FRONT ROYAL — When businesses and public buildings begin allowing patrons inside and asking them to wear a mask today, per Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest Executive Order, enforcement of the rule will be hazy, John Bell, the commonwealth’s attorney for Warren County, said Thursday.
Myriad exemptions to the order leave enforcement in a “gray area” for some officials, Bell explained during Warren County’s weekly roundtable discussion Thursday.
Northam said on Tuesday that he is directing law enforcement officers not to enforce the order, that that role will be filled by the Virginia Department of Health. That department, Northam said, will have the power to sanction businesses that are not complying with the rule, potentially taking them to court or shutting them down if they are negligent.
Bell said breaking the rule is still labeled as a misdemeanor but without law enforcement taking a role in enforcing it, that penalty for individuals is distant.
“Instead of ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service,’” Bell said, “it’s going to be ‘no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.’”
“I personally intend on wearing my mask when I go into businesses and grocery stores because our businesses have had a hard enough time,” Bell continued. “I’m not going to put them crossways with the health department.”
Bell said he has spoken with law enforcement officers in Warren County and they have said they are not planning on enforcing the rule, leaving it up to the state health department.
Along with the mandate, Northam provided a list of exemptions for wearing a mask. Those exemptions range from not requiring a mask while exercising — though that will mean a larger “social distancing” area of 10 feet rather than 6 feet — to health reasons. If someone declines to wear a mask citing a health reason, they do not have to provide any information or documentation about the condition they have that keeps them from wearing a mask, Bell said.
The order is officially, “don’t mask, don’t tell,” Bell quipped.
Northam’s order also pulled away from the end date on Executive Order 51, extending the state of emergency to an undefined date. The state of emergency will be lifted by another Executive Order in the future.
During a news conference Thursday, Northam said the state will remain in phase one for at least one more week — with Northern Virginia, Accomack County and Richmond at least one week behind the rest of the state on the way to phase two.
Rick Farrall, Warren County’s deputy emergency manager, said Warren County and Front Royal plan to begin reopening those public buildings that have not already begun to reopen in the middle of June. Farrall said he expects the governor will direct Virginia to move into phase two in mid-June as the positivity rate — the percentage of COVID-19 detection tests that return positive — continues to decline.
On Thursday, the state health department reported Virginia had a positivity rate of 13.8% over the seven-day moving average. Health officials have indicated that figures need to be at or below 10% to signal it is safe to continue lifting restrictions.
The department reported Virginia has had 41,401 cases, 4,442 hospitalizations and 1,338 deaths. Total figures include 2,008 probable cases, 32 probable hospitalizations and 102 probable deaths.
Virginia has returned results on 285,273 COVID-19 detection tests, an increase of 10,199 tests since Wednesday.
The Lord Fairfax Health District has returned results on 2,971 tests and has a positivity rate of 29.2%. The district reported it had 1,279 cases, 118 hospitalizations and 48 deaths. Total figures include 141 probable cases, one probable hospitalization and four probable deaths.
Local casesThe following reported statistics on the coronavirus on Thursday:
Shenandoah County: 414 cases, 44 hospitalizations and 20 deaths.
Frederick County: 319 cases, 23 hospitalizations and four deaths.
Page County: 213 cases, 24 hospitalizations and 21 deaths.
Winchester City: 168 cases, 10 hospitalizations and one death.
Warren County: 141 cases, 14 hospitalizations and two deaths.
Clarke County:24 cases, three hospitalizations and no deaths.