United StatesVirginia

Virginia looks to increase COVID-19 mandate enforcement rather than revert to stricter restrictions

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures Monday, May 4, 2020, during a news conference at the state Capitol in Richmond, Va.

(The Center Square) – Rather than moving back to phase two of reopening to combat the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam intends to bolster the enforcement of current rules and make a few additional changes to regulations.

The Virginia Department of Health will hire 100 additional people to ramp up the enforcement of COVID-19-related restrictions, such as face mask requirements and physical distancing. The governor also will direct teams of various licensing agencies to conduct unannounced visits to establishments with the threat of stripping away a business’ license if the business is not following state regulations.

State Health Commissioner Norm Oliver is sending a letter to local health directors reminding them of their authority to enforce the state regulations.

State regulations require businesses to enforce face mask mandates on employees, but not on patrons. During a news conference Tuesday, however, Northam asked businesses to step up enforcement of face mask requirements on patrons and said businesses are allowed to refuse service to those who do not comply.

Republicans accused Northam of putting additional burdens on businesses.

“When the governor first issued his mask mandate in May, Virginians were assured that it was not up to businesses to enforce this rule,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement. “Today, the governor has reversed course, telling businesses that ‘their licenses will be on the line’ if they do not enforce the mask mandate. This mandate puts businesses in an untenable position. To keep their licenses, they must confront customers who choose not to comply.”

Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s press secretary, clarified in an email to The Center Square the governor is asking businesses to be part of the solution, but they are not required to enforce face covering mandates on patrons, and it will not put their licenses at risk. A business could lose its license for not enforcing face mask requirements on employees, allowing bar seating or not keeping tables 6 feet apart.

A patron who refuses to wear a face mask in an indoor public place could be cited by the Virginia Department of Health with the penalty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, Yarmosky said.

The governor did express interest in altering two other regulations. He said he may reduce the capacity limit for group gatherings, and he directed the Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to develop a plan to impose an earlier cutoff for alcohol sales at restaurants.

“This is not political,” Northam said. “This is about our health and well-being, and it’s also about our economy. It’s going to take all of us to move forward safely.”

In a joint statement, Senate Republican leaders criticized the governor’s announcement.

“In the midst of a challenging and struggling economy, Governor Northam today further threatened Virginia businesses with license revocation and closure, either if they or their patrons fail to follow his mandates,” the statement read. “Setting aside the Governor’s abject failure to enforce laws to protect private and government property during last month’s protests, today’s announcement is further evidence this governor is intent on penalizing only the law-abiding. Has the Governor even considered that the rise in positive tests among young adults in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions might be directly related to the large-scale protests he encouraged? He apparently believes that being politically ‘woke’ conveys a special immunity from COVID-19.”

Nicole Riley, the Virginia state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement it’s good the governor is not going back to the previous reopening phases, but she said she worries businesses potentially could face lawsuits if they’re asked to enforce the face mask mandate and should be given legal immunity.

“The restaurant and bar owners in Virginia are just getting back on their feet financially, and we are grateful that the governor opted for enforcement against violators instead of further restricting all businesses in a particular industry,” Riley said. “It is important that any inspections and enforcement actions are fair, and that the enforcing agents give the business owner the benefit of the doubt initially and try to help them understand what is required to comply.”

Additional enforcement measures will be imposed statewide, but focused on Hampton Roads, which has seen a significant uptick in cases and has a higher percentage of cases coming back positive than any other part of the state.

Statewide, the seven-day moving average for percent positivity has increased from a low of 5.9 percent in late June to 6.9 on Friday. In the Eastern region, which accounts for Hampton Roads, the percent positivity went from 3.5 percent on June 10 to 10.1 percent on Friday.

The seven-day moving average for new daily cases has been trending upward since the start of July. In the state, it’s gone from 527 on July 1 to 815 on Tuesday. In the Eastern region, it’s gone from 115.6 on July 1 to 346.9 on Tuesday.

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