WINCHESTER — Community members and business owners alike are split on whether or not they should follow the governor’s orders of wearing a mask or face-covering in public places.
Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered Virginians to wear masks while in public indoor spaces such as retail stores and while using public transportation along with other indoor spaces where people gather.
Northam’s orders, however, leave plenty of gray areas as to who is in charge of enforcing the orders.
Many think the police should take action, but the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police said that won’t be able to happen across the board as police agencies across the state do not have the resources to police every business at all hours of the day. Northam suggested the health departments would step up and police the situation but that’s not entirely possible either.
“Our job is not going to be to police anybody. We’re not going to respond to individual complaints about individual activities,” Lord Fairfax Health District Director Dr. Colin Greene said Friday. “Those should be addressed with the proprietor of the institution where the behavior is taking place. We’re not going to respond to that. We don’t have a police force.”
Greene said certain circumstances could take place where officials at either the police department or health department could get involved, such as refusal to leave resulting in potential trespassing charges or if things continue to spiral out of hand at a specific location.
“Most of what the health department is going to do at a local level is designate, advise and encourage,” Greene said. “If there is a really egregious violation and it seems like the store owner is complicit with it, that we can do something about. We can engage whoever the licensing authority for that institution is.”
Greene said he suspects those types of situations to be “probably pretty rare.” He said instead of calling the local health department or police agency, residents or business owners who encounter problems they wish to report should call the Virginia Department of Health at 877-275-8343.
The mask-wearing order exempts people who are eating and drinking, children under the age of 10, and people with health conditions that make wearing a mask dangerous.
Still, some folks believe being told to wear a mask out in public infringes on their rights and some have said they will either refuse to wear a mask or refuse to go to places of business enforcing the rules.
“I believe it should be left up to the owners and patrons. If you’re not worried about masks and don’t make them mandatory for your store, so be it. If people want to go somewhere else, then that’s their choice,” Michael Easterday, a Winchester resident, said on Facebook. “Also on the other hand, if I don’t want to wear a mask and go to a store to find out it is mandatory, then I can take my business elsewhere. It’s called freedom.”
Some have even said they would start shopping in West Virginia, where a mandatory mask guideline is not put in place. Others said requiring masks three months into a pandemic is “silly.”
On the other side, there are residents who are either set on grinning and bearing it or doing what they can to be advocates for the wearing of masks.
“It’s intended to protect others that may not have the luxury of being able to stay home, so it’s just the morally right thing to do,” Whitney Woodall, a Winchester resident, said on Facebook, adding that if business have the right to deny customers not wearing shirts or shoes that they should have the same right for those not wearing masks. “Yeah, masks are uncomfortable, but so is dying of respiratory failure or being responsible for the death of someone else. I don’t see what the big deal is. I’m as big a fan of freedom as the next person, and this is not a violation of your freedom, (it’s) just a nice thing to do for your fellow American.”
But it’s not just residents who are torn. Business owners — some who feel they are in no position to turn anyone away with the current economic struggles — are still deciding on which side to lean on and how to enforce it.
“I feel we have no choice but to comply with the rule,” Chelsea Karche, owner of Ohana Vapors in Winchester, said. “I’m not happy about it, but my employees rely on this business to feed their families. I can’t risk a fine or losing our business license.”
Some businesses said they will post policies stating, to some effect, that masks will be required but that those who are exempt will be exempt with no questions asked.
Others were worried about issues such as patrons coming in and simply saying they have a medical condition when they don’t or folks refusing to leave when asked.
“If someone comes into my store without (a mask), I can’t actually do anything about it,” Josh Lewis, owner of Element Sports in Winchester, said. “Plus, the customer can claim they can’t wear it for medical reasons but it’s unlawful to ask about that. I will simply assume anyone not wearing a mask claims a medical reason so I don’t get sued for discrimination if I were to ask them to leave.”
John Bell, the commonwealth’s attorney for Warren County, said Thursday the order was “don’t mask, don’t tell.”
Dave Hutton, the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce chair, said “communication is key.”
“Each business should clearly state their practices to comply with requirements for the safety of both employees and patrons, either online or at their place of business, he said. “We are beginning to see some of our businesses communicate a ‘no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service’ policy. It is ultimately up to each business owner to politely remind patrons of their expectations. We expect everyone to be considerate and respect one another.”
Cynthia Schneider, president and CEO of the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber of Commerce, agreed and said businesses should provide signage and continue to provide kind and respectful service.
Sharon Baroncelli, the Shenandoah County chamber’s director, said a guidebook to reopening businesses is available on the chamber’s website for business owners and residents.
She suggested when making decisions to go out that “our businesses are the lifeblood of our community, and we need them now more than ever.”