After delaying our region’s entry originally scheduled for May 15th, residents here in this politically blue haven can now breathe a sigh of relief. Though our region is getting a semblance of freedom, there’s a big caveat: the entire state is subject to a mandatory mask rule, effective today.
On Tuesday, Governor Ralph Northam issued an edict mandating mask-wearing statewide. Virginians must wear them in public indoor places—despite Northam being caught maskless and not adhering to his own social distancing recommendations in Virginia Beach over the holiday weekend.
Executive Order 63 stipulates that all Commonwealth patrons “aged ten and over shall when entering, exiting, traveling through, and spending time inside the settings” wear masks.
Failure to comply is punishable by law as a Class 1 misdemeanor, resulting in up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. The Virginia Department of Health, not local law enforcement, is undertaking enforcement duties.
“We’re not talking about someone who forgets their mask,” Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said at Tuesday’s press conference. “This is for businesses who would be grossly negligent in refusing to adopt this policy.”
This mandate will place more undue burdens on Virginia business owners who are already barely making it. Lawmakers, organizations, and editorial boards agree this new rule is problematic and unenforceable.
“As businesses continue to adapt to the current environment and restrictions associated with Phase One of the “Forward Virginia” plan, it is unreasonable to hold them accountable for the enforcement of this new mandate, which could create unsafe situations for workers tasked with confronting non-compliant customers,” said Barry DuVal, Virginia Chamber President and CEO, in a statement.
“The Virginia Chamber continues to strongly encourage the use of face coverings to prioritize the safety of our citizens, but is deeply concerned by the burden the enforcement of this mandate will place on the thousands of businesses throughout the Commonwealth.”
The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police also issued a statement warning Northam about the “unintended negative consequences” of the mandate.
“Law enforcement agencies do not have the resources to place officers at the entrance to or inside every open business to enforce a mask order,” said Dana Schrad, the organization’s executive director. “It will be up to the businesses and their untrained employees to confront someone who isn't wearing a mask to either compel the violators to wear a mask or expel them from the premises. As we have seen in other states, this has led to confrontations between businesses and their customers, even in one case leading to a shooting death at a Dollar Store.”
Schrad added, “Virginia's police chiefs strongly encourage you NOT to issue a mask mandate. Please leave this decision up to the business community and our local governments to make this determination for the citizens we serve.”
Most Virginians have no qualms wearing masks when it is reasonable or if they are sick. But many of those who are cautious believe this goes too far. Some are suggesting people will skip over places like Virginia Beach for Carolina beaches if this carries over into summer.
Seth Connell, a Virginia Beach-based financial coach, said this new mandate inhibits him from effectively working with his clients.
“I meet with my clients in-person and a large amount of our communication is non-verbal and shared by facial expression,” Connell said. “This [mask rule] inhibits me from counseling people effectively because I’m only able to see part of what’s going on inside my client’s mind and heart.”
Many of Connell’s financial coaching clients, including business owners, have felt severe direct impacts.
“I was counseling a salon owner who was not allowed to work. Another had his job suspended at least until June, but who knows if it will still be there. How are people supposed to eat like this?”
One Staunton-based wedding DJ told the News Leader, "I think wearing masks won’t allow people to be more comfortable in these social settings, just scare them into being more distant."
Mark Williams, owner of Doomsday Tactical Supply in Roanoke, told WSLS the governor’s order is impractical and hard to enforce, citing existing law on concealed carry and face coverings.
“I mean, if you feel like you don't want to be around somebody that doesn't have a mask on, then don't go around those people,” Williams said. “If we put a mask on and carry a firearm, we're committing a felony which takes our gun rights away.”
Businesses are free to decide whether to impose a mask policy. Many businesses in liberal Charlottesville are encouraging mask-wearing and that’s their right. I suspect businesses in the more conservative Virginia Beach may take a laissez-faire approach and be respected for it.
Virginia businesses are already struggling to survive, and this mask mandate further complicates reopening efforts. According to a May 22nd Virginia Employment Commission report, unemployment rose from 3.3% in March to 10.6% in April.
Can you imagine the health department penalizing businesses by going full throttle with this? What would constitute an egregious violation of Executive Order 63 and who determines that? Karens and similar snitches? This has disaster written all over it.
Governor Northam’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has received poor marks and deservedly so—most notably an “F” rating from the Wall Street Journal. He does nothing to inspire confidence in our state government or ameliorate fears about the pandemic.
If you’re unhappy with Northam and his party’s handling of the coronavirus, make your voices heard. Vote them out. Don’t award his party any more victories here—especially during next year’s statewide election.
Reopening Virginia is not about getting haircuts; it’s about stopping a precipitous decline into unprecedented poverty and suffering.