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HERRING OUTLINES COVID RESPONSE PRIORITIES AHEAD OF SPECIAL SESSION
~ Proposals will better protect Virginians from price gouging, protect economic relief payments from debt collectors, help keep Virginians in their homes, help keep utilities connected, and ensure safe voting ~
RICHMOND —Attorney General Mark R. Herring today outlined a series of special session priorities to protect Virginians and help them get through the COVID pandemic. Attorney General Herring's priorities include new laws to protect Virginians from price gouging, particularly for PPE, to protect future economic relief payments from getting seized by debt collectors, to support renters, including through an eviction moratorium, to ensure utilities stay connected, and to ensure safe voting.
"This pandemic has revealed new needs, as well as shortcomings in our laws, programs, and policies, and sadly it has exacerbated persistent economic and racial disparities,” said Attorney General Herring. "The special session gives us an opportunity to enact badly needed measures to help mitigate the spread of COVID, protect Virginians, and help our Commonwealth get through this pandemic together. Over the last six months we've worked closely with Gov. Northam and his team to enact and defend COVID safety measures, and now we have the opportunity to work with our colleagues in the legislature to do even more to support Virginians in this incredibly challenging time.”
Attorney General Herring and his team have worked nonstop during the COVID pandemic to protect Virginians and help them get through this crisis. He has won 13 decisions defending Virginia's COVID mitigation efforts, including two lawsuits that directly challenged Virginia's mask requirement. He also successfully petitioned for the first suspension of utility cutoffs, has fought price gouging, warned Virginians of COVID scams, raised awareness of health insurance options for Virginians who have lost their jobs, and urged the Trump Administration to step up its response by coordinating production of PPE and ventilators, initiating a Healthcare.Gov special enrollment period, protecting food assistance, and remaining committed to important air quality standards during a respiratory disease pandemic.
Attorney General Herring's COVID response priorities for the upcoming special session include:
Measures to help Virginians stay in their homes
Attorney General Herring and his team will be working with legislators and stakeholders to enact stronger protections that will help keep more Virginians, especially renters, from experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic and future emergencies.
- Mandatory payment plan. Attorney General Herring will support a mandatory offer of a payment plan based on a tenants' ability to pay prior to initiation of eviction. The plan could last for up to six months and a tenant could only be evicted if they refuse a reasonable payment plan and/or breach the plan without good cause.
- Extending tenant protections to hotel/motel residents during an emergency. Virginians residing in hotels and motels for shorter periods of time generally do not benefit from the protections offered to longer-term renters with a lease. Attorney General Herring will support legislation to extend the traditional eviction protections and other tenant protection rights to hotel/motel residents during a state of emergency, continuing for 90 days after the end of a declared state of emergency.
- Eviction Moratorium. Attorney General Herring will support a legislatively enacted moratorium on terminating residential leases and evicting tenants through April 30, 2021, except in cases where the tenant's behavior poses a threat to the life, health or safety of the landlords or other tenants. In July, Attorney General Herring issued an official opinion outlining protections that currently existed to keep Virginians in their homes, as well as the authority of the legislative, executive, and judicial branch to help keep Virginians in their homes.
Measures to ensure safe voting this fall
Attorney General Herring will work with Governor Northam and legislative leaders to ensure the Commonwealth takes any and all steps necessary to ensure safe voting and free, fair, secure elections this fall. This may include additional funding, expanded opportunities for voting safely by mail, dropbox, or absentee in person, and any other necessary measures to make sure that every Virginian is able to exercise their fundamental right to vote and that their vote counts.
Empower the Governor to suspend utility disconnections
Attorney General Herring will support legislation to empower the Governor, as the Director of Emergency Management for Virginia, to suspend disconnections of utility service providers (water, electricity, natural gas) in appropriate circumstances.
In March, Attorney General Herring filed an emergency petition with the State Corporation Commission seeking a suspension of utility disconnections for non-payment. The SCC enacted such a suspension three days after Attorney General Herring's request and has now extended it through August 31.
Protecting Virginia hospitals, businesses, and consumers from price gouging of PPE and other necessities
Attorney General Herring's Consumer Protection Section has received more than 500 consumer complaints and inquiries regarding suspected price gouging by businesses during the COIVD-19 state of emergency, and sent out more than 150 letters to businesses demanding that they cease any illegal price gouging.
Investigation of these complains has revealed that many retail businesses claim that price increases occurred further up the supply chain with manufacturers or distributors, making it more difficult to address the problem at the retail level.
Attorney General Herring has requested legislation that will amend the Virginia Post-Disaster Anti-Price Gouging Act ("Anti-Price Gouging Act”), Va. Code §§ 59.1-525 through 59.1-529.1, to also apply to manufacturers and distributors that charge unconscionable prices for necessary goods or services during a state of emergency declared by the Governor or President.
In April, Attorney General Herring led a national effort to address price gouging in the PPE supply chain, urging 3M as one of the largest manufacturers of PPE, particularly masks, to do more to address price gouging within its supply and distribution chains that was causing hospitals and healthcare providers to pay exorbitant prices for PPE.
Protect Economic Relief Payments from Debt Collectors During an Emergency
The CARES Act provided economic relief payments to millions of Americans to ensure they could pay bills, get groceries and medicine, and pay other needed expenses, especially for those who were laid off or had reduced hours, but no specific provision of state or federal law explicitly exempted these payments from debt collectors.
To ensure that economic relief payments actually benefit Virginians in need of support rather than debt collectors, Attorney General Herring will advance legislation to exempt state and federal emergency relief payments from garnishment, attachment, and other legal creditor process seizures.
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