Gov. Ralph Northam now requires Virginians to wear masks in public places, but that doesn’t mean everyone is following the rules.
You’ve seen them: In grocery stores, restaurants, malls – big smiles but no facemask.
So, what do you do?
Locally, some have taken the task into their own hands.
Cathy Lewis posted to her Facebook page in June asking what people would do if they were in a store and saw others without a mask on. As the host of a local radio show, Lewis’ social media followers responded voraciously about various businesses and experiences and she realized something needed to be done.
“I saw quickly the high passion for people on both sides of the issue,” she said. “And it was evident in some answers from people, like immunocompromised people, that it’s a really serious issue.”
That’s how Lewis came up with the idea to start the Facebook group Mask-Friendly Businesses in the 757. It already had more than 2,500 members in less than a month and needed multiple administrators. Lewis said there are regularly about 200 people waiting to be approved for the group as well.
“There’s a couple of reasons for the popularity of the group,” Lewis said. “I think there is a subset of the population that is at greater risk for this and when [Northam] announced a spike in cases in Hampton Roads, that’s when requests to join increased significantly.”
Spike, indeed. Just look at the numbers from the Virginia Department of Health.
The group was designed as a place where people could post about businesses that are following the mask mandate, and those not following it strictly, so others can know where it’s safest to go. Members post daily about their experiences in various businesses, reporting if the employees or guests were wearing masks or if there didn’t seem to be much enforcement about the mask policy.
There are some rules to join the group. Lewis said it wasn’t designed as a place where people can debate the merit of wearing masks. Members have to agree they won’t belittle people or start arguments with individuals not wearing masks. The purpose of the group is to be informational for those who want to wear masks and go places where masks are enforced.
It has become more efficient with how people can find information as well. Members have to tag their posts with a particular business or city so that way members can search the page easily for various businesses in their area.
“Even with the nationwide store policies, people’s experience in different stores can be different,” she said. “I thought [the group] might be good because I think this virus will be with us for a while, so we have to figure out how to live with it and this is part of that.”
Lewis said the group isn’t trying to demonstrate fault in information from any state agencies, but rather is trying to fill the gap where the government might not be able to.
The Virginia Department of Health has also started to crack down on mask enforcement. The department recently created an online reporting system where people can file a complaint about businesses or locations that are not adhering to the mask mandate.
According to Northam’s Executive Order 63, those in violation of the mask mandate can now be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.
As for mask enforcement in businesses, Irene Ferrainolo, spokeswoman for the Peninsula Health District, said different state agencies oversee the enforcement of the order in various businesses. If a business is in violation, then they are at risk of losing their license.
Ferrainolo said if the complaint involves a restaurant or a public swimming pool, then the Virginia Department of Environmental Health would investigate.
Upon further investigation, the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation oversees the licenses of other practices including hair salons and real estate agencies.
But there are variables that exempt certain people from wearing face coverings. For example, those exercising or using exercise equipment are not required to wear a mask. This exemption also applies to people with underlying health conditions.
Terry Banez, CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Business Council, said it’s up to the independent businesses who they allow into their facilities. Businesses have the right to decide who they serve and who they turn away.
Page three of Northam’s order specifically states, “Any person who declines to wear a face covering because of a medical condition shall not be required to produce or carry medical documentation verifying the stated condition nor shall the person be required to identify the precise underlying medical condition.”
“It is up to the business owner to say ok, and accept that,” Ferrainolo said. She said so far, the Peninsula Health District has not received calls or complaints from people who have been rejected from businesses for underlying health reasons.
“If you’re out and about, whatever your health issue is, it’s probably not sufficient enough to prevent you from wearing a mask,” Ferrainolo said. “But unless you are having an active asthma attack, there is no reason to not wear a mask. In fact, that could be a reason to wear a mask because you have a condition that easily could be exacerbated by COVID.”
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