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Orange County investigated by health department after unmasked supervisors hold first meeting of pandemic era

Orange County investigated by health department after unmasked supervisors hold first meeting of pandemic era

On Tuesday afternoon, the Orange County Board of Supervisors held its first in-person meeting of the COVID-19 era. 

By Thursday, the county was under investigation for possibly violating Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order requiring protective masks in indoor settings.

By Friday, the investigation was complete and, according to Dr. Wade Kartchner, health director of the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, county administration had heard directly from the district's environmental health staff.

Specifically, Kartchner said the county was advised to be mindful of appearances and consider the message supervisors send to the public when they don't wear masks at their meetings.  

The board of supervisors met in its basement meeting room in the Gordon Building on Main Street in Orange. Supervisors and three county staff members were not wearing masks while seated on the dais, which is too small to accommodate physical distancing. Instead, they made do with plastic dividers separating them from each other. 

When it came time to present plaques honoring law enforcement officers and private citizens for their service to the county, supervisors didn’t mask up nor did they observe physical distancing during the presentations. 

All of the plaque recipients were masked, in keeping with the large sign posted on the entrance to the Gordon Building. The sign states: “To control the spread of Coronavirus, and in keeping with the Governor's Executive Order 63, Face Coverings are Appreciated and Expected in this Facility.”

The notice goes on to specify that masks are available to anyone entering the building, and indeed, there was a stack of disposable masks on the table outside the boardroom.

According to federal and state health authorities, a face covering protects others from the wearer's exhalations of potentially infected nose and mouth droplets. Knowing that, anyone reading the sign would understand its concluding line: “We appreciate your care and concern for your friends and neighbors.”   

At Tuesday's meeting, the optics suggested that the supervisors were deliberately flouting the message on the sign. 

Earlier this week, Kartchner responded briefly to a photo of two unmasked supervisors presenting a plaque to a masked citizen: "It appears from the photo that masks should be worn in this situation per VDH [Virginia Department of Health] guidelines, and they are not." 

Kartchner was not impressed with the dividers on the dais: "Masks are still the recommendation when a person cannot maintain 6 feet of distance from others, regardless of plastic dividers."

On Friday, Kartchner provided an update after the health department completed its investigation: "While both state and local government buildings are required to adhere to Executive Order 63 that requires face coverings for the public that enter those buildings, meetings by government entities are not covered in Executive Order 67 and are technically not bound by Phase 3 restrictions.

"We have recommended and continue to recommend for the safety of the public that supervisors and any county employee follow the noted restrictions to lessen the spread of COVID-19."

As for Orange County, the doctor said that "district staff members have discussed this particular concern with the county administration and are familiar with the layout of the building where they meet. The meeting appeared to follow the correct guidelines with the exception of the non-use of face masks by the supervisors."

Kartchner continued, "Our staff has relayed the importance of appearances and how the non-use of face masks by supervisors sends a message that the public certainly notices."

The supervisors began conducting their meetings from remote locations via livestreaming on the web after Gov. Northam declared a state of emergency in March.

After months of virtual meetings, County Administrator Ted Voorhees explained the return to the Gordon Building: “I think the board was eager to restore the camaraderie and deliberative nature of the meetings that just don’t seem to work as well on Zoom. We needed to wait until at least Phase 3 and restoration of the elevator service in the Gordon Building. It was being renovated for several months and created an accessibility issue.”

Before the health department launched its investigation, Voorhees acknowledged that the dais in the Gordon Building’s boardroom does not allow 6 feet between seats. He said, however, that it didn’t make “a lot of financial sense” to do anything besides install the plastic dividers, since the board will soon move to the county’s new public safety building, expected to be completed in a couple of months.

He pointed out that all audience members were masked, and chairs were arranged so that those in the audience, several of whom addressed the board, were appropriately distanced from each other.

Further, Voorhees compared the boardroom to a restaurant, where diners take off their masks while eating. He said it seemed reasonable to allow persons addressing the board to remove their masks while at the podium and for supervisors not to wear masks while making brief presentations to recipients of plaques. 

“The idea is to reduce exposure and limit interaction," Voorhees said. “We’ll continue to try to do that as best we can. Nothing’s foolproof.”

In a phone interview on Wednesday, District 1 Supervisor Mark Johnson said it was his "personal decision" not to wear a mask. The other supervisors did not respond to the Review's requests for phone interviews. 

Kartchner said that his district office has conducted nearly 700 investigations in response to citizen complaints about alleged violations of the governor's executive orders 63 (requiring face coverings, with some exceptions, in many indoor spaces) and 67 (eased restrictions on business operations, beaches, campgrounds and public gatherings).

He said, "The district environmental health staff have been assigned the responsibility of investigating these complaints. When they receive complaints, all complaints are screened for follow-up action. These follow-up actions include contacting the business and providing education and answering questions about the executive orders; for permitted food establishments this includes a Phase 3 assessment survey. 

"Some complaints are referred to other agencies that may regulate the business such as the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), the Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI), Virginia ABC or the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR).

"The district approach is always to provide education first, monitor the situation and see if further valid complaints are generated," Kartchner said.

The doctor directed anyone concerned about possible violations of Gov. Northam’s executive orders 63 and 67 to the complaint form on the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District’s website at www.vdh.virginia.gov/rappahannock-rapidan

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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