Northam orders Virginians to wear face masks in public spaces, with exceptions

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginians will be required to wear protective masks or face coverings in public spaces starting Friday under a statewide mandate issued by Governor Ralph Northam.

The order will apply to anyone age 10 or older using public transportation, accessing government services or entering a business where social distancing guidelines cannot be followed. These include restaurants, retail shops, personal care and grooming establishments.

There are a few exceptions to Northam’s order. People won’t be required to wear masks while eating, drinking and exercising. People who have heath conditions that prohibit face coverings, those who have trouble breathing or can’t remove a mask without help will also be exempt.

Northam said he hasn’t decided how long the mandate will last. He’s also yet to make a decision on requiring masks in schools if they do start up again this fall.

The governor said that his administration is working to gather masks for at-risk residents, citing issues of equity.

The mandate will be enforced by health officials, not law enforcement, according to Northam.

“This is a matter of public health, and as a result, any enforcement that is needed will be done by our health officials,” Northam explained. “Our law enforcement, our police and our sheriffs, will not have a role in enforcing this. I’m not looking for people to get in trouble by not wearing a mask, but I am looking for people to please do the right thing.”

The announcement comes after the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation opposed the mask mandate. The group said law enforcement agencies don’t have the resources to make sure people follow the rules and leaving enforcement up to businesses could lead to dangerous confrontations.

Wearing a mask, social distancing and limited trips outside the home are the best advice we can give Virginians, and we should continue to recommend these prevention measures.  However, turning good advice into a mandate that has to be enforced with trespassing citations and physical removal of violators destroys police/community relations and puts business owners in a no-win situation: either be prepared to confront people you value as customers, or avoid the risk of a potentially violent confrontation by keeping your business closed.

Dana Schrad, Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation Executive Director

Northam’s Chief of Staff Clark Mercer said the Virginia Department of Health has the power to pull licenses from businesses for egregious violations. He said The Department of Labor & Industry can shut down private sites for violations as well.

Mercer said Attorney General Mark Herring has weighed in on the governor’s authority to enforce the mandate. He said Herring informed Northam that his only avenue is through the criminal code, carrying a possible punishment of jail time or a hefty fine. Northam has requested that the General Assembly consider establishing civil fines for violations.

On Saturday, Northam was criticized for going to Virginia Beach without a mask. A spokeswoman for Northam stated the governor was not expecting to be in close proximity to residents during the visit.

Northam addressed the criticism during Tuesday’s briefing. “I take full responsibility for that. People held me accountable and I appreciate that. In the future when I’m out in the public I will be better prepared,” he said.

On Wednesday, several high-ranking Republicans issued a statement opposing Northam’s mask mandate. It said, in part:

“We are deeply concerned about Governor Northam’s actions today. 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.

“Throughout this episode, the Governor has acted inconsistently. Through his own actions the Governor has squandered his capital as a physician whose advice people would be willing to follow. Virginians would be much more likely to follow the suggestions of a leader who instills confidence and leads with consistency.”

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah
House Republican Caucus Chair Kathy Byron, R-Bedford
House Republican Whip Jay Leftwich, R-Chesapeake

WATCH: Tuesday’s full coronavirus briefing with Gov. Northam, state health officials

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