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Health Department grapples with enforcing new COVID rules

Roanoke, Virginia – Standing at his familiar lectern Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam laid out the latest coronavirus restrictions for the state – mandatory cleaning, masking and social distance restrictions for businesses included.

Violators could face up to a Class 1 misdemeanor, meaning up to a year in jail, or a $2,500 fine.

According to the Governor, those rules are “enforceable by the Virginia Department of Health,” and says Nancy Bell, it’s very clear when charges are warranted.

“When it’s egregious. When it’s in your face. And when you’ve been repeatedly to the business or the family or whatever and have said this has got to stop,” she said via Zoom call Wednesday afternoon.

According to Bell, the population health manager for the West Piedmont Health District, there have been situations that were that bad – though the guidance from the Governor’s office is so new, it’s not clear how charges would even be brought.

“We’re going to have a meeting about that. I don’t know if the police do that, or the health department does that,” she said.

Still, Bell emphasizes that VDH never wants to have to go this route. Instead, most enforcement will play out as it always has, with VDH employees first receiving a tip, then verifying there’s a problem home or business.

“They’ll try to find the manager or the owner and say ‘you’re breaking the rules, here’s what you can do,” said Bell.

But the department is stretched thin – there are more than 500 restaurants in Roanoke alone, and Bell says keeping an eye on all of them, plus other businesses, is impossible.

“We are considering hiring contract people to help with enforcement,” she said.

The goal would be to bring people on, much as it did with contract tracers earlier this year. When or if that happens depends on funding from the state.

Marco Harmon

I was born and raised in Roanoke, VA. I studied Communications Studies at Roanoke College, and I’ve been part of the news industry ever since. Visiting my favorite downtown Roanoke bars and restaurants with my friends is how I spend most of my free time when I'm not at the desk.

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