Face Masks the New Normal as States Develop Re-Opening Plans

Last week, The White House announced a three-phase guidance for gradually restoring normal business and social gathering functions across the country. These guidelines are not binding, and the responsibility for loosening restrictions will fall to state authorities; what is clear in the Washington area is that face masks are likely to be a key component of any resumption of normal business activities.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has issued a statewide executive order requiring all retail store patrons and riders on public transit to cover their faces with cloth masks while using these services. Nearly every county in the Maryland part of the Washington suburbs has issued their own directive, requiring employers to provide their essential workers with face coverings at worksites. Many of the local ordinances include potential criminal penalties for non-compliant businesses, and local authorities in Maryland are empowered to close businesses who are not adhering to the state and local regulations around social distancing.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has issued similar guidance on face masks, mirroring Gov. Hogan’s executive order, though as of now it’s unclear as to precisely what legal enforcement authority is contained in her order.

Similarly, Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia has strongly encouraged, but not required, patrons and employees to wear face masks inside businesses during this pandemic. Northam’s Executive Order 53 allows businesses like dealerships and repair facilities to remain open, provided that they limit the number of patrons in the stores and that all their employees adhere to strict social distancing guidelines. Virginia localities including Arlington County have encouraged face-mask adoption in retail businesses, but in the commonwealth almost any legal enforcement of this type would have to come from Richmond.

That said, as states look towards their re-opening plans – and as states like Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee actually begin implementing them – it is reasonable to infer that the states in our region will require workplace facemasks for some time. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s announcement that some non-essential businesses could re-open as soon as this week included a guidance that workers use masks and gloves, and that they adhere to strict social distancing guidelines.

Whenever D.C., Maryland, and Virginia get back to somewhat normal new operations, it seems clear that the emphasis on social distancing, face mask use, and ample access to hand sanitizing, will be part of our new normal for many months to come.

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