(The Center Square) – Some businesses and business groups are criticizing Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order that requires wearing face masks inside businesses, claiming it puts them in a tough position and legal requirements for enforcement are not clear.
After most of Virginia already had begun phase one of reopening the economy without a face mask requirement, the governor added this regulation onto the list of requirements for businesses reopening.
The mandate said every person, whether employee or customer, must wear a face mask when inside a public indoor area, with only a few exceptions. A person does not have to wear a face mask when eating or exercising, and a person with certain conditions who shouldn’t wear a face mask for long periods of time are not required to.
Refusing to wear a face mask is punishable by a Class One misdemeanor, but Northam said the police will not generally be involved in enforcing the order. He also said businesses will not be tasked with enforcing the mandate, but said business owners can ask those who refuse to leave or contact the Virginia Department of Health with a complaint. Although he said there’s no requirement on businesses to enforce the mandate, he said the Department of Health could get involved if a business is grossly negligent.
According to a FAQ put out by the governor’s office, however, businesses can decide whether they want to serve a person violating the order. Police would be involved only if a business asks a person without a mask to leave and the person refuses, which would be a trespassing violation.
“The expectation is that there will be a high level of compliance and that most people who aren't wearing masks just need a reminder or need to be educated as to why it is important to wear a face covering,” Julie Grimes, the public information officer for the Virginia Department of Health, told The Center Square.
Some businesses and business groups do not think it’s that simple.
The order is “very ambiguous” and the governor's explanations provide “more questions raised than answers given,” Robert Melvin, the director of government affairs at the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, told The Center Square.
Melvin said much of the confusion stems from Northam saying businesses are not required to enforce the order, but the Department of Health could be involved if there is gross negligence. He said some businesses he works with are still not sure what they have to do, even after the governor provided clarification. He said the governor should issue clearer guidelines or, preferably, do away with the order altogether.
Melvin said businesses also have concerns about face mask exceptions. He said there’s uncertainty about when a person must wear a face mask when dining and when the person can take the face mask off.
Matthew Simmons, the president of Capital Ale House and Fest Biergarten, told The Center Square his concern about the mandate comes with the enforcement. He said businesses are being asked to report violations to the Department of Health, but he is “dumbfounded by that scenario.”
“We always strive for a frictionless experience for our guests and try not to build walls between us,” Simmons said. “This puts us in a very bad position. If we enforce the mandate and not allow guests inside the building without a mask, we will have conflicts with those who feel strongly about not wearing them. If we don’t enforce the mandate, our staff may feel we are not adequately protecting their safety.”
The Virginia Chamber of Commerce also has come out against the face mask requirement.
"As businesses continue to adapt to the current environment and restrictions associated with ... the ‘Forward Virginia’ plan, it is unreasonable to hold them accountable for the enforcement of this new mandate, which could create unsafe situations for workers tasked with confronting non-compliant customers,” Virginia Chamber President and CEO Barry DuVal said in a statement. “The Virginia Chamber continues to strongly encourage the use of face coverings to prioritize the safety of our citizens, but is deeply concerned by the burden the enforcement of this mandate will place on the thousands of businesses throughout the commonwealth.”
Most of Virginia has begun phase two of reopening, but Richmond and northern Virginia still are in phase one.