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Masks to be required inside public places

Anyone 10 or older will be required to wear a mask inside public places in Virginia beginning Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced.

While it will not be enforced as a criminal matter, Northam said at his Tuesday press briefing that it will be enforced by the Virginia Department of Health. He said wearing masks is important to protect workers and each other.

“I am not looking for people to get in trouble by not wearing a mask,” Northam said, “but I am looking for people to please do the right thing. I’m asking people to respect one another.”

Northam said when the General Assembly meets again later this summer, he will suggest putting in place a civil fine for those not complying. He said there is a mechanism in the state code to charge those failing to comply with the mandatory mask order with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a possible jail term and fine.

The mask order includes requiring people to wear them inside all retail businesses, personal care and grooming businesses, when using public transportation, government buildings, at restaurants and anywhere people congregate.

There will be exceptions for people eating and drinking at restaurants, for those exercising, those with a health condition that prohibits wearing a face covering, or for those who have trouble breathing or would need help to remove a mask.

“I am taking this step because science increasingly shows us that the virus spreads less easily when everyone is wearing face coverings,” Northam said.

Asked how the state health department would enforce the governor’s mask order, Northam said, “I’m not sure that we need to get into the specifics of what authority.”

Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said there are equity issues with the mask order that would preclude trying to enforce it criminally, as well as practical issues with law enforcement trying to enforce it.

He said the state department of health, like it does for inspecting restaurants, would have the ability to take action against grossly negligent businesses refusing to adopt the policy, such as seeking court intervention to take away a business license.

While he “strongly recommends” that any child who is at least 3 years old to wear a face covering “to the extent possible,” it will not be required of them.

“Protecting the people around us means face coverings. … They don’t need to be medical grade. Our health care providers need those,” Northam said.

Northam said he did not have a timeline for how long the mask order would be in effect, hinting that it could be lifted only when a COVID-19 vaccine has been developed.

The governor’s announcement comes in the wake of Memorial Day weekend, when photos circulated online of a mask-less Northam taking selfies with people on the Virginia Beach boardwalk. He was there to meet with the city’s mayor, Bobby Dyer, to see how the city’s beach plan was being implemented, and to thank first responders and beach ambassadors.

Northam said he wasn’t intending to be involved in the public while out on the boardwalk.

“I was not prepared because my mask was in the car,” Northam said of his encounter with well-wishers taking selfies with him. “I take full responsibility for that. People held me accountable, and I appreciate that. In the future, when I am out in the public, I will be better prepared. We’re all forming new habits and routines, and we’re all adjusting to this new normal.”

Northam said the state Department of Labor and Industry will draft new COVID-19 workplace safety regulations concerning the use personal protective equipment, sanitation, record-keeping of incidents and hazard communication for private companies.

He said the state currently does not have the data or trends to move out of Phase I of the reopening plan for the state. He said the state would stay in Phase I through at least Friday and then evaluate at what point the state could move into Phase II.

“It has not been easy for anyone, but this experience is bringing out the best in most people,” Northam said. “Folks are looking out for each other. They’re staying home, checking in on their neighbors, and recognizing that their future will not look like the past, at least for a while.”