Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says he's ramping up enforcement of a mask mandate and social distancing measures at restaurants and stores because he's concerned about a rising number in cases, particularly among young people, in areas near the state's beaches.
Northam said Tuesday the state is doing well overall but he wants to avoid a spike in cases that other southern states, like Texas and Florida, are currently experiencing.
The Hampton Roads area, which includes Virginia Beach, is a major tourist destination on the East Coast. Northam said the state’s eastern region, which also includes the Eastern Shore, has seen its average of new cases was about 60 in early June and is now nearly 350.
“There is clearly substantial community spread,” Northam said. “If we don’t take this seriously now, we could see bigger increases across our commonwealth.”
The governor, a Democrat, said some restaurant owners and patrons in the area are clearly flouting the state's rules requiring wearing masks indoors when in public and severely limiting bar service in restaurants. He said the infection rate among people between the age of 20 to 29 is up 250% since early June.
“You are being selfish and you are hurting everyone who is doing the right thing,” Northam said.
He also said plans to announce details in coming days about an earlier cut off for alcohol sales in restaurants.
Dr. Norm Oliver, the state's health commissioner, said health and alcoholic license inspectors will start doing spot checks at establishments and restaurants and stores that are violating social distancing and mask-requirements will be shut down.
Northam urged business owners to refuse service to people who refuse to wear masks, saying they should treat those customers like they would someone not wearing shoes or a shirt.
Republican House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert said the governor was putting business owners in an “untenable position" by forcing them to confront mask-less customers or risk losing their businesses licenses.
“Real leadership brings people together, it doesn’t make threats. After all, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar," Gilbert said.
Businesses said they were glad Northam opted to increase enforcement of existing rules rather than implementing new ones, but urged state officials to give business owners the benefit of the doubt.
“The vast majority of small business owners care about the health of their employees and the public and do not want to intentionally endanger them,” said Nicole Riley, the Virginia director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
The Northam administration also said Tuesday that it plans to have to every resident and staff tested at long-term care facilities by the end of next week. It had initially set at goal of July 15.
As of Tuesday, Virginia has reported nearly 73,000 cases of the virus and nearly 2,000 deaths.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and even be fatal.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.