Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a media briefing on the coronavirus outbreak last month. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is blaming the state’s recent rise in COVID-19 cases on noncompliance with his May mask order. 

At a Tuesday news briefing — his first in three weeks — Northam announced that the state would be stepping up enforcement as a result, especially in the Hampton Roads region, where the number of daily new cases has averaged more than 300 over the last week.

“There is clearly substantial community spread,” Northam said. “A lot of that increase is driven by people socializing without wearing masks — especially young people.” In Virginia, cases among residents aged 25 to 29 have risen by 250 percent compared to early June.

Northam said Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver recently sent a letter to local health district directors reminding them that they have the authority to enforce the state’s mask mandate, which the governor first announced in late May. The Virginia Department of Health, the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — and “other licensing agencies,” Northam said — will also be conducting unannounced inspections at businesses starting this week. 

“The Virginia Department of Health is deploying 100 people to ramp up enforcement,” he added. “And this will happen across the state, but will be particularly focused in the Hampton Roads area. If you own a restaurant and a business and you’re not following the regulations, your license will be on the line.”

Enforcement of the governor’s mask order has been murky since the beginning. Northam initially announced that the mandate would not be criminally enforced, but a later executive order threatened violators with potential misdemeanor charges. Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, clarified that criminal charges and other consequences — including revoking a business license, which the governor said VDH also had the power to do — would be saved for “grossly negligent actors.”

But VDH later clarified that it wouldn’t be conducting inspections to enforce the order. In July, the department’s central office and more than a dozen local health districts also confirmed that VDH has not pursued misdemeanor charges for violations or pulled a permit for any of the businesses it regulates. As of late June, the department had fielded more than 3,000 complaints related to noncompliance.

On Tuesday, Northam also called on businesses themselves to step up enforcement of the order, encouraging a no-service policy for customers not wearing masks.

“It’s just like the signs in many store windows that say ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service,’” he said. “Now it should be ‘No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.’ Remember that you don’t have to serve a patron who’s not wearing a face covering.’”

Nicole Riley, director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Virginia, said the request for business owners to handle enforcement remains “one big concern.” 

“We are grateful that the governor opted for enforcement against violators instead of further restricting all businesses in a particular industry,” she said in a Tuesday statement. 

But “this opens the door for lawsuits against the business,” Riley added, “and in return, the state should offer them legal immunity.”

With rising cases centered in coastal areas, Northam added that he planned to write to mayors in the region to ask for updates on sanitation and public safety plans for local beaches. “I want to make sure those mayors are following through on their promises,” he said. Virginia ABC will also be developing an 11 p.m. cut-off for alcohol sales at restaurants.

The governor said that ramping up enforcement would be his first step in controlling the recent rise in cases, such as reducing the maximum size of gatherings from 250 people to 50. But he stopped short of threatening to roll back the state’s phased reopening plan — a step that’s been taken by other governors in states with rising caseloads.

Northam emphasized that the increase in Virginia has been far more moderate than spikes in other states, including Florida and Texas. Any adjustment in restrictions would happen on a regional basis, he said.

“When all this started, we made guidelines statewide,” he added. “That was to flatten the curve. Now it’s about mitigation, and depending on where that’s needed, we’ll direct those changes.”

In a statement, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, predicted the governor’s switch would create more “defiance” and puts businesses in the difficult spot of confronting non-compliant customers or risk losing their licenses.

“When the governor first issued his mask mandate in May, Virginians were assured that it was not up to businesses to enforce this rule,” Gilbert said. “Real leadership brings people together, it doesn’t make threats. After all, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”