ALEXANDRIA, VA — A stricter face mask requirement is set to take effect on Oct. 1 in Alexandria after a 5-2 vote by City Council on Saturday. By requiring masks in both indoor and outdoor public places, it expands upon Gov. Ralph Northam's statewide executive order requiring masks in indoor public places since May 29. Council Members Canek Aguirre and Del Pepper voted against the measure.
The city ordinance maintains a face mask must be worn over the nose and mouth in the specified places. The outdoor requirement will apply to public locations where physical distancing cannot be maintained between individuals of different households. It will not apply in personal residences and personal vehicles.
The exceptions to the requirement will include children aged 10 and younger, people who would face a mental or physical health risk by wearing a face covering, people with a health condition preventing use of a face covering, or those trying to communicate with the hearing impaired and should have their mouth visible. Masks will also not be required when swimming, biking, jogging, or engaged in other physical activity in which a face mask has been determined to pose a health risk. Face masks will not be required when eating or drinking but should be worn when waiting to receive food or drinks or during substantial breaks between eating or drinking. Face coverings may be removed when required for medical services and to participate in a religious ritual.
The $100 civil penalty in the original proposal did not end up in the adopted ordinance. The ordinance maintains designated city staff can work with an individual to achieve voluntary compliance and may provide a face covering at no cost to the individual.
City Manager Mark Jinks told City Council he believes an educational approach is a way to get better compliance. He noted that Arlington County has experienced difficulty in enforcing its ordinance on congregating groups and physical distancing, which allows fines for violations.
Aguirre questioned the purpose of education-focused enforcement amid the city's ongoing educational efforts on face masks and other health guidelines. He made note that the proposal was not brought forward by the health department, Partnership for Healthier Alexandria, Public Health Advisory Commission, Neighborhood Health, Inova, or local doctors.
"If this were April, if this were even May, I would be 100 percent behind this without a doubt without hesitation," said Aguirre. "The issue is we haven't had the support from the federal and the state level that we needed, so we've been out on our own doing what we can."
He later clarified that his opposition to the ordinance didn't mean he agreed with anti-mask proponents.
Several people spoke against the proposal in public testimony. Alan Pounders, who said he runs a business in Alexandria, expressed concerns about enforcement. He told City Council enforcement of guidelines has fallen on his business. He reported being physical assaulted by two men for asking them to wear a mask, and he and his staff have been verbally assaulted.
"This ordinance will not only make our jobs more difficult but it will add more induced stress to what's already been a very stressful situation," he said.
Council Members John Taylor Chapman and Amy Jackson echoed concerns about the need for local government support for businesses in enforcement. Mayor Justin Wilson acknowledged businesses have been on their own for the indoor mask requirement, with the exception of compliance inspections by VDH. But he said the local mandate leaves enforcement decisions up to the city.
Before the vote, Dr. Stephen Haering, director of the Alexandria Health Department, was asked about his thoughts.
"There are no studies that show that this is effective outdoors, but the lack of a study showing its effectiveness outdoors doesn't mean that it's not effective outdoors," said Haering. "There are studies that show that it is effective indoors."
The ordinance takes effect on Oct. 1 and expires when the local declaration of emergency expires, unless amended by City Council.