Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday he hopes Virginians will “do the right thing” and comply with his executive order mandating face coverings inside public spaces starting tomorrow, Friday, May 29 -- the same day Northern Virginia will join the rest of the state in phase 1 of the commonwealth’s phased reopening.
But both Northam and his attorney, Rita Davis, said it’s not the governor’s intention to involve local police, sheriff’s deputies or even business owners in enforcing the order, although business owners will be encouraged “to explain to their patrons why wearing a mask is important” and can deny service to customers who don’t comply, the governor said.
Northam’s Executive Order 63 will be enforced by the Virginia Department of Health, which has two options regarding the order, Davis said. VDH officials can pursue a civil process to ask a judge to issue an injunction against an individual or business owner flouting the order. Or, a warrant could be issued by a magistrate, Davis said.
“But even then, only gross, egregious and repeated conduct in violation of the order should rise to the attention of the Virginia Department of Health,” she said.
“It should not be the responsibility of the Virginia Department of health to ensure you are wearing your mask. And it should not be the responsibility of law enforcement or a business to make sure you are wearing a face covering,” Davis added. “Rather, it is the personal responsibility of each and every one of us to comply with Executive Order 63. It is the right thing to do. And it’s the right thing to do to protect oneself, to protect one’s family and your fellow Virginians.”
The rule requires all people age 10 and over to wear face-coverings inside public businesses, including retail stores and personal care salons, as well as on public transportation and in public buildings. Exceptions include when people are eating or drinking and for those who have a health condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, such as asthma or COPD, Northam said.
The discussion of the rule and how it would be enforced comes amid criticism from Republican state lawmakers and others who say the mask rule puts an undue burden on business owners who are already reeling from COVID-19 crisis.
Republicans in both Virginia’s House of Delegates and state Senate issued statements critical of the mandate shortly after it was initially announced Tuesday.
The House GOP’s statement said, in part: “It is unconscionable to require businesses to enforce a government mandate under threat of sanction from government agencies. This puts yet another burden on businesses already reeling from months of being shut down or severely limited.”
The face-covering mandate coincides with date that all of Virginia will be permitted to enter phase 1 of the state’s reopening phases. That includes Northern Virginia, where the move was delayed for two weeks because the region’s number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths has been higher than the rest of the state. The region accounts for about two-thirds of the state’s cases of COVID-19 and deaths.
Northam said Thursday that the entire state would remain in phase 1 until at least Friday, June 5, as state officials continue to examine the health data to determine if the state is ready to move into phase 2. The rules under phase 2, however, have yet to be released.
Northam also said all public beaches – not just Virginia Beach – would be allowed to open for recreational activities on Friday with the current restrictions in place. Beachgoers must maintain social distancing and are still not permitted to drink alcohol, use tents, gather in groups larger than 10 or play group sports.
When asked what business owners should do if customers don’t comply with the mask rule, Northam shared his own experience as a business owner and advised they should ask patrons to comply and provide a mask for those who don’t have them.
He also noted that business owners could call security or law-enforcement if a confrontation arises. But he emphasized he hopes it won’t come to that.
“The intent of this is to do the right thing to protect people around you. It’s not to lock people up and put them in jail,” Northam added. “I would just tell you personally, as a business owner, if someone comes into my office and doesn’t have a mask, I would, in a very nice way say, ‘Would you mind wearing a mask for the safety of all of us in this office?’ And as a matter of fact, that’s what we have done, and people have been very cooperative.”
Northam stopped short of saying business owners would be held accountable in any way if they decide to serve non-compliant customers.
“We don’t want businesses to be in the practice of enforcing this. It’s an awkward position for them to be in, and we certainly don’t want confrontations to occur,” Northam said. “So, I think, again, I would ask people to do the right thing and think of others and we’ll move forward like that.”
When asked how he would respond to those who reject the mask order for political reasons, Northam, a Democrat, said it’s time to “put the politics aside, put the jabs aside and just be part of the solution. And that’s what I encourage Virginians to do.”
He also noted the economy won’t recover until consumers feel it’s safe to return to shops and restaurants.
“We’re in the middle of a health crisis. We’re also in the middle of an economic crisis. As soon as we can get the health crisis behind us, our economy will rebound and we’ll get back to, hopefully, where we were before COVID-19,” Northam said.
“…There are many Virginians who are following the guidelines and want to protect themselves and want to protect others, and so I would just encourage businesses to keep that in mind. If consumers are on the sidewalk or wherever and don’t feel comfortable going into a place of business, they’re not going to go, and nobody is forcing their hand to go.”
Northam also took time during his press conference to remember the victims of the Virginia Beach shooting, the first anniversary of which will be Sunday, May 31. Northam read all 12 victims’ names aloud and asked for a moment of silence.
Northam also noted that 1,338 Virginians had so far died from COVID-19 as of Friday, the same day the country reached a grim milestone of the pandemic: the nation counted its 100,000th COVID-19 fatality Thursday evening.
“They were all individuals with their own stories, and it’s important to remember they are not just numbers. They are real people,” Northam said. “They are our friends; they are our neighbors; and they are our loved ones. And that’s why we work every day to limit the spread of this virus and keep Virginia healthy and safe.”
Finally, Northam said he would have more news to share on Tuesday regarding state guidelines for youth sports and the possible reopening of Virginia’s public schools.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure your children can get back into the classroom and get back there safely,” he said.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com