Complaints over Virginia businesses not following mandates flow in

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Complaints against businesses and customers not following COVID-19 re-opening requirements have nearly tripled in less than a month throughout the state.

The Virginia Department of Health launched its online complaint form in June. Since data was first collected in mid-June, people have filed nearly 27,000 complaints against Virginia businesses and customers allegedly not following Governor Ralph Northam’s reopening requirements.

Statewide, there were nearly 9,000 complaints filed from mid-June to mid-July. The number soared to nearly 16,000 within a week after that. As of this week, the number reached nearly 27,000. Business owners and customers are accused of not wearing masks indoors, not social distancing, and being over capacity.

However, VDH’s Environmental Health Director Julie Henderson says recently they’re getting less complaints per day on average. “What I’ve seen in the past two weeks, is that they’re trending down from say 800 all the way down to 350 a day,” she said.

Henderson hopes that means her employees’ hard work is paying off.

“That our targeted enforcement, and our increase in education and getting out there and talking to establishments about the importance of practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings, was helping,” Henderson told 8News on Tuesday. She added that there are outliers. For example, on days when Gov. Northam holds news conferences, they often see a surge of complaints. It’s also important to note a good chunk of the allegations are clearly jokes.

To improve the state’s response and relieve VDH workers, Henderson told 8News that the VDH Environmental Health department is asking the governor for $6 million to hire nearly 100 more workers. She said the staff has been tasked with responding to the pandemic in addition to their work duties before the pandemic. The director said the new staff members would be sent to individual health departments around Virginia to help with things like educating business owners and investigating complaints. A decision has not been made on the request yet.

“We want to make sure that we’re early on doing some prevention, and you know, interacting with restaurants or whoever it is we are getting the complaint on early on, so that they know the requirements and they can protect their customers,” she said.

Henderson told 8News most business owners are trying their hardest to comply with the new requirements. However, some are publicly refusing to follow the new rules. She said Calabash seafood in Hanover County is the first business in central Virginia to lose its permit for violating the governor’s executive orders.

VDH told 8News the owner, Dennis Smith, repeatedly failed to enforce mask wearing and social distancing at his restaurant in Mechanicsville. Roughly 25 complaints poured in against employees and customers inside the restaurant.

VDH says they attempted to educate the owner, Dennis Smith on the regulations, but saw no changes.

On July 27, according to the VDH, his permit was suspended after an inspection conducted with the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Authority.

“Environmental Health staff investigated the complaints made about the restaurant and observed violations of Gov. Northam’s ‘Phase 3’ guidelines during each visit,” Henderson wrote in an email to 8News reporter Alex Thorson.

8News spoke with a manager from Calabash Seafood who denied the suspension saying “they’re trying to suspend it.” The manager passed the rest of our questions to the owner, Dennis Smith. Smith then declined an interview with 8News. His wife said the couples’ attorney advised against it.

Smith has been operating the restaurant for more than two weeks without a permit. The VDH said “the agency may seek criminal misdemeanor charges against the owner or file an injunction in court where a judge would order Mr. Smith to close.”

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