Virginia Department of Health won’t be conducting inspections to enforce new mask order

Customers sit on the patio for lunch at Mellow Mushroom in Henrico, Va., May 16, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury

The Virginia Department of Health won’t be inspecting or monitoring businesses for compliance with Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent mask order, according to spokeswoman Maria Reppas, who shared additional details of the agency’s enforcement plan with the Mercury on Thursday.

“VDH expects the public to voluntarily comply with the provisions of the order,” Reppas added in an email. Instead, the agency will establish a call center (1-877-ASK-VDH3) to receive “inquiries on alleged violations in the community.”

The details on the plan came two days after Northam announced his plans for the mandate, scheduled to begin on Friday. Every Virginian age 10 and older will be expected to wear a face covering inside nearly all brick-and-mortar establishments, including public transportation, retail stores, government buildings and restaurants — except when customers are eating and drinking.

Northam initially said the new executive order would not be accompanied by criminal charges, hours before the full text of the mandate revealed that violations were punishable by a Class 1 misdemeanor. The administration has signaled that it will focus enforcement of the requirements on “grossly negligent actors,” as Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said in a news conference on Tuesday.

“We’re not talking about someone who forgets to wear their mask,” he continued. “This is for businesses that would be grossly negligent in refusing to adopt this policy.”

Details of the enforcement efforts emphasize that the administration is depending on voluntary compliance for the new mandate. VDH, not law enforcement, is responsible for carrying out the mask order, limiting day-to-day citations of individuals, said Dana Schrad, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Schrad added that police would likely have to get involved if enforcement of the new mandate becomes confrontational, such as in customers who refuse to wear masks and leave public businesses. But Reppas said Thursday that VDH would be primarily responsible for penalizing noncompliant residents or businesses through the court system.

“If there is a willful, egregious violation, VDH can apply to the local magistrate to initiate any legal proceedings against alleged individual(s),” Reppas wrote. Those proceedings can include a civil injunction or a summons and a warrant, according to Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky.

Reppas did not respond to a question on how many VDH employees would be responsible for enforcing the new order. The agency “is looking to hire contractors to assist with enforcing all executive orders related to COVID-19,” she wrote, but “we do yet have a sense of how many contractors that will be.”

Because the agency will not be conducting regular inspections, VDH is asking business owners and customers to enforce the order.

“If we receive information about an individual or individuals being non-compliant, we are going to encourage callers to ask to bring the issue to the business owner immediately while the violation is occurring,” Reppas added. “Business owners should tell non-compliant individuals to either put on a mask or leave the store.”