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Governor could require masks in public

Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday strongly hinted that he would require people to wear masks in public, especially in places of business, and will announce a new mask policy Tuesday.

To date, Northam, the Virginia Department of Health and other public health officials have not made mask-wearing mandatory, but have strongly suggested that people wear one when out in public to protect others from the spread of COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people wear face coverings in public settings when social distancing measures are hard to maintain, such as in grocery stores, pharmacies and “areas of significant community-based transmission.”

“We know that when most people wear masks, that goes a long way toward reducing the spread of the disease,” Northam said. “As I have said before, wearing a mask could literally save someone else’s life.”

Northam said it is important to think more about masks as much of the state is in Phase I of reopening. Currently, all localities except for those in northern Virginia, Richmond and Accomack County are in Phase I. Those localities, due to high numbers of positive COVID-19 cases, were allowed to delay moving into Phase I. Phase II will allow for social gatherings of up to 50 people, but it’s not yet known when that will start.

“That is becoming clearer every day as we move further into managing this virus over the long-term,” Northam said. “Face coverings are an important part of the next steps.”

Northam said he spoke with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney about a letter he wrote to the governor asking that he make the wearing of masks mandatory.

“We have been talking about this for a number of days,” Northam said. “We are working through the policy over the next couple of days. … We’re trying to work through some of the details. Obviously, it’s an equity issue. We want to make sure everybody has access to a mask. We also want to talk about how we enforce that.”

Northam said he is especially interested in crafting a policy for people going into businesses, “because that’s one of the most vulnerable places.”

Maryland made mask-wearing mandatory more than a month ago for people going into essential retail stores or when using public transportation.

Though state law prohibits wearing face masks, Northam has said that the state would not enforce it during the pandemic. State law also provides an exception for “bona fide medical reasons,” and during a public health emergency.

Northam also announced the state’s new symptom checker, COVIDCHECK, which the state health department introduced Friday (www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covidcheck).

Northam described it as a new telehealth and online risk assessment tool that allows people to check their symptoms, find a location to be tested and get answers about next steps to take.

Northam also noted that community testing events in Northern Virginia were able to complete more than 4,000 tests through last Tuesday, and the National Guard will have completed about 9,000 tests from last Monday through Sunday.

He said there will be 44 community testing events across the state — in Alexandria, Woodbridge, Fairfax and Arlington counties in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Henrico County in central Virginia and Harrisonburg in the western part of the state. The state health department estimates that it will conduct about 17,500 tests at those events.

The state is also planning on point prevalence surveys in about 15 facilities across the state, with about 6,000 tests taking place. These surveys are designed to test all individuals in a designated area or facility, whether or not they have symptoms.

Suffolk officials say they are working in conjunction with the Western Tidewater Health District to hold at least one community testing event in early June.