Gov. Ralph Northam press briefing Tuesday, May 26

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that a statewide face-covering rule would go into effect this Friday.

Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged Tuesday he “was not prepared” when he agreed to take photos with well-wishers at Virginia Beach over the weekend; he said he left his face mask in the car. But he wants the rest of Virginia to do better and announced a statewide face-covering rule starting Friday, May 29.

“I was not prepared because my mask was in the car. I take full responsibility for that. People held me accountable, and I appreciate that,” Northam said during his press briefing on Tuesday, May 26, regarding his being caught on camera chatting with groups of people and snapping selfies on the Virginia Beach oceanfront on Saturday.

“In the future, when I’m out in the public, I will be better prepared,” he added.

Northam’s weekend gaffe, which was posted on social media and criticized by some GOP lawmakers, a put him in a tough spot given that he hinted last Friday that he might impose a statewide face mask rule as soon as this week in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 as the state lifts pandemic restrictions.

But Northam went ahead with those plans anyway, saying Tuesday that all Virginians will be required to wear face coverings while inside public places, including stores, barber shops, restaurants, on public transportation, in government buildings, “or anywhere people can congregate in groups.”

“I am taking this step because science increasingly shows us that the virus spreads less easily when everyone is wearing face-coverings,” Northam added.

There are some exceptions. Face-coverings won’t be required outdoors, while eating and drinking in restaurants or while exercising. 

People with health conditions that keep them from wearing a face covering won’t be required to wear one, nor will children under the age of 10.

But Northam, the only governor in the U.S. who is also a physician, also said that speaking as a doctor, he “strongly recommends that any child who is 3 years old or older should wear a face covering to the extent possible.”

“I want to be clear,” he added. “This is about protecting those around us, especially our workers.”

Face coverings do not need to be medical grade and people can make their own out of bandanas, Northam added. 

The governor noted that finding face coverings or masks will likely be difficult for “our most vulnerable groups,” but said he hoped community groups would help to provide masks for those who need them.

Northam stressed that he’s hoping people will voluntarily comply with the rule and noted that police officers and sheriff’s deputies will not be asked to enforce the measure. 

That will instead be up to the Virginia Department of Health, which has the authority to issue warnings or revoke operating licenses for businesses deemed “grossly negligent actors” on the face-covering rule, said Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff.

“We’re not talking about if someone forgets to wear their mask. We’ll have a warning, and hopefully someone will remember to wear it the next time,” Mercer said. “This is for businesses that are grossly negligent and refusing to adopt this policy. And VDH, in the restaurants they oversee, they’ll be able to enforce this.”

Mercer said the Virginia Department and Labor and Industry has also been asked to write new pandemic workplace guidelines aimed at keeping workers safe. Once those are in place, presumably in the coming weeks, workers would be able to file complaints with the department regarding violations of the guidelines, including a lack of enforcement of the face-covering rule.

Northam noted that the General Assembly will likely return to Richmond for a special session in either July or August, during which they might discuss a civil penalty for people who violate the mandate.

Northern Virginia expected to enter Phase 1

In response to a reporter’s question, Northam also said Tuesday he expects that Northern Virginia counties will be granted permission to move into Phase 1 by Friday, May 29, as expected.

Northam said that since Friday, “the [COVID-19] numbers have continued to be directionally correct” both across the state and in Northern Virginia.

“While one death is too many, the numbers over the weekend continue to show that our percent-positivity [rate] is trending downward. Our hospital capacity remains sufficient. Our testing is increasing and hospitalizations of people with a positive or pending COVID-19 test are trending slightly downward,” Northam said.

“The virus clearly is still here, but overall, these numbers are trending in the right direction,” he added. “That is the assessment of our state team, and it is the assessment of our health directors across Northern Virginia.”

Prince William Health District and the state reported record numbers of new daily COVID-19 cases over the weekend, but that also corresponded with new highs in daily testing. 

Northam’s administration is looking more closely at the state’s percent-positivity rate on new tests, which has declined statewide in recent days from about 15% to 14.1%.

The Prince William Health District had the highest percent-positivity rate in the state until Monday, when it fell behind that of the Lord Fairfax Health District. The local percent-positivity rate fell to 22.3% on Tuesday, while Lord Fairfax had a percent-positivity rate of 25.5%, and Fairfax County, a rate of 22.4%.

(The percent-positivity rate in the Rappahannock-Rapiday Health District, of which Fauquier County is a part, was 21.9%, as of today.)

Cases and deaths in the Prince William Health District have spiked in recent days, however. The county, Manassas and Manassas Park have lost 23 people to COVID-19 since Friday, May 22.

Still, the health directors of Prince William, Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, as well as the City of Alexandria, wrote a letter to the governor on Sunday indicating that the region had met four of the six needed health metrics to move into Phase 1; the region still does not have enough contact tracers and enough personal protective equipment for first responders and health care offices.

Northam said that state officials would continue to work on those issues this week and that he would disclose more details about the plans for Northern Virginia in the coming days.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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