WINCHESTER — Community members and business owners seem split on whether to follow Gov. Ralph Northam's order to wear a mask or face covering in indoor public places.
The mandate went into effect Friday. In addition to wearing masks in indoor public spaces such as stores, the order requires that masks be worn while using public transportation.
But there's plenty of gray area on who is supposed to enforce the order.
Many people think police should help with enforcement, but the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police says police departments across the state lack the resources to do that around the clock in every indoor public space.
Northam suggested health departments would step up and monitor the situation, but that’s not entirely possible either.
“Our job is not going to be to police anybody. We’re not going to respond to individual complaints about individual activities,” Lord Fairfax Health District Director Dr. Colin Greene said Friday. “Those should be addressed with the proprietor of the institution where the behavior is taking place. We’re not going to respond to that. We don’t have a police force.”
The Lord Fairfax Health District includes the city of Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Clarke, Page, Shenandoah and Warren.
Greene said certain circumstances could occur where police or health department officials might get involved, such as a person who is not wearing a mask refusing to leave an establishment, which could result in a trespassing charge, or if a situation at a specific location is spiraling out of control.
“Most of what the health department is going to do at a local level is designate, advise and encourage,” Greene said. “If there is a really egregious violation and it seems like the store owner is complicit with it, that we can do something about. We can engage whoever the licensing authority for that institution is.”
Greene said he suspects those types of situations will be “probably pretty rare.” He said people who encounter problems with the mask-wearing mandate should call the Virginia Department of Health at 877-275-8343.
The order exempts people who are eating and drinking, children under the age of 10, and people with health conditions that make wearing a mask dangerous.
Still, some folks believe that being told to wear a mask infringes on their rights, and some have said they will either refuse to wear a mask or refuse to go to places enforcing the rules.
“I believe it should be left up to the owners and patrons. If you’re not worried about masks and don't make them mandatory for your store, so be it. If people want to go somewhere else, then that’s their choice,” Michael Easterday, a Winchester resident, said on Facebook. “Also on the other hand, if I don't want to wear a mask and go to a store to find out it is mandatory, then I can take my business elsewhere. It’s called freedom.”
Some have even said they would start shopping in West Virginia, where a mask-wearing order is not in place. Others have that said requiring masks three months into a pandemic doesn't make sense.
But many people say they will comply if it helps prevent the spread of the virus, which can be deadly.
“It’s intended to protect others that may not have the luxury of being able to stay home, so it’s just the morally right thing to do,” Whitney Woodall, a Winchester resident, said on Facebook, adding that if businesses have the right to deny service to customers not wearing shirts or shoes than they should have the same right for those not wearing masks. “Yeah, masks are uncomfortable, but so is dying of respiratory failure or being responsible for the death of someone else. I don’t see what the big deal is. I’m as big a fan of freedom as the next person, and this is not a violation of your freedom, (it’s) just a nice thing to do for your fellow American.”
Not just residents are torn over the mask order. Business owners — some of whom feel they are in no position to turn anyone away with the economy in distress — are struggling with mask order and how to enforce it.
“I feel we have no choice but to comply with the rule,” Chelsea Karche, owner of Ohana Vapors in Winchester, said. “I’m not happy about it, but my employees rely on this business to feed their families. I can’t risk a fine or losing our business license.”
Some businesses said they will post policies stating that masks will be required, but that those who are exempt will be exempt with no questions asked.
Others are worried about issues such as patrons coming in and simply saying they have a medical condition when they don’t or folks refusing to leave when asked.
“If someone comes into my store without (a mask), I can’t actually do anything about it,” Josh Lewis, owner of Element Sports in Winchester, said. “Plus, the customer can claim they can’t wear it for medical reasons, but it’s unlawful to ask about that. I will simply assume anyone not wearing a mask claims a medical reason so I don’t get sued for discrimination if I were to ask them to leave.”
John Bell, the commonwealth’s attorney for Warren County, said on Thursday the order was “don’t mask, don’t tell.”
Dave Hutton, the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce Chair, said “communication is key.”
“Each business should clearly state their practices to comply with requirements for the safety of both employees and patrons, either online or at their place of business, he said. “We are beginning to see some of our businesses communicate a ‘no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service’ policy. It is ultimately up to each business owner to politely remind patrons of their expectations. We expect everyone to be considerate and respect one another.”
Cynthia Schneider, president and CEO of the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber, agreed and said businesses should provide signage and continue to provide kind and respectful service.
Sharon Baroncelli, the Shenandoah County chamber’s director, said a guidebook to reopening businesses is available on the chamber’s website for business owners and residents.
“Our businesses are the lifeblood of our community, and we need them now more than ever," Baroncelli said.