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Northam clarifies enforcement of mask order

Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday sought to clarify the mask order set to go into effect Friday, saying he doesn’t want law enforcement or businesses to have to enforce wearing them, and that the state would only go after the most egregious violations.

Rita Davis, counsel to the governor, said the enforcement mechanism of Northam’s order is not a new process, but rather a statutory process in which all public health emergencies are enforced. It has been used five times previously in public health emergencies.

While there are two avenues — an injunction or a warrant issued by a magistrate — the Virginia Department of Health can use to enforce the order, she said only “gross, egregious and repeated conduct in violation of the order” should get the state health department’s attention. The governor issued the order to wear masks in an effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, but residents across the state have balked at having to wear a mask even as many others are heeding recommendations to wear them.

Though initially the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against wearing masks, those recommendations have changed and both now advise wearing them to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, as previous recommendations came before much was known about the asymptomatic spread of the virus. A number of recent studies have recommended the use of masks as a tool to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, though some previous studies have cast doubt on their effectiveness.

The CDC recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain … especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

“What is important to remember in all of this is that it should not be the responsibility of the Virginia Department of Health to make sure you are wearing your mask,” Davis said Thursday. “And it certainly should not be the responsibility of law enforcement or a business to make sure you are wearing a face covering.

“Rather, it is the personal responsibility of each and every one of us to comply with (the order). 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 Mayo Clinic recommends that people wearing a mask place it over the mouth and nose and then tie it behind their head or use ear loops and make sure it is snug. It also advises people not to touch the mask while wearing it, and if you do so accidentally, to wash or sanitize your hands.

People should remove their masks by untying it or lifting off the ear loops without touching the front of the mask or one’s face, then wash their hands. Masks should be washed regularly with soap and water in the washing machine, and it can be washed with other clothes.

Exceptions to mask wearing will be made for those who have trouble breathing or cannot remove a mask without help and for children under 3 years old. They should not be used as a substitute for social distancing. The governor’s order calls for those over the age of 10 to wear masks inside public spaces, with children from 3 to 9 encouraged to if they can.

Northam, asked about whether businesses are having to choose between health or wealth, said that being in the middle of a health and economic crisis compounds the issue. He said the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is consumer-driven, and that many are following the state guidelines.

“…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 prior to COVID-19,” Northam said, “but until we can get the health crisis under control and behind us, our economy is never going to recover completely.”

Northam said if a business asks a customer to wear a mask, and that person refuses, he said the business can deny them service, but he expects that many businesses will have masks to offer customers who come without one.

“I don’t want businesses to be in the practice of enforcing this,” Northam said. “It’s an awkward position for them to be in, and I certainly don’t want confrontations to occur.”

Elaborating on that later in his Thursday press briefing, Northam said if a person repeatedly chooses not to wear a mask, the business owner should report it to the state department of health to handle from that point. He said if a situation becomes confrontational, he would call security, and law enforcement could be involved at that point — not for not wearing a mask but rather for being confrontational.

Those not wearing a mask for medical reasons can go into a business, Northam said, but they still have to maintain social distancing.

The governor agreed with an assessment that the idea of wearing a mask in public has become politicized. He said the jabs and politics need to be put aside.

“We need to get the politics out of this,” Northam said. “This is about a health crisis. It’s about taking care, making sure other people are safe, and it’s about getting the health crisis behind us so we can move forward with our economic recovery. And so … I can’t lead everybody to the water, but I’m going to lead as many people as I can.”

“The only way we’re going to get through this is to put the politics aside, put the jabs aside and just be part of the solution,” Northam said, “and that’s what I encourage Virginians to do.”

More info:

For more information about the governor’s order to require face masks in public places, go to https://www.governor.virginia.gov/media/governorvirginiagov/governor-of-virginia/pdf/FAQ-on-Executive-Order-63-and-Order-of-Public-Health-Emergency-5.pdf.