How strictly are Virginia’s social distancing orders being enforced? Court records show just a few citations.

By: - April 2, 2020 4:26 pm

On Brown’s Island, a busy park along downtown Richmond’s riverfront, a sign advises people to stay six feet apart. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

For more than a week, it’s technically been unlawful for Virginians to gather in groups of 10 or more people. 

But since Gov. Ralph Northam issued his main executive order on March 23 to stop the spread of COVID-19, state court records show just two cases of people being formally charged for violating social distancing rules, though those records may not reflect all citations.

On March 28, three summonses were issued when revelers refused to leave a house party on the Eastern Shore after being given a warning, according to Northampton County Sheriff David L. Doughty Jr. The sheriff said there were around 20 people at the party.

“Like everyone else, we’re trying to issue warnings and hoping we’re getting compliance,” Dougherty said in an interview, adding that deputies have also had to break up big gatherings on his county’s beaches. “In most of the other cases we’re getting total compliance.”

Another citation for violating the governor’s emergency order occurred March 25 in Pittsylvania County. The Pittsylvania sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for additional details on the case Wednesday and Thursday.

Though the governor’s coronavirus orders carry the threat of a misdemeanor charge, the scarcity of citations shows the extent to which state and local officials are, so far, largely relying on Virginians to police themselves. Since the crisis began, Northam has made clear he’s more interested in voluntary compliance than draconian measures that severely restrict daily life or result in criminal charges.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Virginia State Police had not issued any citations related to the emergency orders, according to State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.

We have received some calls around the state from concerned citizens and have responded to those businesses simply to discuss the situation with them and make certain management is fully aware of the governor’s mandate,” Geller said in an email.

Both State Police and local law enforcement can enforce the governor’s executive orders. 

A search of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s statewide court database yielded only the two cases in Northampton and Pittsylvania counties according to results provided Wednesday by court officials. 

However, it’s possible there have been other coronavirus-related citations that have yet to show up in the state’s centralized court database.

The state’s largest city, Virginia Beach, said it issued one summons on March 27. That case was not reflected in the records provided by the Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary, the central administrative office for the state’s judicial system.

The Virginia Mercury filed a Freedom of Information Act request for cases related to Northam’s coronavirus orders since March 23, the day the governor issued a formal order banning large gatherings and closing restaurant dining rooms, gyms, theaters, salons and other businesses deemed at risk of speeding the spread of the virus.

Local law enforcement agencies in several of the state’s most populous counties — including Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties — said this week that they had not cited anyone under the emergency orders and are instead relying mainly on education and outreach.

Our goal is 100 percent voluntary compliance with the governor’s orders through education,” said Ashley Savage, a spokeswoman for the Arlington County Police Department. “Officers have been sharing information about the orders to community members and conducting proactive checks of all businesses to ensure compliance with those that are required to be closed and those permitted to be open while complying with social distancing requirements.”

The police department in James City County, which has the highest per capita infection rate in the state, said Tuesday it had issued no citations.

Northam’s March 23 executive order said explicitly that people who violate the ban on large gatherings, businesses subject to the mandatory closure that remain open and businesses that fail to adhere to social distancing rules could be hit with a Class 1 misdemeanor. The maximum penalties for the charge are a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail.

A pedestrian bridge across the James River in downtown Richmond was crowded hours after Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay at home order. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The governor’s move Monday to incorporate those rules into a formal stay-at-home order gave law enforcement explicit authority to charge people who continue to congregate on public beaches that are now closed except for exercise and fishing. In a Facebook video, Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera asked for the public’s voluntary compliance with the order.

“If we do not have voluntary compliance then we’ll have to resort to strict enforcement of the law either by summons, or yes, by physical arrest,” the chief said.

Northam’s order did not empower police to stop or charge anyone just for leaving their home. 

Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, elaborated on the administration’s views on enforcement this week in a radio interview on the John Fredericks Show.

“To go to a Class 1 misdemeanor for leaving your home if you don’t have the proper paperwork on your person or can’t properly articulate to the police where you’re going is just a step right now that we’re not going to take,” Mercer said. “We will obviously continue to evaluate this. But we certainly trust and believe in Virginians to do the right thing.”

On Wednesday, the State Police issued a statement explaining what the agency will and won’t be doing to enforce the governor’s orders, noting that, for safety reasons, state troopers are “minimizing their direct contact with the public.”

The agency said it would evaluate violations on a case-by-case basis and laid out the types of “persistent” rule-breaking that could potentially lead to a citation. But nothing in the governor’s orders, the agency said, prevents Virginia residents from traveling freely on the state’s roads or blocks people from entering or leaving the state.

“Virginia State Police will not be making random traffic stops on vehicles nor conducting checkpoints to determine if a driver is traveling for a permissible reason,” the statement said.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.