The Prince William Health District has hired three contractors to help investigate and enforce COVID-19 complaints in the county, Manassas and Manassas Park, officials said.
The new employees, brought on in early February, will make unannounced visits and inspections to businesses that have received complaints about not following COVID-19 guidelines. Each contractor will cover a specific area of the district: east, central and west.
If the contractors witness businesses violating the rules “egregiously,” they can report back to the health department, which can immediately suspend a business’s occupancy permit, according to Patrick Jones, an environmental health specialist for the Prince William Health District.
Jones said the new employees will first visit establishments that are repeat offenders that have had multiple COVID-19 complaints filed against them. The contractors will help educate those businesses about taking COVID-19 precautions and could take enforcement action against them if they do not comply with guidelines.
The health district has received more than 1,800 complaints against businesses and other public places since May, but none have revealed any major public health violations. As a result, the health district has not yet taken action to suspend any permits, Jones said.
Major COVID-19 violations would include overcrowding, patrons not wearing masks and restaurants serving alcohol past 10 p.m., Jones said.
“Everybody has been very cooperative so far. We haven't had like in some areas where they're just refusing to comply,” Jones said.
The health district could have hired contractors to help investigate and enforce COVID-19 violations as early as last fall. Asked why the Prince William Health District did not hire contractors for the job in the fall, Jones said the district only recently “got a viable pool of candidates [who] applied for the positions.”
The more than 1,800 coronavirus-related complaints lodged since last May were mostly related to mask-wearing in area businesses, Jones said. Of those complaints, 602 were lodged about restaurants, 449 were against brick-and-mortar retail stores and 373 were about grocery and convenience stores.
The health district has been “sympathetic” to area businesses that receive complaints because of the financial fallout from the pandemic, Jones said.
“Businesses are hurting,” he added. “We've been very sensitive to that. We've been very sensitive in our approach.”
Jones said an additional 13 complaints were received about violations in Prince William County government buildings. Only one complaint was made during a Prince William Board of County Supervisors meeting regarding a police officer who was allegedly not wearing a mask during a meeting.
Another 19 complaints were received about violations in Prince William County schools, including 15 were about one specific school.
But Jones said those complaints were primarily precautionary; people filed complaints ahead of school functions to ensure that COVID-19 guidelines would be followed.
Jones said that educational outreach and site visits were made to the school by the health district following the complaints. He declined to say, however, which school received the complaints.
Complaints about a failure to follow COVID-19 protocols can be lodged through the Virginia Department of Health's online complaint portal here.
State guidelines and requirements for all businesses in Phase 3 of reopening can be found here.
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org