As COVID-19 restrictions tighten, VDH says no class one misdemeanors pursued in Virginia…yet

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — New coronavirus restrictions are now in effect in Virginia. Governor Ralph Northam’s amended executive orders took effect Monday at 12:01 a.m.

Part of an amended executive order gives the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) more power in regards to who they can take to court. Now, they can also enforce a class one misdemeanor against essential retail businesses like pharmacies and grocery stores. Before this, that enforcement method could only be applied to non-essential businesses.

The stricter punishments are now looming over business owners as the new COVID-19 restrictions take effect. “I feel like a lot of my members today are kind of scrambling,” said Nicole Riley, who directs the state’s chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. The NFIB represents hundreds of small businesses here in central Virginia.

“You’re asking them to kind of come in and be the mask police,” she said Monday. The governor’s new mandates also called for increased cleaning and strict social distancing in businesses.

A class one misdemeanor could send a business owner to jail for up to 12 months, give them a fine up to $2,500, or both.

Riley said enforcing things like mask-wearing is still a challenge for some small businesses.

“The question is, obviously, when you do have that one patron that wants to be difficult, does not want to wear one, we’re always worried about that confrontation and what type of liability that puts on the employer,” Riley said.

The director added that she hopes VDH seriously considers overall safety measures businesses have taken before punishing them.

“We hope they… just be fair with any enforcement that they do feel is necessary,” she said.

Although VDH has been given the power to take a non-essential business to court for a class one misdemeanor for months, VDH told 8News that they haven’t since the start of the pandemic in any part of the state.

VDH explains that when they get numerous complaints about a particular business, local health districts will first educate the business and try to work with them to better comply with the governor’s executive orders. After that, they follow up with the business several times to see how their recommendations are working. If the business still doesn’t comply, they may temporarily suspend their permit. Now, any non-essential or essential retail businesses can be taken to court over it as well.

On Monday, VDH said court is basically their last option after giving businesses several warnings. Health directors have told 8News over the course of the pandemic that they hope it doesn’t get to that point.

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