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Northam Administration Reiterates: Mask Order to Be Enforced by VA Dept. of Health, NOT via the Criminal Code

"As [Gov. Northam] noted yesterday, he does not want to put anyone in jail over this"


Yesterday, in his COVID-19 press conference, Gov. Ralph Northam announced his administration’s face-covering requirement. In the press conference, Northam stated:

This is a matter of public health, and as a result, any enforcement that is needed will be done by our health officials. This is not a criminal manner – and our law enforcement, our police, and our sheriffs will not have a role in enforcing this. I’m *not* looking for people to get in trouble by not wearing a mask, but I *am* looking for people to please do the right thing. I am asking people to respect one another.”

Asked about how this would be enforced, Northam reiterated and elaborated:

“Again, this is about people’s health, it’s not about locking people up in jail and giving them large fines. So, it will be done through the Virginia Department of Health…if we were to enforce this through law enforcement, the only authority we have at this time is through a Class 1 misdemeanor, which actually can carry jail time and a large fine, and that’s not what we’re trying to do here. So, I will have discussion with the General Assembly. As you know, they’re going to probably come back either in July or August…and if they will look at the option…something we can discuss, is having a civil fine, for example, that gets us away from a Class 1 misdemeanor, then we’ll have that discussion. But at this time, we’re going to enforce this through the Virginia Department of Health.”

Then, this morning, I saw the following Facebook post, by Tram Nguyen of New Virginia Majority.

The Governor also said yesterday that failing to wear a mask will not be treated as a criminal matter. But the actual EO…

Posted by Tram Nguyen on Wednesday, May 27, 2020

So, that made me curious to get more clarification from the Northam administration. I checked with Northam’s Chief of Staff Clark Mercer and was sent the following statement (bolding added by me for emphasis):

VDH has the power to enforce egregious violations through a court order, punishable by an injunction (civil) or a Class One misdemeanor. This requires VDH to go through a judicial process prior to any potential arrest, which distinguishes this from a Class One misdemeanor through the criminal code. Note the order cites title 32.1-health, and not the criminal code.

While this is an imperfect enforcement mechanism, the Governor does not have the option to himself impose a civil penalty or fine. And as he noted yesterday, he does not want to put anyone in jail over this. We hope and expect Virginians will work together to comply with these important guidelines — and we have an enforcement mechanism in place should egregious violations occur.”

So…hopefully that clears things up, although obviously the enforcement piece of all this is not a simple matter, and can certainly lead to confusion.

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