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Starting Friday, Virginians will have to wear a mask whenever they are in a public building but the new rule has few enforcement measures in place to ensure people are complying.

Gov. Ralph Northam said on Tuesday that face coverings have been shown to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and with more people venturing out, frequenting restaurants and businesses — albeit with restrictions — safety is paramount during phase one.

Unlike his previous stay at home order, the rule about face coverings will not be enforceable by police, Northam said. Instead, the Virginia Department of Health will be responsible for making sure Virginians adhere to the rule. When pressed for details about how the department would enforce the rule, Northam said legalities weren’t important to the public at this point.

“If we were to enforce this through law enforcement the only authority we have is a class 1 misdemeanor,” Northam said. “That’s not what we’re trying to do here.”

Class 1 misdemeanors can carry hefty financial penalties and, Clark Mercer, the governor’s chief of staff, said enforcing the rule could become an equity issue.

Northam said when the General Assembly convenes again — in July or earlier for a special session — he will ask delegates and senators to consider attaching a civil penalty to rules enacted during a health crisis or pandemic.

The General Assembly is not scheduled to reconvene until July 20.

Masks will be required inside public businesses, restaurants and government buildings beginning Friday morning. The state health department will have some sanctioning power over businesses that fail to enforce the rule.

Leaving businesses to enforce the rule and be on the receiving end of sanctions was a mistake, Republican leaders said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

"We are deeply concerned about Governor Northam's actions today,” House Republicans said. “It is unconscionable to require businesses to enforce a government mandate under threat of sanction from government agencies. This puts yet another burden on businesses already reeling from months of being shut down or severely limited.”

Enforcement, Mercer said, will generally be reserved for “grossly negligent” actors as opposed to someone who forgot their mask once.

Masks and other measures to continue slowing the spread of COVID-19 will be central to Virginia continuing along its path to reopening.

On Tuesday, the state health department reported it has 39,342 cases, 4,325 hospitalizations and 1,236 deaths. Total figures include 1,902 probable cases, 31 probable hospitalizations and 61 probable deaths.

Northam said the figures around the state, and Northern Virginia in particular, are continuing to trend in the right direction. The state has conducted 265,279 COVID-19 detection tests. The state’s seven-day average positivity rate is 14.1% — still above the 10% threshold it is aiming for but down from a high of 22.2% on April 19.

Northam said on Tuesday that he is not included in the total number of tests; that he has not been tested but looks forward to attending a community testing event to set an example for how easy it is to get a test.

The Lord Fairfax Health District reported it had 1,135 cases, 104 hospitalizations and 45 deaths. Total figures include 138 probable cases, one probable hospitalization and four probable deaths.

The district ranks No. 10 of the 35 districts for the number of cases, No. 11 for the number of hospitalizations and No. 6 for the number of deaths. The district has completed 2,713 COVID-19 detection tests and its seven-day positivity rate has been rising and falling, reaching 25.5% on Tuesday.

Local cases

The following reported COVID-19-related statistics on Tuesday:

• Shenandoah County: 378 cases, 36 hospitalizations and 17 deaths.

• Frederick County: 272 cases, 21 hospitalizations and four deaths.

• Page County:  199 cases, 23 hospitalizations and 21 deaths.

• Warren County: 117 cases, 12 hospitalizations and two deaths.

• Winchester City: 147 cases, 21 hospitalizations and four deaths.

• Clarke County: 22 cases, three hospitalizations and no deaths.

Contact Max Thornberry at mthornberry@nvdaily.com