VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Gov. Ralph Northam has repeatedly urged Virginia residents to cover their faces in public during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Democrat didn’t heed his own plea when he posed mask-less for photographs alongside residents during a weekend beach visit.
Northam, who stopped by the Virginia Beach oceanfront Saturday afternoon, said social distancing appeared to be going well and that most people were respecting the guidelines.
“We’re not out here with a stick, we’re really out here with a carrot," Northam said. "We want people to enjoy our beaches, but we want them to do it safely. It’s all about flattening that curve.”
But Northam was seen not wearing a mask as he talked to the press and stopped to pose for some photos on the boardwalk.
A spokesperson for the governor said Sunday that Northam has "repeatedly encouraged wearing face coverings inside or when social distancing is impossible."
"He was outside yesterday and not expecting to be within six feet of anyone," the spokesperson said.
Critics on social media chided Northam for not practicing what he has preached.
Northam said during a Friday news briefing that his administration is working on policy for a statewide mask mandate. Sources said that policy will apply for inside businesses only.
"We're trying to work through some of the details," Northam said Friday. "Obviously, it's an equity issue. We want to make sure everybody has access to a mask. We also want to talk about how we enforce that."
Northam said wearing a mask is essential to protect others when going into a businesses since they are "one of the most vulnerable places."
Beachgoer: 'No one is really six feet apart'
Beachgoers gathered at the Virginia Beach oceanfront Saturday to enjoy the sun, sand and surf on a Memorial Day weekend unlike any other.
Beaches at Virginia Beach reopened Friday with new guidelines, including no big coolers, no speakers and beach ambassadors to enforce social distancing.
Signs in the sand near the entrance of the beach are meant to remind everyone to socially distance, limit large groups and wear masks on the boardwalk.
"I noticed a lot of people aren’t wearing masks," Miranda Russell of Hampton said. "I’m also not, which is pretty bad, but I’m also pretty far apart from everybody."
Masks are not required on the beach, but they’re recommended if you cannot stay at least six feet apart.
“People are not really trying to care about themselves, or their safety or other people’s safety because nobody’s really been six feet out here as you can see,” Rasheed Bennett of Richmond said. “No one is really six feet apart.”
Virginia Beach was packed with people itching to get out of their homes and into the sun.
“It feels great,” Lesa Arthur of Manassas said. “The weather’s good especially out here by the water.”
Lesa Arthur and her husband, Thierry, drove from northern Virginia where they have not yet started Phase One of reopening in northern Virginia.
“COVID, it’s real, but you cannot be scared for your life,” Thierry Arthur said.
Health department data show 603 people in Virginia Beach have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Five new cases were reported Sunday.
Virginia Beach reopens with restrictions for holiday weekend
Northam allowed beaches in Virginia Beach to reopen its beaches Friday.
The governor said he was impressed with the city's plan, which includes enhanced cleaning of high-touch surfaces, educating guests on how they can enjoy the beach with social/physical distancing and enforcing regulations through interaction with Virginia Beach beach ambassadors.
However, some restrictions remain.
Northam's Executive Order 55 requires individuals to maintain social distancing of at least six feet from any other person, with the exception of family members.
"We understand it's Memorial weekend and we understand what's going on with our economy in Virginia, but the top priority for all of us is to do it safely," Northam said.
COVID-19 Beach Regulations include:
In addition, no entertainment or programming that generate mass gatherings will be permitted. Public parking garages and surface lots will be limited to 50% capacity. All beach play sets will remain closed. Existing City ordinances already apply to some of these activities in the resort area.
"Our city is committed to opening our beaches in a way that's safe for our residents, visitors and the thousands of frontline staff who bring the beaches to life," Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer said. "We must not take this opportunity for granted. It's up to each of us to be safe and proactive when visiting our beaches. Whether you want to exercise, take advantage of the mental health benefits the ocean and fresh air provides, or enjoy a relaxing day with family or friends, we look forward to having people back to the beach—at a distance of at least six feet. Since we have 28 miles of ocean and bay beaches, there's plenty of room to spread out."
Northam said he would not hesitate to reinstate additional restrictions or close beaches if people do not follow the rules.
Most patients with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms. However, in a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can lead to more severe illness, including death, particularly among those who are older or those who have chronic medical conditions.
COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person.
Virginia health officials urged the following precautions:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.Stay home when you are sick.
- Avoid contact with sick people.Avoid non-essential travel.