Having received upward of 23,500 complaints about businesses failing to comply with Gov. Ralph Northam’s coronavirus regulations, the Virginia Department of Health wants 100 temporary workers to help respond.
The agency is submitting a $6 million request to Northam’s administration for the positions and travel and equipment costs, said Julie Henderson, director of VDH’s Office of Environmental Health Services.
VDH’s 445-person environmental health team, which includes managers, supervisors and field staff, traditionally performs a broad range of public health enforcement and regulatory duties. Since the pandemic’s onset, however, the majority of the staff has shifted to virus-related work, said Henderson, who wants her staff to be able to resume duties ranging from issuing permits for private wells to inspecting migrant labor camps.
The barrage of complaints and confusion over enforcement — one Mechanicsville restaurant that had its permit revoked over noncompliance has operated nearly two weeks without one — has overwhelmed the staff.
“If we get this new staff … [they] will be solely tasked with enforcing the executive orders and educating the public and businesses on executive orders,” said Henderson, who hopes to submit the proposal to the governor’s office by the end of the week.
The $3.1 billion that Virginia received through the CARES Act, which is being used to hire contact tracers, workers who trace the spread of the virus and alert those who may have been infected, is referenced in the proposal as one possible source of funds. Northam’s office did not reply to a question asking where funding for these positions could come from.
The new staff are planned to be full-time workers whose contracts will last at least a year, with the possibility of an extension. They would be employed by VDH and assigned to a specific health district. Each of the state’s 35 districts would receive at least one dedicated specialist; some will get more depending on factors such as the concentration of cases in the district, Henderson said.
“Governor Northam is grateful that the vast majority of Virginians are following the guidelines and working together to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for the governor, said in an email. “Enforcement efforts at businesses are focused on making sure these establishments and their employees are following basic, commonsense rules to keep people safe.”
Since late May, VDH has been fielding complaints via an online survey and a hotline, and aggregating the complaints into a centralized database. People can report any business that violates the restrictions outlined in Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Orders 63, which requires the use of face masks inside all businesses, and 67 and 68, which lay out standards for social distancing within different types of establishments. Most complaints VDH has received have related to facial coverings not being worn by employees or patrons, said Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond City and Henrico County Health Departments.
A survey conducted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in May, before the governor issued his mask mandate, showed that around 50% of people entering stores in the Richmond area did not opt to wear masks. Of the 2,900 people reporters witnessed entering stores, 1,480 wore no facial covering and two dozen wore their masks incorrectly, letting it sit below their nose.
Some of the complaints VDH has received are clearly jokes, while others misunderstand Northam’s regulations, which require only people in customer-facing roles, not kitchen staff, to wear masks, Avula said. For every complaint that is deemed legitimate, health workers call the establishment and detail the complaint and next steps to the business owner.
The agency can suspend a restaurant’s health permit, which establishments need to operate. Non-compliance with any of Northam’s three orders also can result in a misdemeanor or an injunction, in which case VDH would seek assistance from a local commonwealth’s attorney.
“For the most part, businesses are trying to do what they need to do to comply. But there are a lot of rules and there’s a lot to read through, so we want to first come with the lens of being educators and supporters,” Avula says.
The only central Virginia business that has been penalized for not adhering to the governor’s guidelines is Calabash Seafood, a restaurant in Mechanicsville that had its health permit suspended on July 27, due to a lack of mask usage and socially distanced tables, Henderson said. The restaurant has continued to operate since then.
Dennis Smith, the owner of Calabash Seafood, stated that while “we encourage people to wear masks,” he does not believe that masks protect people from the coronavirus and feels the governor’s executive orders were unjustified.
When asked to confirm that the business’ health permit had been suspended, Smith said that VDH had only “tried to” suspend their permits. “They’ve got to give me due process. They thought they were going to, if I [had] agreed to it, but I didn’t agree to it,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
Henderson clarified that VDH does, in fact, have the power to “summarily suspend restaurant permits due to an imminent health hazard. [Calabash Seafood] currently [does] not have a permit to operate. The due process is they can appeal the suspension.” She says that VDH is currently deciding what the next steps are for dealing with this business, which has now been operating without a health permit for almost two weeks.
Additionally, several Hampton Roads businesses had their permits suspended two weekends ago due largely to a lack of social distancing and facial coverings.
Three complaints typically is the minimum number required to prompt an in-person visit to a restaurant, Avula said, but if an establishment seemed “resistant” to complying with COVID-19 regulations communicated during a phone call, enforcement activities could escalate. There’s no statewide standard for when in-person visits are required.
As of August 5, around 20 businesses, mostly restaurants, had necessitated in-person visits in Richmond.
“Persistent noncompliance with the executive order,” such as inspectors seeing, over multiple visits, instances of staff or patrons not wearing masks, tables not being distanced by 6 feet or staff not enforcing mask-wearing, could lead to permits being suspended, Avula says.
The overwhelming number of COVID-19-related complaints has prompted other agencies, such as the Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority and Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, to assist in responding, Henderson said.
The number of complaints being filed daily is trending downward. VDH received no more than 700 complaints each day for the past week; it received 1,633 complaints on July 16 — two days after a news conference in which Northam announced increased enforcement of the mask mandate and social distancing measures.
“I hope it’s the result of our work,” Henderson said.