In latest round of COVID-19 business, council outlines CARES Act money and gets briefings on JMU and EMU

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The Harrisonburg City Council on Tuesday took up several tactics to mitigate the effects of the pandemic: a plan for how to distribute more than $3 million more in federal CARES Act funding, an emergency ordinance to allow the Open Doors shelter to open October 1, as well as protocols to slow the virus’  transmission among college students. 

The council unanimously approved a drafted budget for spending the second $4.6 million in CARES Act funds the city received from the federal government. The plan divvies up $3.1 million and places in reserve the other $1.5 million for future needs that have not yet been identified.

The plan, created by city staff and an advisory task force, prioritizes assistance to nonprofit organizations, childcare facilities, businesses and residents who are struggling to make ends meet.

Deputy City Manager Ande Banks said the task force looked at how the first package of federal funds was spent and asked, “where are we missing the needs in our community?” 

The plan’s top priorities to fund includes:

  • $800,000 for local nonprofits,
  • $500,000 for childcare assistance,
  • And $250,000 for businesses
  • $250,000 for rent and mortgage relief
  • And $250,000 for improving internet access for students for distance learning.

Banks told the council that “this work will continue as we work through the eligibility” of what specifically can be funded under the CARES Act regulations. The council is expected to vote on a more specific allocation plan at the next meeting, Oct. 13.

The second tier of funding priorities in the plan includes:

  • $200,000 to health clinics to facilitate the transition to telemedicine appointments,
  • $150,000 to homelessness services,
  • $100,000 each to food and utility assistance programs for local residents, and
  • $120,000 split between legal assistance, COVID-19 medical expenses for local residents, museums and artists, and interpretation services to help locals access pandemic-related resources. 

The council also stepped in to assist with the logistics of sheltering homeless residents amid the pandemic, and unanimously passed an emergency ordinance to allow the thermal shelter Open Doors to operate out of the First Church of the Brethren from Oct. 1-Dec. 31. 

Open Doors typically rotates between city and county churches on a weekly basis during the colder months, City Attorney Chris Brown said, but that won’t be possible this year due to COVID-19. 

Previously, First Church of the Brethren would not have been permitted to operate a shelter due to zoning restrictions. However, the city charter authorizes the council to enact an emergency ordinance that supersedes zoning rules to “secure the inhabitants of the city from contagious, infectious, or other dangerous diseases,” Brown explained.

The homeless “are particularly in danger this time of year and with the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

University leaders optimistic about ‘stopping the spread’

The council also heard updates from leaders of James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University on their pandemic response plans going forward.

“I understand the fear factor” among local residents seeing the case numbers rise, said Council member Chris Jones. “Getting back to normal means our student residents would be here.”

JMU President Jonathan Alger said after the initial spike that caused the university to send home most on-campus students and move to online learning until October, cases are decreasing. He pointed to the number of recovered cases since July 1 – a total of 1,313, as compared to 132 active cases – as evidence that the numbers are headed in the right direction.

“We acted quickly and decisively to stop the spread” early in the semester, Alger said. 

The university is also introducing “surveillance testing,” and will begin testing 300 students at random every week to try and identify cases among those who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic.

Kristina Blyer, JMU’s interim director of student health services, said even with the spike in cases, most students haven’t needed any medical services in their recovery and, thus, are not stressing the local healthcare system. 

“The vast majority of student cases are either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic,” Blyer said. She added that the main source of transmission hasn’t been classrooms — but social gatherings among students.

“I know student behavior is a concern,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller. “The vast majority of our students have listened and have been doing the right things, but some have not.”

As for those who have not heeded gathering restrictions and other health protocols, Miller said 290 students are going through the university’s disciplinary process. He said 45 have already been held responsible for minor infractions and are going through restorative justice or probationary processes. Another 24 students who were granted exemptions to stay on campus this past month have been forced to leave after hosting gatherings. Five students have been disciplined for hosting large events.

Altogether, Miller said, “it’s been a quiet September for larger events,” and it’s more common for small groups to hold “pocket parties” that, while could still be possible sites of transmission, aren’t the “superspreader” events the university is most worried about.

Miller said JMU has increased carry-out options in the dining halls on campus (including the new Starship delivery robots), and contacted landlords, asking them to reduce occupancy at fitness centers and other shared spaces in off-campus housing complexes. 

Eastern Mennonite University’s President Susan Schultz Huxman told the council they currently have two active cases and seven students in quarantine. An additional safety protocol they’ve instituted since starting in-person classes on Sept. 3 is to only allow carry-out meals from the dining hall. 

Also in the meeting:

  • City Manager Eric Campbell announced that free COVID-19 testing will be available by appointment on Friday from 7:30-10:30 a.m. at Hillandale Park. To be eligible, patients must be symptomatic or have had close contact with someone with the virus. To register, call the local health department at 540-574-5102 by 2 p.m. Thursday.
  • Reed announced that the Charlotte Harris historical marker will be unveiled Saturday at 10 a.m. via livestream on the city’s Facebook page. The marker helps “make sure that stories such as Charlotte Harris’s are told truthfully,” Reed said, and that the woman who was murdered by a lynch mob in 1878 is given “the dignity and respect that she deserves.” 
  • The council voted unanimously to begin a public engagement process to name the shared use path that will connect Harrisonburg High School to Hillandale Park, Thomas Harrison Middle School, and Westover Park. An online survey for residents to suggest names will be available some time in October.
  • The council unanimously appointed Christine Fasching-Maphis, Kevin Coffman, and Luciano Benjamin to the board overseeing the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

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