(The Center Square) – Gov. Ralph Northam intends to let the COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency expire June 30, which could affect mask wearing throughout the commonwealth and the remaining restrictions on businesses.
Virginia law normally prohibits a person from covering one’s face with the intent of concealing one’s identity in public spaces, which was put on hold during the state of emergency. According to the Virginia code, a person can only wear a mask in certain situations, which include a legitimate medical reason when advised by a physician or during a health-related state of emergency when the governor expressly waives this section of law.
With the governor ending the state of emergency, it’s unclear whether wearing a mask in public could be grounds for prosecution absent a doctor’s note. The governor has said a person would not be prosecuted for wearing a mask and that he has been in contact with police groups that told him police would not arrest anyone for wearing a mask. The provision that states a person would only be guilty when intending to conceal his or her identity with the mask could be difficult to prove when a person is simply following guidelines from the governor’s office and the Center for Disease Control.
The prohibition on wearing a mask to conceal one’s identity carries a penalty of a Class 6 felony.
Although Northam has said he does not think there will be a problem, he has encouraged the General Assembly to make changes to the law to add clarification. The General Assembly will not meet until August.
The expiration of the state of emergency could also lead to a change in regulations imposed on businesses by the Department of Labor and Industry’s Safety and Health Codes Board. The board is required to meet within 14 days of the expiration to consider changes or the elimination of permanent regulations established earlier this year.
Department regulations have caused some confusion among business owners because they require face masks for some employees regardless of vaccination status. This conflicts with the governor’s executive order, which says employees do not have to wear masks in most fields if they are fully vaccinated. Other regulations require the businesses to purchase personal protective equipment, sanitization rules, training rules and reporting rules related to COVID-19.
Robert Melvin, the director of government affairs at the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, told The Center Square that these regulations became outdated about six months after they were adopted. He urged a full repeal.
“It’s costing them time and money,” Melvin said. “We think that these standards need to be eliminated.”
Melvin said DOLI has informed businesses there is no conflict between the governor’s guidance and the regulations, but that he’s received calls from members who expressed confusion about the apparent contradictions. He said the state should leave further rules to health officials.