Harrisonburg City Council members unanimously voted to name Juneteenth a city holiday Thursday in a special emergency meeting.
Juneteenth, commemorated annually on June 19, marks the date slavery ended in Texas — the last Confederate state to recognize the end of the Civil War, which concluded two months prior in April of 1865. The holiday, also referred to as Emancipation Day, is celebrated with parades, songs, cookouts and readings of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
The council’s action follows Governor Ralph Northam’s (D) announcement Tuesday that he’ll introduce legislation to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday. Northam decreed Friday a paid day off for executive branch state employees, tagging Virginia as the second state to observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees after Texas did so in 1980.
Juneteenth joins the list of 13 city holidays observed in Harrisonburg this year. City offices were closed Friday as a result of the council’s decision.
The vote comes on the heels of several community protests attended by thousands in response to a police officer killing George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Mayor Deeana Reed called for the emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon.
“By formally observing Juneteenth, the city of Harrisonburg will signal our commitment to dismantling racial inequities,” Reed said. “The work before us is the work of justice. Inequality can’t be allowed to persist. We must celebrate freedom.”
Reed said she hopes that the council’s act will encourage local businesses, schools, universities, faiths and other city residents to conduct conversations about racial injustice and reflect on necessary changes.
In another unanimous vote, the council passed a resolution to protect local poultry processing workers.
The resolution urged the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board to approve the emergency regulations and standards developed by Jewel Bronaugh, the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. The board will decide on issuing the standards to protect workers on Wednesday.
Guidance specific to poultry processing plants includes configuring workstations and communal workspaces so workers are placed at least six feet apart with physical barriers, such as strip curtains or plexiglass. Additionally, Bronaugh recommended that plants consult with a heating and air conditioning engineer to ensure adequate ventilation in work areas, install additional clock-in stations, establish touch-free handwashing stations and use outside tents for break and lunch areas.
Bronaugh also suggested periodic worksite assessments to identify COVID-19 risks and prevention strategies, such as point prevalence surveys where all workers in a plant are tested. Point prevalence surveys haven’t been conducted in the Shenandoah Valley, so the resolution states that the exact number of infections is unknown. The resolution proclaims that this lack of information is “dangerous for our community.”
About 10,000 Shenandoah Valley residents work in the area’s meat and poultry processing plants, according to the resolution. Within the seven plants located in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, 335 poultry workers have tested positive for COVID-19 as of June 17.
Of the 1,163 cases of COVID-19 in the Shenandoah Valley, Latino residents account for 42% of positive cases. Virginia State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said the disproportionate number of Latino individuals testing positive for COVID-19 in the Shenandoah Valley is “probably related to the poultry plants.”
At the council meeting held on May 26, 13 city residents phoned into the meeting to voice their fear for poultry plant workers’ safety. Callers said that hundreds of poultry workers line up elbow-to-elbow in the local plants. A few callers were local activists who formed a grassroots organization called Community Solidarity with Poultry Workers. One resident dialed in on behalf of her friend whose family of poultry plant workers was “devastated” by the pandemic, with seven members of her family contracting the virus, two who were hospitalized in critical condition and one who died.
Vice Mayor Sal Romero said he drafted the resolution to heed the callers’ demands.
“It’s very possible that we’ll get a second wave,” Romero said. “These accountability measures will ensure that our workers across the different sectors — especially those that are more vulnerable — will be protected.”
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.