Monday, September 25, 2023

Social distancing, mask wearing: Police have to follow them, too but it depends. Here’s what’s up in the Historic Triangle

(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pixabay)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Pixabay)

Social distancing. Wearing a mask. Safer at home.

Phrases rarely used prior to the coronavirus pandemic but now are part of everyday life.

On May 26 Gov. Ralph Northam required Virginians to wear mask inside public places, including retail establishments, personal care businesses and restaurants.

There are exceptions to the rule for people younger than 10 years old, those eating or drinking, exercising, having trouble breathing and those with health conditions.

Other indoor areas include “state and local government buildings and areas where the public accesses services and “any indoor space shared by groups of people who may congregate within six feet of one another or who are in close proximity to each other for more than 10 minutes,” according to Northam’s mandate.

Law enforcement have frequent contacts with the public and presumably are following such guidelines.

Williamsburg and James City County police departments have set guidelines and directions with regards to face coverings and social distancing measures.

The York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office operates in discretionary and encouragement fashions.

“Well it is at the discretion of the individual deputies,” said Capt. Troy Lyons, spokesman for the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office. “We encourage them to wear their masks if that will avoid a controversy in dealing with citizens.”

Lyons said when deputies get dispatched to a call and the person is suspected of or has tested positive for the virus, the deputies are required to wear masks and personal protective equipment if face to face contact is “required.”

As for social distancing, Lyons said they encourage deputies to do that, too.

But how can deputies socially distance during an arrest?

They can’t.

“Well during an actual physical arrest, if you have to handcuff the person, you can’t, you can’t social distance,” Lyons said. “You’ve got to be in close proximity to people, that’s the nature of the job.”

Then there are the photos posted in the sheriff’s office official Facebook page that shows deputies, administrative staff, their guests and even Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Diggs not wearing masks or socially distancing.

Lyons reiterated the mask use is up to the discretion of the individual and as for wearing a mask inside, the sheriff’s office doesn’t require it in the office building.

“I believe in the governor’s order, it exempts those working in government buildings,” Lyons said. “We’ve got a secure area in this building that the public can’t walk into.”

But even in the public area, it’s up to the deputy’s discretion if they choose to wear or not wear a mask, he added.

The sheriff’s office’s Facebook page shows deputies, the sheriff, with no face coverings posing for photos with people who were visiting the office.

Lyons said no one has recently tested positive for the coronavirus. The most recent cases were back in April where five courthouse deputies and one civilian, a deputy’s wife, tested positive. They have all since returned to work.

When asked if Diggs had tested positive, Lyons said no.

“That’s ridiculous question,” Lyons said. “If he had tested positive, believe me, I’m sure that would be publicly known.”

Law enforcement officers have to interact with the public on a daily basis, which means they have one vital form of protection from the coronavirus pandemic: masks.

Officials from both police departments in Williamsburg and James City County said officers follow the same mask procedures and instructions as regular county employees.

In James City County, that means officers are required to wear masks inside county facilities and encouraged to practice social distancing as much as possible, according to the county’s website. Employees are required to wear cloth or other face coverings in areas where social distancing measures might be difficult or while conducting business outside county facilities. 

Those policies have changed since the pandemic first started, said Renee Dallman, spokeswoman for the county.

“We were less likely to require masks at the beginning, but our understanding of the ability to social distance in a variety of workplace situations has necessitated requiring them more often,” Dallman said in an email.

James City County Police Chief Bradley Rinehimer said the department also requested minor adjustments to the original policy, specifically regarding two people riding together in a vehicle.

Police spokeswswoman Stephanie Williams said that does not mean officers are wearing masks in public all the time. However, if a member of the public is being approached by an officer not wearing a mask, the individual might not be able to ask the officer to stay away.

“It would depend on the situation,” Williams wrote in an email. “Officers can still communicate from a safe distance under certain circumstances. A big determining factor would be the reason for the interaction between the officer and the citizen.”

Rinehimer said the department has also canceled or postponed many programs and classes due to the pandemic in order to promote social distancing.

The Williamsburg Police Department also follows similar policies as any other employee with the city, said Charles Ericsson, spokesman for the department. That means officers are required to wear a face covering when in a shared indoor space and when employees are outside and within six feet of another person.

When an officer is not wearing a face mask, it should be on their person and displayed in a way that is visible to others so if the officer is asked to wear the mask, they can do so quickly. Ericsson said if an officer approaches a resident and is not wearing a mask, then the individual can request the officer put the mask on. However in general, officers are required to wear a mask whenever they are interacting with another person.

Officers are also required to wear masks when entering a medical facility, such as a hospital or nursing home.

“While mask wearing is cumbersome and uncomfortable, it is important for officers to keep themselves safe as well as keeping the public we are interacting safe,” Ericsson wrote in an email. 

The department currently has a sufficient stock of personal protective equipment, but officers typically wear a cloth or paper mask for everyday use. The department’s N95 masks are used based on the situation, such as dealing with an individual that is suspected to have been exposed to the virus.

According to the Peninsula Health District, all personnel coming in contact with the general public should wear a mask. People who are infected with the virus release tiny droplets into the air when they talk, cough, or sneeze. Wearing a mask helps prevent these droplets from going airborne or landing on surfaces. Masks also help protect people from inhaling these drops as well.

Irene Ferrainolo, spokeswoman for the Peninsula Health District, recommends cloth face coverings with a double layer of fabric. Individuals should wash their masks after every use. Ferrainolo also advises people hang-dry their masks as machine dryers can wear down the fibers in cloth masks.

The following information is from the Virginia Department of Health’s COVID-19 Daily Dashboard as of Tuesday.

The latest numbers of positive coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the Virginia Department of Health. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)
The latest numbers of positive coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the Virginia Department of Health. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)

WYDaily multimedia reporters Julia Marsigliano, Alexa Doiron and Gabrielle Rente contributed to this report.


Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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