When Gov. Ralph Northam announced his facemask mandate, many Virginians questioned how it could be reliably and fairly enforced without adding to the burden already shouldered by small business owners.
Now we have the answer: It can’t, and the state needs to strongly consider how to better partner with earnest, if uneven, efforts to adhere to the mask policy rather than shutting down already struggling businesses.
The Virginia Department of Health this week closed several Hampton Roads restaurants for violating the governor’s facemask order. According to Pilot reporting, unannounced inspections found customers and employees not wearing masks or doing so improperly and punished lax enforcement by management.
A health department spokesman told reporter Kimberly Pierceall that inspectors observed people congregating and sitting at bars and a “significant lack of social distancing.” Improper mask-wearing and a lack of masks were also observed in some cases.
All resulted in closure orders for those restaurants in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. In most cases, owners insisted they tried to follow the commonwealth’s guidelines and ensure proper enforcement but argued that the state is asking too much of business.
“We’re trying and we’re doing the right thing,” Geoff Fout, owner of Mack’s Barge in Norfolk, told Pierceall. “To me, it’s crazy that they didn’t work with us.”
His restaurant was the subject of several complaints in June as well, so the notion that the closure order came without warning rings a little hollow. But other restauranteurs offered similar arguments and pointed out the difficulty of operating in such a dynamic environment.
Northam first announced his mask mandate in May, with clearly explained rules for when they were necessary. And earlier this month, he said the state would step up enforcement to ensure compliance, which followed an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases.
But he also pointed to the necessity of restaurants in the commonwealth. In March, the governor said that more than 45% of residents get their meals in restaurants, citing that statistic in explaining why eateries would remain open while other businesses were asked to close.
Here, again, is the inherent tension in our efforts to battle the coronavirus between the need to maintain essential functions while doing what’s needed to protect public health.
Not only did many of these establishments scrap and claw to remain open and keep serving Virginians through curb-side pick-up and at-home deliveries. They also scrambled to reopen at the earliest opportunity, since many would shutter or shed employees without the ability to welcome customers again.
We haven’t done enough to help these small businesses.
Federal loan programs weren’t narrowly targeted to these establishments, so available funding was gobbled up by businesses that could probably get by without it. And assistance to hourly workers — who cook and serve the food, pour drinks and make restaurants such enjoyable destinations — has been mired in red tape and loopholes.
The facemask ordinance further destabilizes this already precarious house of cards. It’s a difficult policy to enforce as is — videos of anti-mask crusaders are the snuff films of this pandemic — and that’s true in places where customers aren’t eating and drinking.
Northam’s executive order was well intentioned. What’s more, it’s necessary to help slow the spread of this deadly pathogen. All Virginians should be eager to do their part and most, reluctantly or not, wear a face covering when mandated.
Restaurants need to do better, but the state should want them as partners in this effort, not adversaries. Punishment should be reserved for those who flout the rules and thumb their noses at public health guidelines, not those trying to do what’s asked of them in extraordinary conditions.
There’s no easy solution to this, but there has to be a better way forward. Voluntary universal compliance is a pipe dream, and police have enough on their plates to handle the maskless.
So let state inspectors offer warnings, instruction, guidance — anything before closing a business for minor missteps.
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