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Methods used to reduce the COVID-19 spread on Election Day depend on where you vote.

WISE COUNTY – Even though presidential candidates are the same on each ballot in Virginia, every polling precinct has its differences. One fluctuation between precincts revolves around wearing masks. Is it against state law to vote without a mask? Certainly not. Is it a recommendation? Absolutely.

 In an attempt to corral the coronavirus, many election officials across the state are taking precautions at their polling places. However, not all precincts have the same precautions in place.

Masks: a recommendation or a requirement

In Wise County, population 37,383 in 2019, people may visit the polls without the newest 2020 accessory.

“Masks are recommended and encouraged, but they are not required by state guidance,” said Allison Robbins, general registrar in Wise County.

The decision came after studying Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 guidelines. The registrar’s office also consulted state guidance and noted that they were within accordance.

In the Town of Norton, population 3,968 in 2018, things are different. Even though Wise County surrounds Norton, the pandemic precautions aren’t the same.

Elizabeth Minor, deputy registrar in Norton, expressed that due to the town’s early voting center’s location, masks are mandatory.

“We do have signs at the door because we are at the Community Center that masks are required to enter the building,” Minor said.

Over the past month, most people early voting in Norton complied with the mask mandate without prompting.

“We’ve only had one or two that have come in without masks on,” Norton said. “We have masks here at the front desk. If they’re not wearing a mask, we ask them to and they have been very nice about putting one on. That has not been a major problem for us.”

Even though masks are not a requirement for early voting in Wise County, the registrar noted that more people than not still take the precaution.

“The vast majority are wearing masks, social distancing,” Robbins said. “We’ve not seen any issues. We’ve not had any issues.”

Early voting numbers

When Virginia changed the law, allowing no-excuse absentee voting for the 2020 election, it altered things throughout the state. In a Tuesday briefing, Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said nobody would be turned away from the polls. But at the same time, masks will be encouraged.

Any voters that show up either early or on Election Day without a mask or visibly sick will be asked to put one on. If they refuse, poll workers will also offer the option of casting a ballot outside the polling place. Piper was clear, however, that no one would be denied access if they refuse both options.

This year, voters could place their ballot 45 days ahead of the November 3 election. It’s not a practice registrars in Wise County or Norton experienced in years prior.

“We’ve never had early voting before,” Robbins said. “This is the first year of early voting.”

Minor echoed the response.

“This is the first time Virginia has offered early voting,” Minor said. “A lot of people have taken advantage of it. That really pleases us.”

In Wise County, more than 100 people trickle into the precincts daily, ready to cast their early ballot. 

“We’re seeing about 115 people every day in our in-person locations,” Robbins said.

In Norton, the numbers are smaller, but so is the population.

“I would say on an average day, we’ve seen maybe around 20,” Minor said.

The early voting option not only helps reduce the amount of people in a congregate setting on Election Day, but also makes the process move along more efficiently.

“We’re encouraging people to come out and avoid the long lines and do the distancing because there will be six-foot distancing in place on Election Day,” Minor said. “So it’ll be a quicker, safer experience, we think, if they just come in and take advantage of early voting.”

Election precautions

As Election Day approaches, Robbins expressed that she expects people to visit their precincts on November 3. Whether they vote early or on the designated day, precautions will be in place in Wise County.

“We’re just following the CDC guidance in accordance with state recommendations,” Robbins said. “We are encouraging social distancing. We’re encouraging people to wear masks. We’re cleaning between voters and sanitizing as we go.”

Even with the mask requirement in place, Minor noted that voters not complying could still cast a ballot on November 3.

“When people come in to vote on Election Day, we cannot deny them the right to vote if they’re not wearing a mask,” Minor said.

Whether folks vote early or on Election Day, the Norton registrar and her team take precautions to help reduce the coronavirus spread.

“All of our workers will be wearing masks. All of our machines will be wiped down. We have safe shields. [We] also have Plexiglas shields that will be covering each table, each station. We have hand sanitizer available throughout. [We] have pens that we do issue to voters, if they want to mark a paper ballot. [We] ask that they take the pen with them when they leave. When they vote electronically, we wipe down the surface after each voter,” Minor said. “Also, that will be done throughout the day on Election Day.”

As the big day approaches, precincts across the state are getting ready, putting precautions into place.

“There has been an increase in COVID here in our area, as there has been throughout most of the world,” Minor said. “We have been taking it very seriously and we are taking every precaution we can.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at amie@couriernewsroom.com