Newsletter
A Food Lion in Herndon (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County’s new plastic bag tax, set to take effect on Jan. 1, drew both support and opposition from the supermarket industry.

Food Lion and MOM’s Organic Market took opposite stances on the issue before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the change last Tuesday (Sept. 14), imposing a 5-cent tax on each disposable plastic bag provided at grocery stores, convenient stores, and drug stores.

“While Food Lion strongly supports responsible stewardship and waste reduction efforts, complying with a patchwork of varying local single-use bag restrictions in the Commonwealth negatively impacts Food Lion’s ability to serve our customers and implement uniform brand strategies for waste reduction and recycling,” the company said in a letter shared by Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity, the only board member who voted against the measure.

Headquartered in Salisbury, N.C., Food Lion has one store in Fairfax County, located in a shopping center in Herndon.

The company’s director of operations, Eric Sword, said in the emailed statement to the county that the business recycled 6,914 tons of plastic in 2020, among other recycling efforts, and it’s working to meet a parent company goal to make all plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

“Food Lion is supportive of broad-based efforts to reduce customer usage of both paper and plastic bags, and the brand continuously works to raise customer awareness of the value of using reusable bags,” the letter said.

However, Sword wrote that he believes the change will shift consumer behavior almost entirely to paper bags, even though the company seeks to encourage reusable bags for customers.

Meanwhile, a MOM’s representative noted during the Sept. 14 public hearing that their business voluntarily banned plastic bags over a decade ago and uses paper and compostable bags.

“We banned plastic bags 15 years ago because it was the right thing to do for the environment and the communities we call home,” Alexandra DySard, the company’s environment and partnership manager, said in video testimony.

The Rockville, Maryland-based supermarket, which has stores in Herndon and the Mosaic District in Merrifield, favors alternatives to a plastic bag that many people might only use for 12 minutes, DySard said.

“Plastic manufacturers are misleading consumers to believe that bags are being upcycled into benches and decks when the truth is the majority of plastic bags are being sent to landfills, incinerators, ending up in our waterways, or being shipped out of sight to third-world countries,” DySard said.

She also noted that D.C. saw a 72% reduction in plastic bags found in streams after its ban took effect in 2010.

FFXnow contacted other grocery chains in the area for comment, including Giant, Safeway, and Harris Teeter, but did not receive responses by press time.

The Board of Supervisors ultimately approved the new tax 9-1, as advocates likened it to a fee that people can avoid and expressed hope that the move will encourage consumers’ environmental stewardship.

“Plastic bag taxes are proven in jurisdictions across the nation,” said Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw, who introduced the measure. “This measure will reduce plastic pollution and the modest funds collected will be reinvested into litter prevention and to providing reusable bags for low-income community members.”

Herrity dissented, saying in newsletters sent to constituents before and after the vote that now is not the time to add another tax.

“Instead of instituting a rigorous education campaign — one that encompasses how to recycle and dispose of multiple forms of trash — the Board is taxing residents into compliance,” Herrity said, suggesting the county needs to “create more ways for people to recycle and more materials to educate them on how they can” do so.

The county hasn’t allocated the future tax revenue to a specific purpose yet, but state law permits it to be used for pollution and litter mitigation, educational programs about reducing waste, and reusable bags for residents who receive federal food assistance benefits.

The tax doesn’t apply to:

  • multiple bags sold in packages, such as those for garbage, leaves or pet waste
  • plastic bags used solely for certain food products such as ice cream, meat, fish, poultry, produce, unwrapped bulk food items, or perishable food items
  • plastic bags with handles designed for multiple reuse
  • plastic bags for dry cleaning or prescription drugs

With the board’s vote last week, Fairfax County was the first Northern Virginia locality to institute a plastic bag tax, but neighboring Arlington County and the City of Alexandria quickly followed suit, adopting their own ordinances on Saturday (Sept. 18).

Photo via Google Maps

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More than four-fifths of adults in the Fairfax Health District have gotten at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, a hard-won milestone achieved after a summer of slowing demand and the arrival of the contagious Delta variant.

According to its vaccine data dashboard, which also includes information from the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, the Fairfax County Health Department has now administered more than 1.5 million vaccine doses since it received its first shipment on Dec. 23, 2020.

Constituting 68.6% of the total population, 811,460 Fairfax Health District residents, including 81.1% of all people 18 and older, have received at least one vaccine dose.

Interest in getting vaccinated appears to have soared in the past week, as more than 18,000 of those first dose were administered since last Monday (Sept. 13), when the county health department reported that 793,392 residents had received at least one shot. In comparison, just 1,457 first-dose recipients were added between Sept. 7 and 13.

The journey to the 80% benchmark was a two-month grind after the Fairfax Health District surpassed the 70% mark in June — more than 10 days ahead of the July 4 date that federal and state officials had targeted for getting vaccine doses to adults.

The milestone comes as the late summer surge fueled by the Delta variant appears to be leveling off, though Fairfax County’s COVID-19 community transmission levels are still considered high based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s established metrics.

With another 151 cases reported today (Monday), the Fairfax Health District has recorded a total of 87,621 novel coronavirus infections, which have resulted in 4,266 hospitalizations and 1,173 deaths.

Fairfax County is averaging 80.3 cases per day for the past week after spiking at an average of 204.6 cases over the previous seven days on Thursday (Sept. 16), which was the first time that the weekly average had climbed over 200 since it sat at 204.7 cases on Feb. 27.

Fairfax County COVID-19 cases over the past 180 days as of Sept. 20, 2021 (via Virginia Department of Health)
All Fairfax County COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 20, 2021 (via Virginia Department of Health)

Still, VDH data suggests the county is no longer seeing the clear, steep increase in COVID-19 cases that emerged in August. That trend of a sharp rise in cases, followed by a sudden plateau reflects the trajectory that the Delta variant has taken in other countries like India and the U.K.

However, health experts say vaccinations and mitigation measures, like mask-wearing, remain crucial to curtailing the spread of the virus, particularly with schools in session, the weather cooling, and the holiday season approaching.

In the Fairfax Health District, 736,927 residents — 74% of adults and 62.3% of the overall population — have been fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson inoculation.

Determining who is considered fully vaccinated could soon become more complicated after Food and Drug Administration advisors voted on Friday (Sept. 17) to recommend booster shots for people who are 65 and older or face high risk of severe illness, though the committee did not support broader approval.

The Virginia Department of Health said in a statement that booster shots won’t be available until the FDA updates its authorization and the CDC issues new guidance, which could come later this week.

“VDH will continue its planning efforts with pharmacies, providers, hospitals and other partners as well as efforts to establish other vaccination sites to ensure that once the CDC issues guidance, eligible Virginians will be able to access a booster dose,” state vaccination coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said.

The Fairfax County Health Department says it is awaiting further federal and state guidance on booster shots and will continue limiting third doses of the Pfizer vaccine to immunocompromised people for now.

In the meantime, the county is also preparing for another game-changing development: the availability of vaccinations for children.

Pfizer reported this morning that initial results from clinical trials suggest its vaccine is safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11. While emergency authorization for that age group isn’t expected to come until later this fall, Fairfax County Public Schools already has plans to work with a third-party company that will help administer the shots to kids once they’re eligible.

The county health department says it is working with the school system and medical providers to prepare to expand vaccinations to children.

“We are in close communication with schools, daycares, and pre-schools — as well as our private medical providers — across Fairfax County about COVID planning and are actively working to prepare and develop options for vaccinating younger children when the vaccine becomes authorized for the 5-11 age group,” FCHD spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said in a statement.

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A solar energy-powered lamp post (via Sandra Parra/Unsplash)

Fairfax County has committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, and now, it has a plan to achieve that goal.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors accepted the county’s first-ever Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) when it met on Tuesday (Sept. 14).

First proposed by the board’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council in 2018, the plan features an inventory of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and recommendations for how to curb them so the community can realize its aspirations of carbon neutrality.

“Together, the strategies and actions are intended to power individuals and organizations within the community, to engage in, lead, and champion the emissions reduction needed to achieve county-wide carbon neutrality,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said, reading from the board matter he issued. “Climate change is a major existential crisis already causing major impacts in Fairfax County.”

The final report calls on both the county and its citizens to take far-reaching, significant actions.

Proposals include cutting the use of fossil fuel-burning cars, installing solar panels at home, creating more through recycling and composting programs, adopting more stringent green-building policies, and being a “conscious consumer.”

Storck’s motion passed 9-0, with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity not present during the vote.

A few moments before the vote, Herrity said he was going to abstain due to concerns over timing, lack of proper community engagement, and cost, particularly in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The economic outlook over the next few years is uncertain,” Herrity said. “Our decisions don’t operate in a vacuum. This plan will have planned and unintended impacts on the economy and taxpayers. Beyond what I’m imagining will be a very steep cost to implement this plan, it will also have a very serious impact on the affordability of homes, increasing the actual cost as well as permitting and regulatory costs.”

The rest of the board countered that the county can’t afford to wait any longer to address the already-existing threat of climate change.

“The cost of doing nothing is significant, if not life-threatening,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said. “And I think most responsible people who are paying attention to the subject and the science…most certainly get that.”

Storck, who helped spearhead the CECAP as chair of the board’s environmental committee, reiterated that county operations and schools only account for about 5% of Fairfax County’s carbon emissions. The remaining 95% of emissions come from the private sector and the general community.

As noted in a presentation that Storck delivered, transportation and commercial and residential energy consumption are the two largest sources of greenhouse emissions. Combined, those areas produce more than 90% of all emissions in the county.

As a result, while the county will have a leadership role, this new plan is about asking the community to take the necessary steps to curb emissions, Storck said.

“There will be no area, sector, or part of our society that won’t be impacted [by the reduction goals in this plan],” he said. “How much? That’s largely a function of how aggressively we move forward.”

As the county worked to finalize the CECAP over the summer, the United Nations released a sobering report last month that said, even if future emissions are lowered, global temperatures will continue to rise until at least the middle of the 21st century, leading to more extreme weather and other worsening climate issues.

County staff told the board’s environmental committee in July that the CECAP’s implementation was already underway, a process that includes community outreach, public education, and an exhaustive review of existing county policies to see how they line up with the now-accepted plan.

Additional plans related to the initiative’s implementation, such as how the county can build on existing programs, will be presented to the board at an environmental committee meeting in early 2022.

Photo via Sandra Parra/Unsplash

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It took approximately half an hour for the police motorcade escorting the body of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss to travel the 20-mile stretch of I-66 from Gainesville to the I-495 interchange in Merrifield.

Along the way, the procession encountered dozens of Fairfax County police officers, firefighters, and residents who gathered on and under overpasses yesterday (Friday) afternoon to honor Knauss, one of 13 American servicemembers killed in the Aug. 26 bombing at Kabul’s airport during the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient, the 23-year-old Knauss grew up in Corryton, Tennessee, a village about 20 miles northeast of Knoxville, and joined the Army right out of high school. He was on his second deployment to Afghanistan after previously serving there for nine months, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Killing at least 170 Afghan civilians, the attack on Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport occurred in the midst of a frenzied effort to evacuate thousands of people seeking to leave the country ahead of the U.S. military’s Aug. 30 departure deadline as the Taliban took control.

The Fairfax County Police Department announced Thursday morning that a funeral procession for Knauss would pass through the county after 3 p.m., advising community members to go to an overpass along the route from I-66 East to I-495 South if they wanted to pay their respects.

Accompanied by several police cruisers and motorcycles, the hearse entered from Prince William County around 3:20 p.m. and traveled east through Fairfax before turning south in the Merrifield area. Upon reaching Springfield, the procession took I-395 North on its way to Arlington National Cemetery.

The motorcade was expected to be overseen by a pair of helicopters, but they were apparently shelved as a late afternoon downpour significantly reduced visibility.

About a dozen people from different backgrounds assembled along the Gallows Road overpass by the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station, undeterred by the rain that drenched the area around 3:45 p.m., just as the motorcade passed.

For Oakton resident Dennis Greza, the decision to watch the procession came from a personal place, spurred by seeing his brother serve in the Air Force. He said he wanted to pay respect to Knauss for making the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The service members killed in the Kabul airport bombing included 11 Marines and one member of the Navy, along with Knauss as the only Army casualty.

Elsewhere along I-66, Fairfax County police officers stood at attention, and American flags hoisted by fire engines greeted the funeral procession.

In a news release sent out at 4:16 p.m., Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner announced that they will cosponsor a bipartisan bill to award all 13 servicemembers a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the legislature.

“We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the 13 servicemembers who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the last days of the war in Afghanistan,” Warner and Kaine said in a joint statement. “We must never forget their bravery. Honoring them with the Congressional Gold Medal is one way to remember their heroic service to our nation.”

Jay Westcott contributed to this report.

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Although Election Day is still more than six weeks away, Fairfax County residents can start casting their ballots when early voting begins tomorrow (Friday).

The county will have three sites open for voting in the Nov. 2 general election for Virginia’s governor and other state offices: the Fairfax County Government Center, the Mount Vernon Governmental Center, and the North County Governmental Center.

The county anticipates a turnout of about 50% for this year’s general election, according to county spokesperson Brian Worthy. But the Office of Elections is prepared for a turnout of 75%.

In the last governor’s race in 2017, turnout stood at around 56% when Gov. Ralph Northam — who cannot seek re-election due to term limits — ran against Republican nominee Ed Gillespie and Libertarian Party candidate Clifford Hyra.

Worthy tells FFXnow that the county is now adept at running elections during the pandemic.

“We have been holding elections since the pandemic and there is no significant impact on our operations at this point,” he said.

The Ballot

Terry McAullife (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R) are running to succeed Northam as governor, while Hala Ayala (D) and Winsome Sears (R) are running for lieutenant governor. Republican Jason Miyares is challenging incumbent Mark Herring, who is a Democrat, for attorney general.

All 100 House of Delegates seats are also up for grabs, with Democrats seeking to maintain a majority in the legislative chamber for the first time since 1999. Sample ballots for each of the Fairfax County races can be found on the Office of Elections website.

Finally, the ballot includes a bond question concerning $360 million in capital improvement bonds for Fairfax County Public Schools.

How to Vote

The Fairfax County Government Center will be open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., while the other sites will be open from noon to 7 p.m. on weekdays. All sites will be open on Saturday, Sept. 18 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

All registered Fairfax County voters can vote early. The last day of early voting is Oct. 30.

This year, county officials are encouraging residents to vote early using an electronic ballot-marketing machine called an ExpressVote.

The system allows voters to use the machine’s touchscreen instead of filling out a ballot by hand. Ballots are then printed by the machine, a system that county officials say will prevent voters from missing any races on the ballot or accidentally voting for more than one candidate per office.

An additional 13 early voting locations will open up on Thursday, Oct. 21. Those sites will operate from noon to 7 p.m. on weekdays. Weekend hours will be added later: from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 23 and 30, and from 1-5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 24.

Voters must bring identification when they vote, though a photo ID like a driver’s license is no longer required. Accepted forms include a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or another government document with the voter’s name and address.

Voting by mail, an option now open to all registered voters, will also kick off tomorrow. Requests to receive a mail-in ballot must be received by Oct. 22.

Masks are required for voters and poll workers at polling places, according to Worthy. Voters who do not wear masks will be able to vote outside.

“Everyone will be given the opportunity to vote,” he said.

The county is still looking for bilingual election offices who speak Korean or Vietnamese in addition to include. Bilingual speakers can apply online to become election officers until Oct. 8.

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After a couple of relatively dry weeks, the weather in Fairfax County is about to take a turn for the rainy today (Thursday).

The National Weather Service issued a Flash Flood Watch for the D.C. area at 2:44 p.m. Set to remain in effect until 9 p.m., the alert warns that showers and thunderstorms could produce up to two inches of rain per hour, potentially leading to floods in some areas.

Here is the full alert:

…FLASH FLOOD WATCH IN EFFECT UNTIL 9 PM EDT THIS EVENING…

The National Weather Service in Sterling Virginia has issued a

* Flash Flood Watch for portions of DC, Maryland and northern Virginia, including the following areas: in DC, District of Columbia. In Maryland, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Central and Southeast Howard, Central and Southeast Montgomery, Frederick MD, Northern Baltimore, Northwest Harford, Northwest Howard, Northwest Montgomery, Prince Georges, Southeast Harford and Southern Baltimore. In northern Virginia, Arlington/Falls Church/Alexandria, Eastern Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William/Manassas/Manassas Park and Western Loudoun.

* Until 9 PM EDT this evening.

* Slow moving showers and thunderstorms will produce very heavy rainfall, potentially leading to areas of flash flooding. Rainfall rates may reach two inches per hour.

The NWS advises residents to monitor weather forecasts later in the day and prepare to take action if the watch escalates into a Flash Flood Warning.

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In a meeting room that more resembles a college classroom than the stateliness of the board auditorium just two floors down, 20 volunteers are redrawing the lines that divide and define Fairfax County.

Appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on June 22, the 2021 Redistricting Advisory Committee (RAC) has been meeting regularly since late July, but members got their first opportunity on Monday (Sept. 13) to present the district maps they’ve created to determine the county’s leaders for the next decade.

Some members suggested limited changes, moving the Fort Buffalo precinct across the district line from Providence to Mason, for example. Others crafted entirely new districts around Lorton or a swath of Herndon and Chantilly east of Dulles International Airport.

Fairfax County has developed a publicly available mapping tool that allows communities to be realigned with a simple click of a button, but each alteration could have significant implications for what the county will look like in the future.

“These are not just lines on a map,” said Linda Smyth, who now represents Providence District on the RAC and previously represented it on the Board of Supervisors. “It’s about neighborhoods. It’s about people.”

Redistricting Advisory Committee Mason District representative Alis Wang added a Dulles district to her Fairfax County map (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The pressure on this year’s redistricting effort is even higher than usual as the county races to complete a year-long process that has been condensed into roughly five months, thanks largely to coronavirus-related delays in the release of data from the 2020 Census.

The RAC voted on Monday to request a timeline extension after complications in getting adjusted Census data from the Virginia Division of Legislative Services further delayed county staff’s ability to build the online mapping tool that the committee needs to do its work, according to Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw.

Under the schedule originally approved by the Board of Supervisors on June 8, the RAC was expected to finish its work and turn in all the map options they think the board should consider on Friday (Sept. 17).

However, the committee didn’t get the new Census population and demographic data until last Friday (Sept. 10). Prior to that, members had been using old data for training purposes, RAC Chairman Paul Berry says.

“We got the numbers much later in the calendar year than we expected. We would’ve been doing this in the spring if not for the pandemic,” Berry said Monday night. “…The board and Chairman [Jeff] McKay felt it was prudent to give everyone more time to do the work, because we’re all volunteers at the end of the day.”

After a motion put forward by Walkinshaw, the board voted unanimously on Tuesday (Sept. 14) to give the RAC until Sept. 28 to finalize its maps. The initial Sept. 10 deadline for members of the public to submit their own proposed maps has also been extended to this Sunday (Sept. 19).

Board members acknowledged that the new timeline remains less-than-ideal, giving the RAC under two weeks to evaluate its own maps and those from the public, but flexibility is limited by state law, which requires localities to send a redistricting plan to the attorney general for approval by the end of the year.

The need for localities get the attorney general’s approval is a new step introduced by the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, which combats voter suppression and discrimination. The General Assembly adopted the law in April, making Virginia the first state in the U.S. with its own voting rights act, and Gov. Ralph Northam formally signed it on Monday, though it took effect on July 1.

“It’s unfortunate we have to change the schedule, but it’s a very minor modification to make sure the public still has the opportunity to be involved in this,” McKay said. “The driver here is a whole lot of laws and other things we have to abide by, but it’s also to make sure the committee has a schedule and any member of the public can see where that window is.”

The Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on its redistricting plan on Nov. 7 and vote on a final ordinance on Dec. 7.

Conducted every 10 years by state and local governments, redistricting involves drawing electoral district boundaries to ensure each district has about the same population, though gerrymandering has often undermined that goal of equal voting representation.

Fairfax County’s newly drawn districts must meet several legal and policy criteria, including standards for compactness, a maximum 10% deviation in the populations of the most and least-crowded districts, and compliance with voting rights protections.

The Board of Supervisors also adopted rules to consider existing geographic, political, and voting precinct boundaries as well as “communities of interest” — neighborhoods or areas where residents share “social, cultural, and economic interests.”

Balancing the different criteria is one of the primary challenges facing the Redistricting Advisory Committee.

For instance, Saif Rahman, who represents the Arab American community on the RAC, proposed a map with a 10th “Lorton” district where all the districts had less than a 2% standard deviation in their populations.

Achieving that uniformity, however, required bumping the Springfield District Office out of Springfield and removing Mount Vernon from its eponymous district to create the new Lorton district, among other tweaks.

Redistricting Advisory Committee member Saif Rahman’s proposed Fairfax County magisterial district map with a Lorton district (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Because of the groups’ different timelines, the RAC also can’t refer to the work of the new Virginia Redistricting Commission, which was been hampered by partisan conflicts and last-minute process changes in its efforts to draw new House of Delegates and state Senate districts.

“I wish that they could finish first and that we could then do our work, because that would make it easier for us to align magisterial districts around the House and Senate maps,” Berry said. “That alignment, in my opinion, it’s less confusing for people who vote and live and work in these areas.”

As if redistricting wasn’t ambitious enough, the RAC also waded into the ongoing debates on renaming county landmarks with ties to slavery or the Confederacy, agreeing on Monday to include a passage in its report supporting a future reevaluation of the names of Fairfax County’s magisterial districts.

The committee’s discussions focused on Lee and Sully districts, which are respectively named after Confederate general Robert E. Lee and an 18th-century slave plantation, but the report will have broader language that doesn’t mention specific districts.

“We’ve been tasked by the Board of Supervisors to redraw the magisterial districts,” Berry said. “It seems very natural to me that we would, in addition to that work, add in, in the interest of equity, a recommendation that says we need to open up the naming discussion formally after our process is done.”

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Plastic bag on ground (via Ivan Radic/Flickr)

Fairfax County will require certain businesses, but not all, to pay taxes on disposable plastic bags in a move to encourage customers to use reusable bags.

The Board of Supervisors passed the measure yesterday (Tuesday) after a new state law gave counties and cities the authority to begin imposing a 5-cent tax starting in 2021. The tax will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022 for Fairfax County.

In a statement released after the vote, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay acknowledged the challenges of introducing a new tax while the county continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, but he says the impact of plastic bags on the environment “is too great” to not act.

“There are simple steps residents can take to avoid the over-use of disposable plastic bags,” he said. “A small fee on plastic bags is an opportunity for residents to look at their habits while providing the County with avenues for environmental cleanup, education, and access to environmentally friendly alternatives.”

Fairfax County is the first locality in Northern Virginia to adopt a plastic bag tax, according to Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw’s office. Walkinshaw initiated a board motion to pursue the issue in July as part of a joint effort with McKay and Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck.

Consistent with the state law, the tax applies to grocery stores, convenience stores and drug stores, but there are exemptions for reusable plastic bags, bags used for perishable food to prevent damage or contamination, bags that carry prescription drugs or dry cleaning, and bags sold in bulk, such as garbage bags.

“Plastic bags frequently end up in a landfill, where it can take more than 500 years for the bag to disintegrate. Many plastic bags end up in our streams,” Fairfax County Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination Deputy Director Susan Hafeli said. “While the impact on human health is still being addressed, there is evidence that humans ingest and inhale thousands of microplastics per year, which result in the breakdown of disposable plastic bags and other plastic products.”

The Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination says the tax is intended to influence consumer behavior by discouraging consumers from using single-use disposable plastic bags.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. uses over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create. Turtles, one of several aquatic creatures that suffer from the trash, die of starvation after eating them.

The Board of Supervisors approved the measure 9-1 with Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity — the lone Republican member — opposing it. He said food banks reported relying on the bags to distribute food and argued that it’s the wrong time to add any tax.

Before the vote, the board held a public hearing where dozens of community members spoke both for and against the proposed tax.

Proponents included sixth-grade student Emily Ackerman, who said by video that she wants her generation grow up in a country that’s clean and not full of trash.

“It upsets me most when I see [plastic bags] floating in the water,” she said.

Jennifer Cole, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Fairfax Council, suggested the choice customers face is not between plastic and paper, but sustainable and unsustainable, noting that while stores appear to give disposable bags away for free, it’s surely baked into the costs that customers absorb.

John Cartmill spoke while carrying a reusable bag filled with plastic bags that he said he’s collected over the past week along Sugarland Run Trail.

Opponents included former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, who argued that making this a local issue is misguided compared to the scale of the environmental challenges that the world is facing with climate change.

Pointing to China as the world’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, he said a cotton tote bag would have to be used for 54 years to offset the environmental damage done by creating it. He suggested increasing educational programs and adding locations to recycle bags would be a better approach.

Walkinshaw noted after the hearing that former EPA administrators from both major political parties have criticized Wheeler’s tenure, which was under the Trump administration.

“If Andrew Wheeler says that we should turn right on an environmental issue, we should turn left,” the Braddock District supervisor said. “And that will help guide us, I think, tonight.”

Fairfax County advises people to take plastic grocery bags to larger grocery stores, where there are usually drop-off bins at or near the doors, for recycling. The county doesn’t accept plastic bags in its curbside recycling program, because they tangle and damage sorting equipment and can contaminate other kinds of recyclable plastic.

Studies have shown that plastic bag taxes can lead customers to sharply drop their plastic bag use.

Other individuals who argued against the plastic bag tax cited its potential impact on low-income county residents and sanitary concerns.

Maureen Brody said she goes out every week to clean roadways and rarely finds plastic bags but does find another form of trash: face masks.

Like with sales taxes, Virginia will collect the plastic bag tax and then send money back to local municipalities. McKay said he hoped no money would come from it.

“Not one single person in this county has to pay this fee,” McKay said after the public hearing, noting that people can avoid paying the tax by using alternatives.

McKay told FFXnow that the county hasn’t done any estimate on how much revenue it would generate, but any proceeds would supplement existing efforts, which he thought should prioritize litter pickup and getting reusable bags to those in need.

According to a staff report in the board agenda, revenue from the plastic bag tax can be used for environmental clean-up initiatives, including educational programs and pollution and litter mitigation, and to provide reusable bags to recipients of federal food assistance benefits.

Passed by the General Assembly in March 2020, Virginia’s plastic bag tax law notes that, if a city or county chooses to implement the tax, businesses could technically still give plastic bags to customers for free. However, those companies would still have to pay the tax for each bag.

In a move to encourage business to collect the money, those affected can keep 2 cents per bag until Jan. 1, 2023. After that, the dealer discount will drop to 1 cent per bag.

Photo via Ivan Radic/Flickr

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A nurse treats an inmate in an opioid prevention program (via Fairfax County)

Fairfax County has provided drug or mental health treatment services to more than 2,100 people who would have otherwise wound up in jail since launching a diversion initiative five years ago, a recent report on the program says.

Released in August, the 2020 annual Diversion First report suggests the county’s efforts to emphasize support services over incarceration for people with mental health and substance use challenges are starting to pay off.

According to the report, Fairfax County’s jail population saw a 28% decrease from 2015 to 2020 in the number of people with behavioral health issues and misdemeanor charges, while the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s Merrifield Crisis Response Center received 37% more cases per year between 2016 and 2020.

Since Diversion First launched on Jan. 1, 2016, total calls for service involving mental illness with police response have risen every year, from 3,566 calls in 2016 to 9,989 in 2020. It wasn’t immediately clear whether that means the number of cases has increased or they are receiving more attention.

“Over the past several years, there has been increased attention on people with mental illness, co-occurring substance use disorders and/or developmental disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system for low-level offenses,” Diversion First Director Lisa Potter said in a statement. “In addition, training and screening has increased, allowing for greater opportunities for identification, diversion, and referral and engagement in services.”

Fairfax County created the initiative in the wake of Natasha McKenna’s death at the Adult Detention Center in February 2015. Multiple sheriff’s deputies at the jail hit and used a Taser on McKenna, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, when attempting to transfer her to another facility.

While prosecutors declined to press charges in McKenna’s death, the county admitted that its jail had “become a warehouse for people with mental illness.”

“Diversion First offers alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness, co-occurring substance use disorders and/or developmental disabilities, who come into contact with the criminal justice system for low-level offenses,” the initiative’s website says.

Diversion First has expanded from its initial focus on transferring individuals from police custody to the Merrifield Center, which provides behavioral health and substance abuse services, to also encompass housing and judicial components.

Introduced in 2017, the housing aspects of the initiative include money to assist with initial rents and deposits for Oxford House group recovery homes as well as a partnership with the nonprofit New Hope Housing to provide permanent housing.

“The [New Hope Housing] program has been successful in keeping 30 individuals housed while helping to decrease their rate of psychiatric hospitalization and time spent in jail. This program costs considerably less than what it does to house an individual in jail — more than 50% less,” the 2020 report says, adding that 39 people have been served with this outreach throughout the program’s history.

The county has also added specialty dockets to its court system for veterans, mental health, and a drug court.

Fairfax County Chief Public Defender Dawn Butorac says all three dockets have been going well, as the courts are looking to expand the number of accepted individuals. But she notes there’s room for improvement.

“We see plenty of people who come into our system who…should have been diverted to Merrifield, but because it’s left to the individual discretion of each police officer, it’s not really uniformly applied,” Butorac said.

At a recent drug court, adults involved in a drug rehabilitation program talked about their progress and challenges with a judge in conversations that more closely resembled those between a patient and therapist than a typical court hearing.

“How have things been going since we last saw you in court?” Judge Dontaè Bugg said when seeing one participant, a query he echoed throughout his introductions with each person.

Bugg talked to participants one by one, cross-examined them when their statements conflicted, and when the circumstances arose, encouraged them to be truthful with program staff. He noted that participants can sometimes find the process frustrating but encouraged and thanked them when they were honest about relapses.

Launched in September 2018, the drug court is for people who were convicted of a nonviolent crime and violated their probation due to substance abuse. In lieu of jail time, they are given drug testing and counseling requirements and will have their probation terminated if they successfully graduate from the program.

The docket allows for some flexibility, as Bugg demonstrated when accommodating a participant who had sought to visit his grandmother for her birthday. The judge noted the program was able to pivot.

Like the rest of the county’s court system, the specialty dockets were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting Court Services staff’s normal support of clients as in-person meetings were temporarily halted, according to the 2020 Diversion First report.

Potter noted that pandemic-related stressors have led to increased anxiety and depression for many people, and people with mental illnesses can be more vulnerable to stressors than compared to the general population.

“We are closely monitoring trends to assess the impacts of the pandemic, as well as overall community needs,” Potter wrote. “Now more than ever, Diversion First programs are essential in our community.”

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An illustration of a coronavirus (via CDC/Unsplash)

After a one-week drop back into “substantial” territory, Fairfax County is once again seeing high levels of COVID-19 transmission.

For the week of Sept. 5-11, the county saw 111 new cases per 100,000 residents, and 4.1% of tests came back positive for COVID-19 — the two metrics used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health to measure the level of community spread.

While the testing positivity rate remains low, the number of cases per 100,000 people has climbed over the 100-case threshold for high transmission.

Fairfax County has high levels of COVID-19 community transmission as of Sept. 13, 2021 (via Virginia Department of Health)

The rise stems in part from the addition of 286 cases on Friday (Sept. 10), the most new infections that the county has seen in one day since 397 new cases were reported on Feb. 13, according to VDH data. Feb. 21 came close with 283 cases.

As a result, Fairfax County is now averaging 184.4 new cases per day for the past week, surpassing the summer high of 182.6 cases on Aug. 30. The seven-day average is still below the spring peak of 194.4 cases recorded on April 13.

With 130 more cases coming in today (Monday), 86,347 residents of the Fairfax Health District — which includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church — have contracted the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 4,250 people have been hospitalized, and 1,170 people have died, according to the Fairfax County Health Department’s dashboard.

Fairfax County COVID-19 cases over the past 180 days as of Sept. 13, 2021 (via VDH)
All Fairfax County COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 13, 2021 (via VDH)

As the particularly contagious Delta variant keeps driving up COVID-19 cases statewide, the VDH announced last Tuesday (Sept. 7) that it has added more than 170 community testing events across the Commonwealth in response to an increase in people seeking to get tested.

That increase extends to the Fairfax Health District, which received more test results in the week of Aug. 29 than any other week since Jan. 24. Testing declined the following week of Sept. 5 leading into Labor Day weekend.

COVID-19 tests remain widely available in Fairfax County from primary care providers, health clinics, and a variety of other community testing sites, such as pharmacies. The county recommends that anyone experiencing symptoms or who has come in close contact with someone that tested positive for COVID-19 get tested, regardless of their vaccination status.

Fairfax County’s COVID-19 testing by week as of Sept. 13, 2021 (via Fairfax County Health Department)

However, the majority of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in Virginia continue to occur in unvaccinated people, who have developed the disease at 8.5 times the rate of fully vaccinated individuals since mid-January, according to the VDH.

In the Fairfax Health District, 793,392 people have gotten at least one vaccine dose. That constitutes 67% of all residents, including 79.2% of people 18 and older, but it also means just 1,457 more people have gotten a shot since Tuesday.

719,571 Fairfax Health District residents — 72.2% of adults and 60.8% of the overall population — are fully vaccinated.

Local, state, and federal officials have taken an increasingly hardline approach in recent weeks to urging the remaining eligible unvaccinated Americans to get their shot.

President Joe Biden announced a host of new vaccine mandates on Thursday (Sept. 9), including ordering all employers with at least 100 workers to require COVID-19 vaccinations or weekly testing.

“President Biden’s directive to employers with 100 or more employees to require their employees to be vaccinated will build more momentum for COVID-19 vaccination in the private sector. VDH echoes that call,” Virginia State Health Commissioner Dr. M. Norman Oliver said in a statement.

Oliver noted that many major employers in Virginia, including the state government, have already issued mandates.

The Fairfax County government and public school system announced on Aug. 20 that they will require staff to get vaccinated or face weekly testing, though the exact timing of when those requirements will take effect remains nebulous.

Private employers in the county that have implemented vaccine requirements include Capital One, Inova Health System, Google, and Microsoft.

“With the U.S. averaging close to 150,000 cases and about 1,500 deaths per day, primarily attributable to the Delta variant, it is imperative we do all we can to beat back this surge,” Oliver said.

Photo via CDC/Unsplash

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