After a sharp increase in infections in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) took more aggressive steps to control the virus from spreading further. He is ordering inspectors to make unannounced visits to restaurants and retail establishments, and then revoking their licenses if workers aren’t wearing masks or customers are allowed to congregate in tight spaces.
“If you own a restaurant or a business and you’re not following the regulations, your license will be on the line and we will not hesitate to take action if needed,” Northam said.
He said the statewide action will involve 500 health inspectors with 100 more to be added in the coming weeks.
“Remember that you do not have to serve a patron who is not wearing a face covering,” Northam said, adding that those customers can be cited for a misdemeanor violation under a previous order requiring masks in congregate settings. “You can tell them to leave. And if they don’t, they’re trespassing and you can, in turn, call the police.”
The action will mainly be focused in the tourist-heavy Hampton Roads area, where some younger patrons inside restaurant bars and at parties have not been wearing masks, Northam said.
That part of the state has seen infections skyrocket during the past two weeks, with the seven-day average for new cases climbing to 346 on Tuesday, compared with 57 in early June. In Virginia Beach, 40 percent of the coastal city’s 817 known cases have been detected during the past two weeks.
“There is clearly community spread,” Northam said, calling the caseload “very concerning.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) urged local leaders across his state to take bolder steps to enforce physical distancing and mask requirements for bars and restaurants.
“The vast majority of bars and restaurants in our state are in compliance, but some are flagrantly violating the law and endangering public health,” Hogan wrote in a letter to county health officers and local liquor boards.
“You have the responsibility to enforce these laws,” the letter said. “Violators should be warned, fined, have actions taken regarding their licenses, or closed if necessary.”
Hogan’s letter came after Maryland reported 733 new cases Tuesday — its largest daily increase since June 5. The state’s seven-day average for new cases was 552, its highest mark since mid-June. The biggest spike came in Prince George’s County.
Maryland also reported a daily uptick in hospitalizations and ICU bed use, with 29 more people hospitalized and 10 more patients in intensive care.
Hogan warned about an increase in infections among younger adults, noting that the rate of positive test results for residents under age 35 is 84 percent higher than it is for those who are older.
“At least 12 states have already moved to re-close bars and restaurants — we do not want to be forced to take the action here in Maryland,” Hogan said.
An executive order Hogan signed last month requires staff to wear face coverings while working, prohibits people from congregating in bar areas and limits service to six people at a table, while using every other booth and keeping customers seated six feet apart.
Some of the state’s harder-hit areas did not need Hogan to remind them about the importance of enforcing the regulations.
In Montgomery County, officials said they already have closed two businesses and fined a third for not complying with social distancing measures.
Society Lounge and the Republic Garden in Silver Spring were closed and had their licenses suspended Sunday for failing to observe social distancing rules, the county announced Tuesday. The Block, a food hall and bar in Rockville, was fined $500 for also violating the social distancing requirement after receiving an initial warning from the county on July 8.
The District recorded 40 additional infections Tuesday and no covid-19 deaths for a fifth consecutive day.
Health experts have praised area leaders for increasing their capacity of hospital beds, but they said they worry that a continuing rise in infections could begin to overwhelm some hospitals.
“The virus is still around and still circulating and being transmitted,” said Eric R. Houpt, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. “We do have hospital capacity, but let’s hope we don’t need it.”
As residents grow more frustrated by shutdown restrictions, the repeated calls by local officials to wear masks and maintain distances have fostered tensions, with some people openly flouting those guidelines.
Northam tried to soften those frustrations, saying the region’s health and its economy depend on everyone acting together. However, he said, he is considering further measures to stop the virus from spreading, including reducing the size of gatherings allowed to 50 from 250 and imposing an earlier cutoff time for alcohol sales in the state.
“This is not political,” he said. “This is about our health and well-being, and it’s also about our economy. It’s going to take all of us to move forward safely.”
Nicole Riley, Virginia director of the National Federation of Independent Business, praised Northam’s decision to crack down on violators rather than tighten restrictions on all businesses. But she warned that his order could put some business owners in the awkward position of playing “the enforcer for the government” by telling customers they can’t enter without a mask.
“This opens the door for lawsuits against the business and in return, the state should offer them legal immunity,” Riley said.
Virginia Republican leaders called Northam’s action unfair to businesses and people who choose not to wear a mask.
“This mandate puts businesses in an untenable position. To keep their licenses, they must confront customers who choose not to comply,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said in a statement. “I can’t help but think issuing a statewide ‘or else’ threat will do little but create more defiance.”
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky clarified that businesses will not lose their licenses if customers refuse to wear masks. The governor is asking businesses to encourage patrons to wear masks, but they will not be required to enforce mask wearing except among their staff.
The District, Maryland and Virginia reported 1,574 cases on Tuesday. Maryland and Virginia each reported nine deaths.
The region’s seven-day average number of deaths dropped to 24, a level last seen in early April. While hospitalizations in the region have ticked upward in recent days, the number of ICU beds in use and patients requiring ventilators continues to hold steady.
Rebecca Tan and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.