Northern Virginia will be moving into Phase One of reopening non-essential businesses on Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam indicated Tuesday, and the state will begin requiring all residents to wear masks in indoor public spaces.

Northam said he will make an official announcement Wednesday, but in response to a question about whether he will approve the region’s move into Phase One on Friday, he said, “Yes, that is the plan.”

Northern Virginia, Accomack County on the Eastern Shore and the city of Richmond all were delayed from entering into Phase One when the rest of the state did so on May 15.  Phase One loosens restrictions on non-essential businesses, allowing hair salons to open, restaurants, wineries and breweries to begin offering outdoor dining, and retail establishments and churches to operate at 50% capacity.

The Northern Virginia localities affected by the delay were the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William, all the towns in those counties, and the cities of Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park.  Adjacent localities such as Clark, Fauquier and Stafford counties were able to enter Phase One.

“We all understand that businesses need clarity and time to prepare,” Northam said, while noting that no business is required to reopen under Phase One. “Just because you can open doesn’t mean you have to open.”

At the same time, as he had hinted Friday, Northam said that effective Friday, the state will begin requiring all residents to wear face coverings inside public places, such as restaurants, stores, public transit, government buildings or anywhere else where people congregate. However, failure to wear a mask will not be a crime or incur a civil penalty and will not be enforced by police officers or sheriff’s departments, he said.  Instead, the requirement will be enforced by the Virginia Department of Health, which issues licenses and conducts business inspections.

“I’m not looking for people to get in trouble for not wearing a mask, but I am looking for people to do the right thing,” Northam said. “Science increasingly shows us the virus spreads less easily when everyone wears face coverings … This is about protecting those around us, especially our workers…. We’re trying to promote safety.”

Exceptions will be made for patrons who are eating or drinking in restaurants, people who exercising, anyone whose health condition keeps them from wearing a mask and children under the age of 10.

Northam said masks don’t need to be medical grade and even bandanas will suffice.  “If you don’t have protective facial covering, please make arrangements.”

Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said the health department will only be enforcing what he called “gross negligence” by a business that refuses to adopt a policy requiring customers to wear masks.   He noted that under the Phase One reopening, employees at public-facing businesses must wear masks.

Northam also said that the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry will be developing emergency regulations to cover businesses that are not open to the public. The regulations would set standards for wearing of personal protective equipment, sanitation, record-keeping and reporting of hazards.

Northam and Mercer indicated they may seek legislation when the Virginia General Assembly meets in special session this summer that would allow for civil fines to be assessed against individuals who don’t wear masks indoors but that the state does not have the authority to do so currently.

The governor said he does not have a timeline for how long the mask requirement would remain in place. “As soon as it’s safe to lift this guideline, we will.”

Northam began his news conference by addressing criticism that arose Saturday when he visited Virginia Beach to check on the first weekend of reopening there and was photographed on the boardwalk without a mask on.  He said he was on his way to talk to reporters when several visitors recognized him and asked to take photos with him.

“I was not prepared because my mask was in the car,” he said. “I take full responsibility for that.  In the future, when I’m out in public, I will be better prepared.”

Northam said the reopening of the beach went well and could be a model for reopening other beaches around the country. “Most people did the right thing. People were social distancing on the beach. They were following the rules.”

Northam said he doesn’t have a timeline for moving the rest of the state into Phase Two of reopenings, which would allow restaurants to open some indoor seating and indoor gyms and fitness centers to reopen. In a letter to Northam on Monday, Northern Virginia government leaders suggested their region could move into Phase Two at the same time as the rest of the state.

In a separate letter over the weekend, Northern Virginia health officials said the region had met four of the six metrics necessary to move into Phase One and needed state assistance on the other two: sustainable inventory of personal protective equipment for long-term care facilities and first responders and adequate contact tracing efforts.

Northam said progress is being made in both of those areas, noting the state’s plan to hire more than 1,000 contact tracers. “That process is moving forward nicely,” he added. “We are encouraged by the numbers that we see.”

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