Mask requirement gets spotty response

Two customers at the Norton Walmart comply with the mask requirement while shopping shortly after noon Friday. By a reporter’s observations, roughly half the customers inside were not wearing any face covering.  JEFF LESTER PHOTO Two customers at the Norton Walmart comply with the mask requirement while shopping shortly after noon Friday. By a reporter’s observations, roughly half the customers inside were not wearing any face covering. JEFF LESTER PHOTO

Judging from behavior seen locally since Friday morning, enforcement of a state requirement to wear face masks in some settings could come down to this:

Do you, citizen, care more about another person’s legitimate health concerns than about your own concept of personal liberty? Or vice versa?

Friday marked the beginning of a new executive order from Gov. Ralph Northam, requiring Virginians to wear a face covering in certain indoor settings until further notice to help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

These include personal care and grooming businesses; food and drink establishments; retail stores; entertainment venues; government buildings; and public transportation facilities. The governor included exemptions when eating or drinking in a restaurant; while exercising; if you have a health condition that prevents wearing a mask; and for children younger than 10.

Here’s a snapshot of how people in Wise County and Norton were reacting to the mask rule starting Friday, based on observations from several Coalfield Progress staff members:

• In most retail stores, easily half the customers were not wearing any kind of face coverings. In some stores, few or no customers wore masks.

• In several retail stores, at least some store employees were not wearing face coverings, or they were wearing them with mouths covered and noses exposed.

• In most retail stores, no signs were posted informing customers of the requirement to wear a mask or face covering.

• Customers in supermarkets and pharmacies seemed more willing to wear a mask than in other stores.

• When asked, some customers and some employees at local stores said they would not wear a mask because they believe the governor’s order violates their personal liberties.


Gov. Northam’s executive order created what could become an enforcement nightmare.

When he announced the mask requirement May 26, Northam specified that police and sheriff’s departments would not be expected to take charge of enforcement. Instead, that responsibility falls to state and local health department officials.

But the executive order makes not wearing a mask in the required settings a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Friday, the newspaper emailed several questions about enforcement strategies and specifics to Dr. Eleanor Sue Cantrell, director of the health districts serving the coalfield region.

A response came back from Robert Parker, state health department spokesman for the region from Roanoke west, writing on behalf of Cantrell.

Along with stating the basics of Northam’s requirement, Parker wrote: “For questions or concerns, call 1-877-ASK-VDH3. Please do NOT call the local health department or law enforcement (unless for criminal activity such as trespassing or disorderly conduct).

“VDH will take an educational approach by advising the public and businesses of the requirement.

“Virginians should do the right thing and wear a mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 to protect public health. Continue to practice other preventative actions, such as hand washing, social distancing and disinfecting frequently-used surfaces.”

Monday morning, state health department Public Information Officer Julie Grimes sent a followup email noting that a frequently-asked-questions document is available.

Here’s what it says about enforcement:

• Businesses can tell customers they are not allowed to enter without a face covering.

• In the case of “egregious violations,” the health department can choose to pursue a civil summons or warrant “through a judicial process prior to any potential arrest, which distinguishes this from a Class One misdemeanor through the criminal code.”

• Citizens who have a concern are advised to first talk with the business owner. “It that doesn’t work, you can call 1-877-ASK-VDH3.”

• Businesses will not be held legally responsible for enforcing the executive order regarding customers, but they are responsible for enforcing a previous executive order requiring some employees to wear masks.

• If a business asks a customer to leave and the person refuses, “then they are likely trespassing and you may call local law enforcement.”

Also, several questions about how enforcement will work were sent to Wise County/Norton Commonwealth Attorney Chuck Slemp.

The combination of a possible misdemeanor charge and placing enforcement responsibility on health officials “basically made the mandate that masks be worn very difficult to enforce,” Slemp wrote.

However, under the law, health officials could go to the local magistrate and swear out warrants, and the governor could instruct state troopers to serve them, Slemp noted. Also, the governor has the option to request that the state attorney general prosecute violations.

Slemp said he personally wears a face mask in all the appropriate settings because he believes he and other people should be considerate of fellow citizens who are concerned about the possibility of getting sick.

While legal enforcement of the governor’s order is a thorny challenge, Slemp wrote in an email: “I urge people to be safe and use their common sense. Show compassion to your neighbors. In particular, if you are often around our older citizens or those at higher risk, I urge you to wash your hands, wear masks, and maintain distance as much as possible. If you are sick, please seek medical attention and do not go to work, a store, or restaurant until the doctor clears you. We all knew these common sense precautions well before any lockdown was imposed and now is not the time to ignore them even if we disagree with the governor’s orders. In Wise County, we’ve never needed the government to tell us how to act for the good of our fellow man. I have faith that we will take care of each other now as we always have.”