Gov. Ralph Northam (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Governor says state is stepping up enforcement of mask requirement, businesses can lose licenses if they don’t require masks

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the state will step up enforcement on a requirement to wear masks in public areas in an effort to combat an increasing number of coronavirus cases in the commonwealth. 

During a special press conference Tuesday, Northam said the state has had a slight spike in cases, especially along the Eastern Shore. He noted that the increase in Virginia is not nearly as severe as other states like Florida and Texas, but should still be taken seriously. 

“If we don’t take this seriously now we could see bigger increases across the commonwealth. That’s why we’re taking action today to head this off,” Northam said. 

According to state health department data, the Eastern Shore has seen a significant increase in the percent positivity rate and an increase in the region’s seven-day rolling average. In early June the area’s rolling average for new cases was 60, this week’s average topped out at 346. 

“There’s clearly some substantial community spread and a lot of that increase is driven by people socializing without wearing masks, especially young people,” Northam said. “As a matter of fact, the increase in the age group of 20 to 29-year-olds from today compared with early June is up 250%.” 

Northam said Virginia Health Commissioner Norm Oliver sent a letter to health district directors reminding them of their authority to enforce the face covering and social distancing regulations in restaurants and public places where people gather. 

There will also be unannounced visits from officials with state and county health departments, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to ensure regulations are being followed. According to Northam, the teams will be deployed across the state but will focus special attention on the Hampton Roads area that is currently seeing an outbreak. 

“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. “I’m also calling on businesses to step up their own enforcement, if a patron of your establishment is violating the rules, you have the ability to [not serve them.] You can tell them to leave and if they don’t they’re trespassing and you can in turn, call the police.” 

Northam will also be writing to the mayors of Virginia’s beach communities and asking for an update on their beach access plans. Back in May mayors of beach towns submitted detailed plans covering their sanitation and crowd mitigation measures. 

“I want to make sure those mayors are following through on their promises,” he said. 

Northam also noted that additional restrictions could be implemented if the outbreak continues to increase. 

“This is not the end of the actions we may take, but rather, the beginning,” he said. “I’m considering other actions as needed, such as a reduction in the size of permissible gatherings. I want to make it clear that these enforcement actions are to stop the people who are clearly flouting the rules. You are being selfish and you’re hurting everyone who is doing the right thing to help us all beat this virus.” 

Because there is no vaccine or clear cut treatment for the coronavirus mitigation efforts have to come down to the individual, Northam said. He wrapped up his update by encouraging Virginians to avoid large gatherings, to continue wearing face coverings and as always to “be a part of the solution.”