Beginning Friday, Virginians will be required to wear a face covering in public indoor settings after Gov. Ralph Northam announced the mandate during Tuesday’s press conference, but local representatives in the Rockingham County area have mixed feelings regarding the measure.
Within hours of Northam’s announcement, the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus released a statement decrying the governor’s face mask mandate, and state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, was included in the statement.
“It is certainly an unprecedented order,” Obenshain said during an interview on Wednesday. “The governor is basically saying ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’”
The governor’s order aims to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and comes weeks after Northam recommended face coverings be worn in public.
Obenshain, who serves as the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus co-chairman, said Northam’s actions over the weekend — where he was seen at Virginia Beach not wearing a mask or following social distancing measures — stood in contrast to his public comments on Tuesday.
“The public liberty is at stake here,” he said.
Northam’s executive order requires any person over the age of 10 years old to wear a mask or face covering while entering, existing, traveling through or spending time at a personal care and grooming business, brick-and-mortar retail business, restaurants, train or bus stations, state and local government buildings, and any indoor space shared with a group of people.
The mandate also includes requiring a mask inside entertainment or public amusement establishments when permitted to open.
There are exemptions for people eating or drinking at a restaurant, those exercising and individuals with a health condition that would keep them from wearing a face covering.
“It’s probably something that should have happened sooner,” said Bill Kyger, a Republican and chairman of the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors.
How the mandate will be enforced, however, has created another wave of backlash by the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus and other local representatives.
During Northam’s press conference, he said wearing a face mask was not “a criminal matter,” and law enforcement would not have a role in enforcing the mandate. Any reinforcement that is needed would be done by health officials, Northam said, leaving the Virginia Department of Health to have the authority to enforce the order.
But as stated in the emergency order, failure to comply with the order is punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor and is punishable by up to 12 months in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both, according to the Code of Virginia.
“[Northam said] there is no criminal penalty attached and that is not the truth,” Obenshain said. “You can go to jail for a year in failure to comply with this order.”
Maria Reppas, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Health, said in an emailed statement that the department “has the power to enforce egregious patron/customer violations through a court order, which is punishable by a Class One misdemeanor.”
“Many businesses also have face covering requirements for their employees as outlined in Phase One restrictions (restaurants, salons, etc.), which are enforced by the health department and the relevant regulatory agency,” Reppas wrote. “We are not looking to put anyone in jail — we are focused on education, and we hope and expect that Virginians will do the right thing.”
The Virginia Senate Republican Caucus said that requiring Virginia’s businesses to enforce the mandate under threat of action by VDH would only add to the “incredible and stifling burdens placed upon them by the Democrat majority and the governor this year.”
Obenshain said it made sense to allow local businesses to impose a “no mask, no service” policy if they wanted to, but mandating the face mask policy was the “most politically motivated jag, heavy-handed order I’ve ever seen from an executive.”
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, said Wednesday that instead of making it a criminal offense, the state should provide strong encouragement to wear masks when appropriate based on individual judgment.
“Individual businesses should then make their own judgments about whether it will be a requirement to patronize their business,” he said. “Common sense and courtesy should prevail on both sides of the issue.”
Hanger did find Northam’s approach poorly executed.
“He didn’t position himself well with what he did over the weekend,” he said. “He made himself an easy target. He apologized for that and went ahead with the order.”
Hanger’s concerns lied with the statutes in the Code of Virginia that give broad authority to the governor during a state of emergency.
Under the powers and duties of the governor, the governor becomes the director of emergency management and can proclaim rules and regulation in his judgment that are necessary and make executive orders that shall have the force of the law and be punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor. There is no limitation for how long the governor can exercise this role, and the extended period of time currently in place is something Hanger does not believe should be in play.
“I think it’s something we need to focus on and make changes in statutes ... involve the democratic process in large emergency orders,” he said.
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, said with businesses already having the right to require patrons to wear face masks, it is time to “trust the citizens.”
“We are three months in and now [Northam] is going to say we need a mask to go to these places,” he said. “I think it was misdirected and poorly laid out.”
Del. Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater, said that throughout the pandemic, Northam has consistently waffled on a near daily basis.
“The governor stated the mask mandate will be effectively enforced by the business community under threat of the VDH pulling business licenses. However, the actual text of the order states that it is a criminal offense and the onus is on the individual,” he said. “Executive overreach is a serious threat to our representative democracy and I look forward to supporting legislation during a special session that will curb the executive office’s powers.”
Harrisonburg’s Democratic Mayor Deanna Reed said she was happy about the executive order in a Wednesday interview.
“I believe that for right now, this what we need to do and I totally support the governor’s executive order,” Reed said.
City staff and council members have received numerous emails from residents complaining that other residents are not wearing masks, according to Reed.
“We hear those concerns, so now that the governor made this an executive order, I feel this is really what people wanted,” Reed said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and VDH have recommended mask usage to help slow the spread of COVID-19 from those who may not know they are carrying the virus to others.
Wearing a mask is “what the scientists and experts say we need to do,” Reed said. “It’s a known fact that wearing the masks help slow down the coronavirus.”
She said that slowing the spread of the virus can help businesses continue to operate more safely for owners, employees and customers, along with increasing consumer confidence.
Reed herself has collected over 1,500 masks over the roughly past two weeks.
“I want to make sure anybody who needs a mask gets a mask,” Reed said, adding that people can contact her through her city email for masks.
Reed said the city is beginning messaging to spread information about the executive order today.
“We want people to understand that wearing a mask is just like you’re putting on your clothes or your shoes,” she said. “It’s now a part of the new normal.”
Documents on the order will be posted in English, Spanish, Arabic, Kurdish, Russian, Swahili and French, according to Reed.
“It’s definitely not political for me. It’s a health issue,” Reed said.