RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Gov. Ralph Northam is ordering that Virginians wear masks while in public indoor spaces, saying the measure is needed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Northam said at a news conference Tuesday that he’s ordering masks be worn starting Friday inside all retail stores, while using public transportation, and in any other indoor places where people congregate.
“This is about protecting those around us, especially our workers,” Northam said.
Northam joins governors in several other states, including neighboring Maryland, who have issued similar requirements.
In practice, Northam’s mask order will be largely voluntary, as the governor said he’s not going to allow any criminal prosecutions of anyone found not wearing a mask. Instead, the governor’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said businesses that are being “grossly negligent” could lose their operating licenses.
“This is not about punishing people,” Northam said. “That’s not what we’re going to do here. We’re trying to promote safety.”
But Republican lawmakers decried the order, saying it places unfair mandates on business owners. Senate Republicans issued a statement saying Northam’s mask order should instead be a voluntary recommendation.
“Virginians are responsible and sufficiently informed to make these determinations for themselves without coercive threats from their leaders,” the statement said.
Prior to the governor’s announcement, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police said law enforcement agencies do not have the resources to place officers at the entrance to every business to enforce the mandatory mask order.
Executive Director Dana Schrad said in a letter to the governor it will be largely up to the business and its untrained employees to confront someone who isn’t wearing a mask, potentially leading to violence. She cited a case in Michigan, where three people were charged earlier this month in the fatal shooting of a security guard after a confrontation over a woman who was not wearing a face mask in a Family Dollar store.
The governor’s 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.
Northam also addressed criticism he’s taken for not wearing a mask while posing for photographs alongside residents during a weekend beach visit. The governor said he was visiting Virginia Beach to see how its reopening was going and left his mask in his vehicle because he wasn’t planning on posing for pictures. He pledged to be better prepared in the future and said he appreciated being held accountable.
“We’re all forming new habits and routines and we’re all adjusting to this new normal,” Northam said.
Also on Tuesday, Northam rejected a request from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to mandate that the city’s churches, barber shops and hair salons stay closed when the city begins its gradual reopening Friday. Northam had previously allowed Richmond, northern Virginia and Accomack County on the Eastern Shore to delay reopening with the rest of the state.
Northam said in a letter sent Tuesday afternoon that the state’s guidelines for Richmond’s reopening should “operate under the same provisions that will apply to all 138 Virginia localities.”