Ralph Northam’s Power Play: Part Two

by Kerry Dougherty

This is getting to be a bad habit.

For the second Monday in a row Governor Ralph Northam kicked off the week with a heavy-handed executive order. This one was a body blow to the Virginia Beach economy.

Last week the governor prematurely closed all schools – public and private –  for the remainder of the academic year.

This Monday Northam issued a stay-at-home order for the entire commonwealth and closed Virginia’s spectacular beaches to swimmers and sunbathers until June 10.

(Note: At 10 Wednesday morning, the city issued a correction, that said swimming was not prohibited.)

An absurd 10 weeks from now.

Northam decided to keep his order in place past Memorial Day – a potentially catastrophic move for the Virginia Beach tourism industry – without even warning Virginia Beach officials of the timeline.

When I talked to him yesterday afternoon, Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer told me that Northam phoned him Monday morning to express his distress at reports that large groups congregated on the beaches over the warm weekend.

Dyer said they discussed “things in general” and he feared “the governor was going to shut everything down.” The mayor said he pointed out to Northam how important it was that residents be allowed to exercise and fish on the public beaches.

I asked Dyer if Northam had warned him that the beach closings would extend through June 10th, essentially killing Memorial Day for the Resort City and devastating the city’s tourist industry.

“No, he never mentioned a date,” Dyer said.

That’s an astonishing level of arrogance. The very definition of tyrannical government.

I warned you that Northam was spoon-feeding his despotic plans to the public. Some of you didn’t believe me.

Dyer told me Monday that he’d seen pictures on social media of large groups on the beaches and that he drove around the city last weekend to see for himself. Dyer said most of the people on the Resort Strip seemed to be observing appropriate social distances. On Chick’s Beach and at Mt. Trashmore, not so much.

As a result, Dyer issued a terse statement Saturday warning people to adhere to social distancing requirements and rules that forbid folks from gathering in groups larger than 10.

On Sunday, President Trump extended guidelines for Americans to stay home through the end of April, while holding out hope that the country would be on the way toward containing the virus and reopening businesses by then.

Twenty-four hours later, however, the governor of Virginia crushed those hopes when he issued his own draconian stay-at-home order lasting into June.

In one swift move, the impulsive Northam turned the Resort City’s favorite pastimes – swimming and sunbathing – into Class 1 misdemeanors, punishable by one year in jail or a $2,500 fine or both.

Yup, just as the sheriff is trying to get criminals out of the city jail, the governor is ready to toss sunbathers in.

Apologists for Northam were on social media Monday claiming that the governor had reserved the right to end the order before June 10 if the pandemic recedes.

Dare to dream, children.

Some of us are simply wondering which of our civil rights Northam plans to trample next.

Virginia is not the only state with a governor using the coronavirus as justification for enacting oppressive measures. And no, we should not be mollified because Northam’s approach is slightly less dictatorial than that of the Czar of Maryland or the Czarina of Washington DC.

It’s all excessive.

In a provocative Boston Globe Sunday column, “A Civil Liberties Pandemic: Where Is The Debate About The Toll Being Taken On Americans’ Freedom And Constitutional Rights?” Jeff Jacoby points out that while governors are wantonly exercising “godlike powers,” citizens seem remarkably unconcerned.

It is daunting to realize just how much absolute authority is entrusted to governors and the president once an emergency has been declared. In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker is empowered by state law to “exercise any and all authority over persons and property” in whatever way he deems necessary to cope with the crisis. The law allows him to do virtually anything — from banning weddings to prohibiting travel to commandeering utilities to closing schools to throwing innumerable people out of work by declaring their jobs nonessential. Legislative approval is not required. Nor is a public vote. Nor is there any fixed date on which those godlike powers must be surrendered.

Similarly sweeping emergency powers are available to governors in other states… To be sure, these laws have been on the books for many years. But never have those powers been invoked so extensively across the entire country. Perhaps the governors and the president can be trusted to relinquish their authority to rule by decree the moment the end of the crisis is in sight. But power can be very addicting. Government officials are not always in a hurry to give it back. Especially when it was surrendered so unquestioningly in the first place.

This epidemic may leave the economy in tatters, but economies grow back. Let us hope it doesn’t shred our civil liberties and democratic norms before it runs its course. Those aren’t so easy to regrow.

Here’s a thought. With the kids home from school this is the perfect time to find a copy of the U.S. Constitution and teach them about what our Founding Fathers so quaintly referred to as “inalienable” rights.

When you’re finished, mail your copy to the governor.

Note: There are updates to this post. The city of Virginia Beach issued a statement saying swimming, surfing and paddle boarding were permitted because they were exercise. Guess that means no standing in the breakers. You’d better be SWIMMING.)

This column was published originally at www.kerrydougherty.com.