Health officials have fielded more than 3,000 complaints related to Virginia’s mask order

By: - July 2, 2020 12:02 am

A server brings food to customers on the patio at Plaza Azteca in Henrico, Va., May 16, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury

A little more than a month after Gov. Ralph Northam implemented a statewide mask mandate, the Virginia Department of Health has fielded more than 3,000 complaints related to the order.

Follow-up, though, has been almost universally limited to “outreach and assistance,” according to VDH and more than a dozen local health districts that fall under the department’s jurisdiction. The agency has not pursued misdemeanor charges for violations or pulled a permit for any of the businesses it regulates. “Local health districts may have provided written or given verbal warnings, which we would characterize as education,” spokeswoman Marian Hunter wrote in a Tuesday email.

Multiple districts told the Mercury that there had been few occasions of businesses refusing to comply with the order. But many said that fielding and responding to the complaints have become a significant task for local health departments, which have fielded anywhere from “10 to 15-ish” complaints, in the case of Richmond-Henrico, to “close to 100 business-related Executive Order compliance complaints” in the Central Virginia Health District where most revolve around a lack of face coverings or inadequate social distancing, according to the district’s director, Dr. Kerry Gateley.

After the mask order was implemented in late May, VDH set up a centralized call center where Virginians could report “alleged violations” of the mandate. But officials quickly realized that many Virginians were reaching out directly to their local health departments, said Julie Henderson, director of the agency’s Office of Environmental Health Services. Since mid-June, residents have also been able to file complaints through an online form, which allows VDH employees — including staff at local health departments — to report on behalf of the public.

From June 15 to June 30, a total of 3,591 mask-related complaints were filed online. About 21 percent of those involved a grocery or convenience store, followed closely by restaurants at nearly 19 percent. Indoor gun ranges accounted for a total of 18 complaints, and personal care and grooming accounted for 100. Close to 34 percent of the complaints — a total of 1,211 — were filed as “other,” which could range from complaints about specific individuals to complaints about the mask order itself, Henderson said.

The department fielded 134 additional mask-related complaints outside the online portal. According to Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, VDH just started distributing complaints fielded through the call center to local health departments, which “will look at that list regularly to triage and respond,” he wrote in a Tuesday email.

Local health departments universally responded that “educating” businesses on the mask order and other social distancing mandates was their first and preferred response. “We’ve approached each of these situations much like we approach more routine issues regarding restaurants (food permits), septic tank failures, etc., with formal legal or punitive actions being very much a last resort,” Gateley wrote on Tuesday. 

But several local health officials also pointed out that departments are limited in their response. Violating the governor’s mask mandate technically risks a misdemeanor charge, but the administration has stressed that enforcement actions are only intended only for “grossly negligent” businesses. Local health departments also can’t independently pursue civil or criminal charges, so they would have to go through the court system for that type of enforcement, said Dr. Colin Greene, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District.

The administration has also suggested that VDH could pull permits for noncompliance, but local health departments don’t have jurisdiction over every type of business that receives complaints, added Kathryn Goodman, the spokeswoman for the Thomas Jefferson Health District. Those include gun ranges, churches and brick-and-mortar retail stores, which have all accounted for a significant number of calls.

“There’s uniform agreement from the commissioner down to the local health districts that we are not the mask police,” Greene said. “We’d like to be remembered by the community as the group that helped people through this, not tried to punish people.”

That largely leaves local departments to make calls and conduct occasional site visits at businesses that can’t be reached over the phone — or that become the subject of multiple complaints. Whitney Wright, the environmental health manager for the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, said officials are often more focused on helping overwhelmed business owners understand the state’s social distancing mandates.

His department has been conducting COVID-19 assessment surveys with food establishments to go over their operating procedures and distributing posters asking customers to wear face coverings indoors. Greene said his district has been producing public service announcements, including a video on Facebook explaining the importance of masks.

“We’ve been very busy trying to keep up with everything,” Wright added. “We’ve been trying to do whatever we can to help.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.