County Board Considers Mask Mandate but Hamstrung by Dillon Rule

In an online town hall meeting on Friday, County Board members decried the plan to partially reopen Virginia as premature for Arlington and discussed further restrictions, like a requirement to wear a mask when in public.

“If we consider the closing of bars and restaurants, if just one locality were to loosen restrictions and allow bars to reopen before other jurisdictions,” County Board member Christian Dorsey warned, “those establishments would become magnets for patrons who could access them, which is very easy with our limited regional geography and great connectivity in the transportation network. This could result in spread across many jurisdictions and make it more difficult for public health officials to do the necessary testing and tracing to control outbreaks.”

County Board Chair Libby Garvey said to even consider reopening there needs to be more testing and contact tracing, with an ample supply of hospital beds and a sustainable supply of personal safety equipment. Dr. Reuben Varghese, the Arlington County Director of Public Health, warned that’s not the case in Arlington, at least when it comes to testing.

“We don’t have as much testing nationwide, Virginia-wide, or Arlington-wide as [we need],” Varghese said. “The supply chain has to be grown. Every day the capacity increases but we’re not to where we would like to have testing.”

Varghese said even if there is some reopening, Arlington is still a long way from being safe to go out in public without a mask.

“Ultimately we will have to have a vaccine to get away from physical distancing and face-covering recommendations,” Varghese said.

Meanwhile, Dorsey said that Arlington County officials have been discussing the possibility of a mask mandate.

“That is actively under consideration and looking at the best ways to pursue that,” Dorsey said. “For some people, until it comes with government mandate they’re not going to do it. But also we have to be mindful once something is mandated we have to have a way to enforce it.”

This is complicated by Virginia’s status as a Dillon Rule state, meaning that localities can only exercise powers directly granted to them by the state.

Also on Friday, during an interview on the Kojo Nnamdi show, County Board member Katie Cristol acknowledged the Dillon Rule as making a mask ordinance potentially difficult to accomplish, legally. Cristol said it makes more sense to focus on making masks available rather than making them a requirement.

“I think everything is a little bit of a legal question for us. You all are no strangers to the fact that we operate in a different context, those localities in Virginia, than those might do in a home rule state like Maryland,” she said. “When things are under an emergency, you know, our legal authorities may be a little different. We’ve really been making our county attorney’s office earn their keep during this pandemic by constantly returning to the statute and figuring out what we might have authority to do and what we might not.”

As we previously reported, Cristol said Arlington has ordered a large supply of masks to distribute across the county.

“I think, in general, you know, when we’ve made decisions, we’ve tried to do so on the basis of what seems to be the right thing to do from a public health and enforcement perspective,” Cristol continued. “And so I think with things like masks, for example, we’ve weighed this one quite a bit. It’s a really live question, and we generally landed on the approach that it makes more sense to make masks available and distribute those to whomever needs them.”

As with masks, Assistant County Manager James Schwartz said the goal of Arlington police is to gain voluntary compliance with the state’s emergency social distancing rules and the county’s park closures, as opposed to making arrests or writing citations.

“We are encouraging people [to adhere to restrictions] and I would call it soft enforcement,” Schwartz said. “We’re not in a position to be citing people the way we might for a traffic violation. We’re encouraging people to follow good practices and not have the heavy hand of government-imposed here.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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