Virginia Requires Masks Weeks Too Late

A surprisingly slow response from a governor who has been proactive during the crisis.

While I have not been his biggest fan, Governor Ralph Northam has done a solid job handling the Commonwealth’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He moved to close schools early, overruling the incompetent superintendent in Fairfax County. This was soon followed by state-home orders for non-essential workers. And, while he has succumbed to pressure to begin reopening the state economy despite adequate tracking and testing mechanisms in place, he kept the localities in the DC metroplex of Northern Virginia locked down an additional two weeks.

Oddly, however, he did not follow the lead of federal agencies and neighboring Maryland in requiring citizens to wear masks while going into public places. He announced last week that he was thinking about finally getting around to doing so and finally, yesterday, ordered that it would be mandatory (but not really) starting Friday.

WTOP (“Northam: Face coverings required in public in Va. starting Friday”):

Face coverings will be required inside public establishments starting Friday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday. He also addressed photos of him without a face covering interacting with well-wishers in Virginia Beach over the weekend.

At a briefing, Northam said that anywhere people can congregate in groups — including but not limited to stores, restaurants, barbershops, government buildings and public transportation — they must wear face coverings. These are the few exceptions:

*People who are eating or drinking at a restaurant.
*People who are exercising.
*People who have a health condition that prohibits a face covering.
*Those who are under the age of 10, although Northam strongly recommended children over 3 years old to wear one, if possible.

The governor said the order will be enforced by the Virginia Department of Health, not law enforcement, though Northam noted the penalty can be a Class I misdemeanor.

“This is about people’s health; it’s not about locking people up in jail and giving them large fines,” he said.

Chief of staff Clark Mercer said health department enforcement will be akin to health inspections of restaurants, and the state is aware of the equity and practical issues that can arise from enforcing the order.

“This is for businesses that would be grossly negligent and refusing to adopt this policy,” he said.

Practically speaking, then, this is an order for businesses to require customers and employees to wear masks. And, given the unlikelihood of inspection and the number of incidents where people have been shot, or at least accosted, by customers outraged at the requirement, one suspects the policy will be limited to signs requesting compliance.

For that matter, while it makes sense to exclude what one presumes is the very small number of people with medical conditions that preclude their wearing a mask from the order, it creates a loophole one can drive an 18-wheeler through. We’re not, after all, going to make people carry around papers documenting their medical status.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. charon says:

    And, given the unlikelihood of inspection and the number of incidents where people have been shot, or at least accosted, by customers outraged at the requirement,

    Always be culture warring with GOP/Cult45.

  2. JKB says:

    I’m waiting for some creative civil disobedience. Such as, given the stated utility of the face covering, a welding helmet will meet the needs to block droplet ejection, i.e., spittle and also reception from/on one’s mouth or nose.

  3. JKB says:

    We’re not, after all, going to make people carry around papers documenting their medical status.

    Actually VA code 18.2-422. Prohibition of wearing of masks in certain places; exceptions., does require people to carry papers when they wear a mask for medical reasons, so why not the opposite?

    One presumes the governor has properly waived this section as required in the statute for public emergencies. Otherwise, it is misdemeanor to not wear a mask, but a felony to wear one.

    or other device for bona fide medical reasons upon (a) the advice of a licensed physician or osteopath and carrying on his person an affidavit from the physician or osteopath specifying the medical necessity for wearing the device and the date on which the wearing of the device will no longer be necessary and providing a brief description of the device, or (b) the declaration of a disaster or state of emergency by the Governor in response to a public health emergency where the emergency declaration expressly waives this section, defines the mask appropriate for the emergency, and provides for the duration of the waiver.

  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JKB: Please feel free to wear whatever you wish as long as it improves the safety of others from catching whatever it is that you’re suffering from presently.

  5. @JKB: If people want to wear welding helmets, more power to them.

    The degree to which that would constitute creative anything is another discussion.

  6. Gustopher says:

    @JKB: Thumbs down.

    You want a tighter seal, so air containing droplets isn’t just deflected and the droplets are stopped. For you I recommend a plastic bag.

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    @JKB:..civil disobedience.

    You don’t have to wait. Another white cop killed another unarmed black man. There are very angry Citizens in Minneapolis tonight.
    I’m sure that you approve of their rage.