RICHMOND, Va. -- In an effort to address a recent rise of COVID-19 cases in Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam announced the state will increase enforcement of COVID-19 regulations, particularly at Hampton Roads businesses.
In a press conference Thursday, Northam announced the Virginia Department of Health will deploy 100 workers to help with COVID-19 enforcement statewide, beginning immediately.
The deployment will focus on the Hampton Roads area, but will include the entire state.
"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," said Northam.
Northam says he is 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 say no. It's just like the signs in so many store windows that say no shirt, no shoes, no service. Now it should be no shirt. No shoes, no mask, no service," he added.
The governor says State Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver is sending a letter to local health directors reminding them of their authority to enforce social distancing and mask wearing.
Northam says his decision comes after Virginia has seen a 250% increase in COVID-19 cases, compared to early June, in the 20 through 29 age group. Additionally, Virginia has been seen an increase in its percent-positivity, with most of the new cases coming from the Hampton Roads area.
"I want to make it clear that these enforcement actions are to stop the people who are clearly flouting the rules," said Northam. "You are being selfish, and you are hurting everyone who is doing the right thing to help us all beat this virus."
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said that is is not fair for businesses to be responsible for enforcing mask rules.
"When the Governor first issued his mask mandate in May, Virginians were assured that it was not up to businesses to enforce this rule. Today, the Governor has reversed course, telling businesses that 'their licenses will be on the line' if they do not enforce the mask mandate," Gilbert said. "This mandate puts businesses in an untenable position. To keep their licenses, they must confront customers who choose not to comply."
The governor says he is also considering other options such as reducing the allowable size of gatherings, which is currently 250 under Phase Three of reopening, and making an earlier cutoff time for alcohol sales at restaurants.
He added that if it gets to the point that restrictions need to be reimposed, he’ll consider doing it at a regional level rather than statewide.
Nicole Riley, State Director in Virginia for The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), said that they are also concerned that business owners are responsible for enforcing the mandate.
“The restaurant and bar owners in Virginia are just getting back on their feet financially, and we are grateful that the Governor opted for enforcement against violators instead of further restricting all businesses in a particular industry," Riley said. “One big concern is the state wants the business owner to be the enforcer for the government and tell customers they cannot enter without a mask. This opens the door for lawsuits against the business and in return, the state should offer them legal immunity.”
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.