Governor’s New Curfew Can’t Be Enforced, Police and Health Officials Say

Virginia's governor comes out in support of abolishing the death penalty, legalizing marijuana, restoring felons voting rights.

By Amie Knowles

December 12, 2020

One day after new COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, it’s unclear if they were just for show.

STUART – On Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam put a new curfew in place. He also ordered new gathering restrictions in certain circumstances. But there’s a few problems when it comes to enforcing either one.

The announcement came after the expected spike in COVID-19 positive rates occurred two weeks after Thanksgiving, when many families came together.

At the top the list, the governor implemented a new curfew. Beginning Monday, from midnight to 5 a.m., anyone traveling for reasons other than work or necessity will be in noncompliance. 

“It’s a reminder that you should stay home whenever you can through the rest of the day. But from midnight to 5 a.m., you need to stay home. If you don’t need to go out, stay home,” Northam said. “This is just plain common sense.”

However, the curfew seemingly comes without penalty.

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More bark than bite

According to Corrine Geller, director of public relations with the Virginia State Police, neither state police nor local law enforcement agencies will pull over individuals not complying with the order. In part, that’s because it’s not a chargeable offense.  

“The Virginia State Police encourages everyone to do their part to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Geller said. “The modified stay at home order found in Executive Order #72 does not carry a specific civil or criminal penalty. Therefore, state troopers will not make traffic stops solely for violations of the modified stay at home order. All traffic stops require reasonable suspicion that a violation of the law has occurred.”

But if no police or sheriff’s deputies can actually enforce the curfew, then who’s responsible? The Virginia State Police pointed us to the Department of Health.

The responsible party

While the actual enforcement is up to the Virginia Department of Health, there’s a question of how much they can actually do. Without vehicles with lights and sirens to pull over those not in compliance, they also don’t have a viable opportunity to enforce the modified stay at home order.

“I don’t think we have a plan to do that,” said Nancy Bell, population health manager and PIO for the Virginia Department of Health’s West Piedmont Health District.

Furthermore, patrolling the streets in the middle of the night simply isn’t part of the job description – especially when those out past 12 a.m. could have a legitimate reason for traveling past midnight.

“None of us are going to be up from 12 [a.m.] to 5 [a.m.] when we work 12 hours a day as it is,” Bell said. “I mean, people go to work. How do you know they’re not going out to get formula for the baby?” 

Lacking opportunities for enforcement, the new Virginia curfew holds stronger significance as a suggestion, rather than a serious law-breaking action. 

However, the idea of sheltering in place still holds potential for a lessened spread of COVID-19. 

“It’s a courtesy sort of thing that the governor is asking us to do,” Bell said. “In my opinion, he’s giving us sort of a warning by putting this out there that if we don’t start doing something better, then we’re going to have some more consequences.” 

Mask mandate

The governor also bumped up the mask requirements. Now, during all indoor activities and in outdoor activities where people cannot feasibly social distance six feet or more from others, patrons must don a mask.

“The new rules will be clear. If you are indoors and you are around other people, you need to wear a mask. If you’re outdoors and you can’t stay six feet apart, wear a mask. When you’re at work, wear a mask. When you’re watching your kid play soccer, wear a mask,” Northam said. “That’s really simple and we can all do that. So please wear a mask.” 

Bell noted that while the West Piedmont district has not issued any citations or revoked any licenses for noncompliance against the current mask order, they’ve sent out their fair share of warnings – and will continue to do so.

The health department solicits noncompliant businesses in two ways. First, the office depends on patrons to notify them of businesses not enforcing the mask mandate. Secondly, members of the VDH staff perform in-person checks on businesses.

“We rely on that online system and sort of have a ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease approach,’” Bell said. “When there’s something egregious going on, then our people will try to stop in at a time that’s not planned to try to see and confirm and that sort of thing.”

Needing more manpower

Gov. Northam also limited social gatherings to no more than 10 people, rather than the 25-person limit in place around the Thanksgiving holiday.

“The virus we know spreads when people are around each other in groups. When groups are smaller, it spreads less. That’s one more reason why it’s important to stay home,” Northam said. “If you don’t need to be out, we ask you to stay home.” 

While the bulk of the COVID-19 enforcement falls on the VDH, the manpower to fight the virus, distribute the vaccines and keep an eye out for noncompliance looks better on paper than out in the field. 

“We don’t have enough staff. We don’t,” Bell said. “No health department does right now.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected] 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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