Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he will allow the state’s Washington suburbs to move into Phase 1 of reopening later this week, two weeks after most of the state.
The region that includes Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties, as well as Alexandria, was not included in the state’s May 15 reopening. But regional officials say criteria have now been met to support a gradual reopening that would include restaurants, barber shops and beauty salons operating with significant restrictions.
Northam said he will mandate mask-wearing in indoor public spaces and plans to allow Northern Virginia and Accomack County to enter Phase 1 on Friday.
“Everyone will need to wear a face cover when inside in a public place starting this Friday,” Northam said.
That covers stores, barbershops, restaurants, government buildings, public transportation — and possibly private businesses that do not serve the public, such as a law offices. The state’s Department of Labor and Industry is working on regulations that would apply in those circumstances, said Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer. The order will not apply to outdoor public spaces such as sidewalks, parks or the beach.
Northam opened his news briefing Tuesday by apologizing for mingling with people on the Virginia Beach boardwalk without a mask on Saturday. He said he had traveled to the beach to meet with the mayor, thank “beach ambassadors” charged with enforcing health restrictions, and speak to reporters.
“Some well-wishers recognized me,” he said. “I’ve always tried to accommodate people that want to take pictures. … I was not prepared because my mask was in the car. I take full responsibility. People held me accountable and I appreciate that. We’re all forming new habits and routines and we’re all adjusting to this new normal.”
In response to a reporter’s question, Northam confirmed that he plans to allow Northern Virginia and Accomack County to ease restrictions at the end of the week but said he will formally announce the decision Wednesday. He said he was still in talks with the city of Richmond, the only other jurisdiction that has not eased restrictions. Mayor Levar Stoney (D) has asked to enter into a “modified Phase 1,” said Northam, who declined to say if he favors the idea.
Northam also indicated that he might not be ready to move the rest of the state into Phase 2 on Friday. “If you do the math, we’ve only been in Phase 1 a little more than a week,” he said, noting the long incubation period for covid-19.
Enforcement of the mask mandate will be up to the State Department of Health for businesses that are open to the public, and the Department of Labor and Industry for work sites that are closed to the public. Law enforcement will not have a role, Northam said.
“This is about people’s health,” Northam said. “It’s not about locking people up in jail.”
Both departments have the power to revoke the operating licenses for businesses that do not follow the mandate, but Mercer said state officials would first talk to them to seek compliance, and then issue a warning. License revocation would be reserved for businesses where the order is “blatantly” ignored, Mercer said.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said that businesses will not be liable the actions of their customers, only their employees. She said it is possible that an individual could face a misdemeanor charge, which health officials could seek through a magistrate. But Mercer said the state hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“The criminal code is not the place you want this enforced,” Mercer said. He suggested that the General Assembly might consider legislation to give the governor the option to impose a civil penalty in late summer, when it gathers for a special budget session.