Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Tuesday that residents will be required to wear a mask inside public places beginning Friday as part of an effort to combat further spread of the Chinese coronavirus.
Northam said in a press conference that people must wear masks “anywhere people can congregate” inside, including retail spaces, government facilities, and public transportation. Masks will also be required in restaurants, except while patrons are eating. Residents won’t have to wear a mask during exercise, and children 9-years-old and younger are exempt from the rule.
“I am taking this step because science increasingly shows us that the virus spreads less easily when everyone is wearing face coverings,” said the governor.
The new mask mandate will not be enforced by police, but by Virginia’s health department, explained Northam.
“I’m not sure we need to get into specifics of what authority, at this stage,” he responded when pressed on how the state health officials will enforce the rules.
“The criminal code is not the place you want this enforced, there are tremendous equity issues with enforcing this that we’re cognizant of,” added Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff.
During another part of his press conference, Northam acknowledged that he takes “full responsibility” for failing to wear a mask while visiting Virginia Beach over the weekend, saying he forgot his mask in his vehicle.
“People held me accountable and I appreciate that,” he added.
Critics on social media chided Northam, a physician, for not practicing what he has preached.
“Physician, heal thyself,” tweeted Todd Gilbert, a Republican who is Virginia’s House Minority Leader.
Northam posed for a selfie with a woman who said she knows the governor. She gave him a pat on the shoulder.
“We just have to continue to remind people that we want to keep the social distance of 6 feet apart,” he said, when asked about the touch later. “That’s a challenge for a lot of folks because they’re just not used to doing that.”
Virginia has more than 34,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,135 confirmed deaths as of Sunday, according to the state health department.
The AP contributed to this report.