Thomas Jefferson Health District officials have received about 200 complaints for non-compliance with Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order requiring face masks as questions of enforcement linger when businesses and people don’t cooperate with the rule.
Health district officials say they are teaming up with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control to make sure restaurants, bars and venues follow the face mask mandates. For businesses over which the health district does not have regulatory power, officials said they will work with those state agencies that do.
“It’s safe to say the health district has about 200 complaints for businesses from restaurants to grocery stores and retail stores,” said Kathryn Goodman, district spokeswoman. “If it’s a restaurant, we follow up in 24 hours. We’re trying to follow up on complaints as quickly as we can. If it’s a retail business, we refer the complaint to the lead agency, such as the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.”
The Thomas Jefferson Health District is one of 35 health districts under the Virginia Department of Health and serves an estimated 250,000 people in the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson.
The state health department and its districts remained in charge of investigating complaints and enforcing the requirements in Northam’s Executive Order 67 signed on June 30. That order allowed larger gatherings and permitted more businesses to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Wednesday, Northam ordered stricter enforcement of the executive order when the number of COVID-19 cases surged after the order lifted some restrictions on bars, beaches and public gatherings and people flocked to these locales, often without face coverings and in close proximity.
“It is clear that step one is stronger enforcement because, quite frankly, of non-compliance,” Northam said at a Wednesday press conference. “If you are a restaurant or a business and not following regulations, your license will be on the line.”
University of Virginia students in town last weekend to celebrate the annual Midsummers tradition were seen packing into night spots and restaurants, as well as parties, ignoring requirements for both face masks and social distancing.
“Despite rapidly rising cases of COVID-19 in many parts of the country, students were observed by peers and others in the community disregarding social distancing requirements and forgoing use of facial masks,” Allen W. Groves, UVa’s dean of students, wrote in an email to the university community Wednesday.
Groves said he heard some students defended themselves by saying they are young, healthy and not at risk of serious health conditions caused by COVID-19.
“To be clear, such an argument should be seen by each of us as repugnant to any idea of fundamental decency towards our fellow citizens,” Groves wrote.
The governor said businesses should refuse to serve maskless patrons, calling police if the patrons refuse to leave. He also directed enforcement teams made up of state agencies to conduct unannounced visits to enforce the rules.
“If a patron in your establishment is violating the rules, you have the ability to say no service,” Northam said. “You don’t have to serve a patron who is not wearing a face mask. You can tell them to leave, and if they don’t, they are trespassing and you can in turn call the police.”
Goodman said the health district prefers to educate business owners and patrons rather than take enforcement actions that may range from restrictions on business to shutting down an establishment or seeking misdemeanor criminal charges.
“We try to be sure that people understand the rules and have what they need to make sure patrons can wear face masks,” she said. “Our goal is to educate the businesses and make sure they have policies and procedures in place.”
Because the health department is not a law enforcement organization, a complaint filed with the district will not result in immediate enforcement.
“It is hard to enforce this,” Goodman said. “But businesses do have the right to refuse service to any patron not wearing a mask.”
Several chain stores recently started requiring customers to don masks. On Thursday, Target and CVS announced national masking requirements. They joined Costco, Walmart, Best Buy, Kohl’s, Harris Teeter and Kroger.
“To be clear, we’re not asking our store employees to play the role of enforcer,” Jon Roberts, chief operating officer at CVS, told The Associated Press. “What we are asking is that customers help protect themselves and those around them by listening to the experts and heeding the call to wear a face covering.”
The face mask requirement has become a source of contention, taking on political connotations and resulting in angry and violent confrontations across the country.
In a suburb of Lansing, Michigan, a man not wearing a mask knifed a 77-year-old mask-wearing man after being called out for not covering his face. The attacker was later shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy after rushing the deputy with the knife.
Locally, customers have yelled at each other about mask wearing, fumed to store management about those not wearing masks and harangued store employees who ask them to mask up.
Although few studies have been published, psychologists at several universities suggest the fervor and furor over mask requirements is likely due to pandemic-caused stress and insecurity at a time when jobs are being lost, the economy is listless, an election is approaching and people are being bombarded with news and views.
“The pandemic is a different time for everyone and uniquely challenging to each individual,” said Elizabeth Irving, executive director of the Charlottesville-based Women’s Initiative, which provides counseling and support for area women. “We know that anxiety and depression are increasing, as well as a sense of isolation, and a lot of people feel powerless.”
For some, being required to wear a mask makes them feel like they are losing more control over their lives, some psychologists have suggested. But Irving said wearing a mask can be a way of taking control.
“When you feel anxious and overwhelmed and everything seems out of control, making the decision to wear a mask is one way you can feel that you’re doing something positive for yourself,” she said. “It can feel like a proactive step: You’re doing something to increase your safety and that of others.”
Irving said limiting time on social media and news and political programs is another way to ease anxiety and anger.
“It can be incredibly hard to take a break because the flow of information has become such a part of our daily lives, but it’s important to step back and take a break,” she said.