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Opinion Gov. Northam’s mask order covers more than you think

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Tori Bloxom, of Onancock, Va., take a selfie May 23 as the governor visits the Oceanfront in Virginia Beach, Va., to see for himself how crowded the beach was. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot via Associated Press)
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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) apologized for not wearing a mask when he was meeting, greeting and taking selfies with folks at Virginia Beach over the long weekend.

And to help him remember to keep a mask handy, the governor has issued a new executive order requiring just about everyone in Virginia to wear face coverings in public indoor settings.

The intent is to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Fair enough and, compared with stay-at-home orders and continued lockdowns, a minor inconvenience, at best.

But as with every order issued to mitigate the virus thus far, there will be consequences of requiring a humble face covering in public indoor settings.

No, I’m not talking about the wingnuttery of people such as GOP gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase.

Rather, it’s how the particulars of the governor’s new order will affect actions and institutions that don’t immediately leap to mind.

Consider these three areas where masks will be required:

  • Train stations, bus stations and on intrastate public transportation, including in waiting or congregating areas;
  • State and local government buildings and areas where the public accesses services;
  • Any indoor space shared by groups of people who may congregate within six feet of one another or who are in close proximity to each other for more than 10 minutes.

That covers a lot more real estate than it appears.

With severe shortages of protective equipment, nurses and other workers are having to choose between helping others and ensuring their own safety. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Patricia Lafontant/The Washington Post)

For example, does the requirement for covering at state and local buildings apply to highway rest areas?

Though contractors run the day-to-day services at Virginia’s rest areas, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s maintenance division provides oversight. It’s a government building providing what is undeniably an essential public service.

That could mean the face-covering rule applies to folks passing through Virginia on Interstate 95, for instance. They have no intention of doing anything else in the commonwealth except answering nature’s call and then getting back on the road.

According to VDOT representative Emily Wade, the agency has taken “extra steps” to make sure rest areas “remain in proper condition to protect the health of travelers amid concerns of the spread” of the novel coronavirus.

That includes “increased the frequency of disinfecting and cleaning procedures” and a lot more “soap, hand sanitizer and disinfectant.”

VDOT is also adding more signs “focused on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance to stop the spread of the illness.”

These are all very good things.

But back to the main question: Does the face covering order apply to rest areas?

According to Northam representative Alena Yarmosky, “yes, individuals using indoor rest areas are required to wear masks, under this order.”

What about public schools? Might they fall under the indoor space where people are together for more than 10 minutes?

According to the order, “students in daycare centers or participating in-person classes in K-12 education or institutions of higher education” are exempted.

In an email, Yarmosky said Northam’s office is working with “public health officials and our education work group to develop specific guidance in these settings.”

However, the exemption “does not mean that masks will or will not be required when schools reopen, just that we are continuing to work through specific guidelines for these unique settings.”

Exempt for now, but subject to change later. The possibility that face coverings could apply to schools is seeded in the governor’s order, which covers people 10 years old and up. Northam also said “he strongly recommends them for children over the age of 3.”

In an email, Henrico Public Schools representative Andy Jenks wrote the district is discussing reopening plans for the fall, “which will have to include a variety of new safety protocols.”

No matter what mix of in-person, remote or staggered scheduling is eventually adopted, Jenks noted that “we won’t know for sure what the health and safety guidelines and restrictions might be in September.”

“Our students and families can expect us to be directly communicating additional information later this week.”

Included in that information drop — which was already thick with concerns about transportation, classroom and cafeteria use, as well as sanitation — may be a line or two about face coverings.

Read more:

Mark J. Rozell: Northam stumbles through a crisis that should have made him a rock star

Pranav Nanda: The coronavirus is no excuse to ignore gun violence in D.C.

Norman Leahy: There is no easy road to reopening Virginia

Norman Leahy: Gov. Northam’s forgotten epidemic: Virginia’s unemployed

Norman Leahy: Restoring Virginia’s economic health may take years

Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones and Lashrecse D. Aird: For businesses and residents alike, Virginia must reform its energy economy