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Masks Will Be Mandatory, Says Virginia Governor

Northam standing at podium with sign language interpreter
(Screenshot: VPM News)

*CORRECTION: Parks are not included in this order. This article was updated to correct that. 

*VPM News intern Jakob Cordes reported this story.

At Gov. Ralph Northam’s press conference today, he issued new regulations for wearing masks in public and outlined the next steps of his administration’s phased reopening plan.

First, Northam addressed his Saturday visit to the reopened Virginia Beach boardwalk, during which he was photographed with his mask off in public. “My mask was in the car,” he said, “I was not prepared because my mask was in the car. I take full responsibility for that. People held me accountable, and I appreciate that. In the future, when I'm out in the public, I will be better prepared.”

The governor was in Virginia Beach to oversee their beach opening, and he gave them high marks on social distancing. "Virginia Beach did not see large crowds over the weekend," he said. "I'm convinced that Virginia Beach can be a model to the rest of our country." Northam said the reopening could be used as a basis for reopening other beaches around the state.

Despite criticism for his maskless appearance on the beach, Northam announced mandatory masks in public starting this Friday for all people, including children 10 and up. This will include in stores, restaurants, and public transportation. There will be exceptions for eating, drinking, exercising, and for anyone who can’t wear a mask due to medical reasons. Masks may be home-made, but Northam recommends all Virginians, including children over the age of three, should wear masks in public.

Reporters asked the governor about enforcement. Northam said the Department of Health and the Department of Labor and Industry would be responsible for enforcement. “This is about people’s health, it’s not about locking people up and issuing large fines,” Northam said, noting that police are limited to class one misdemeanors, which can carry jail time and a large fine. When the General Assembly reconvenes, Northam will ask them to legislate a small civil penalty. For now, enforcement will be handled by health officials who can order businesses closed if they do not mandate compliance in customers. The state government will also work to distribute masks to at-risk populations.

Northam would not commit to a timeline for lifting the mask mandate, citing worker safety as his chief concern. “This is about protecting those around us, especially our workers,” he said. “That's why we're making this mandatory, so that we protect those that have to be at work every day, to keep them as healthy as we can. So I don't have a given timeline, but as soon as it's safe to lift this guideline, we will.”

Positive test results continue to trend downward statewide, and hospital capacity remains steady. However, Northam said that given the incubation period of coronavirus, they can’t yet determine if the state will be ready to move into phase two of reopening. The state will remain in phase one until at least the end of this week.

In Northern Virginia and Accomack County, local leaders are looking to move into phase one of reopening, more than two weeks after many localities began the process. The City of Richmond is still considering its approach to reopening. Northam said to expect an announcement in the next day or two, even as he continues a discussion with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney about his request that places of worship and hair salons be exempt from the phase one reopening.

*Editor's Note: This article was updated to clarify that children 10-and-up are required to wear masks, and it's recommended for children 3-and-up.