.
“It’s a big concern,” Foust said. “I’m not excited about the direction that staff’s trying to take this.”