Wear a mask, or else.
Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday said businesses that don’t enforce his mask mandate risk losing their licenses, and patrons demanding service without face coverings could be charged with misdemeanors.
“I want to make it clear: These enforcement actions are to stop the people who are clearly flouting the rules. You are being selfish, and you are hurting everyone who is doing the right thing to help us all beat this virus,” he said.
Northam called a press conference to discuss his alarm at the rise of cases of COVID-19 in the Hampton Roads area that is attributed mostly to younger people partying at bars and houses.
“It is clear Step 1 is stronger enforcement of existing regulations because, quite frankly, of noncompliance,” Northam said.
Northam said Virginia’s cases of COVID-19 are increasing since the relaxation of regulations that allowed for gatherings of 250 or more people and for restaurants to serve patrons inside. He said he is taking action before the disease spirals out of control as has happened in Florida and Texas.
“We don’t live in a vacuum. We border five other states and the District of Columbia. Hampton Roads is a big tourist hub for the East Coast,” he said. “If we don’t take this seriously now, we could see bigger increases across our commonwealth.”
Northam said health district directors will be told to enforce physical distancing, and the ABC has been asked to move last call to earlier in the evening.
Dr. Norman Oliver, the state’s health commissioner, said the Health Department has 500 inspectors and will bring on another 100 to make sure businesses are complying.
Enforcement teams with the ABC and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will fan out across the state, doing unannounced visits and possibly revoking licenses.
Northam said businesses should refuse service to anyone without a face covering and call the police to report them as trespassers if they refuse to leave. Individuals could also be charged with a misdemeanor, although he said he is still looking for a way to make it a civil, not a criminal, violation.
“We are not looking to arrest people. But none of this would be necessary if people would just do the right thing,” he said. “All we’re asking is to keep the social distance and wear a face covering.”
Northam also provided information on the five health regions that was added Tuesday to the Virginia Department of Health’s dashboard. He said that overall, the state’s cases are increasing, but that cases are “dramatically down” in Northern Virginia, where two-thirds of Virginians live.
“Our Southwest region has seen a small uptick in cases, but the percent positivity [of test results] is still low,” he said.
While the less populous Southwest’s case numbers are small in comparison to other regions, the number of daily infections has risen by more than 30% in recent weeks in the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts.
“On the 14th of June, a month ago, it took off and we are seeing about 35 cases a day now on average per week. So the numbers have definitely risen, definitely seen an increase, and it has not slowed down as of today,” said Dr. Thomas Kerkering, an infectious disease physician who is on the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts’ communicable disease team.
“Our busiest day was June 18, when we had 70 positive cases. Many of those cases were related to people returning from Myrtle Beach. Since that time, the number of cases has stayed up dramatically. They are not, of course, all related to Myrtle Beach,” Kerkering said Tuesday. “It’s just that the COVID is more ensconced in our community now.”
The area saw a large spike in cases linked to the South Carolina tourist destination. Those people infected others who did not travel.
Of the health districts’ 1,543 cases, 385 are active, meaning the person tested positive within the last 14 days. Kerkering said about one-third of the cases are linked to current outbreaks at manufacturing plants, construction sites, restaurants, a retail store and a long-term care facility.
“Early on, about 60% of our cases were related to outbreaks. We are seeing now more transmission in family units and other areas,” he said. “We are still seeing outbreaks, but the percentage of cases due to outbreaks is going down.”
He said that is bearing out in the rise in cases among family, friends and other contacts from the Myrtle Beach cases of two weeks ago.
Hispanics are still being disproportionately affected, accounting for 23% of the total cases, but that figure is down from 30% of the cases a few weeks ago.
The Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts are holding a series of free testing events for which prescreening and appointments are not necessary.
One was held Tuesday at the Salem Civic Center. Others are July 21 at the Botetourt County Health Department, July 23 at Green Ridge Recreation Center, July 28 at the Roanoke City Health Department and July 29 at the Craig County Health Center.
All of the testing events are 5 to 7 p.m.
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