By Carol Vaughn —
The Eastern Shore Health District during the coronavirus pandemic has received hundreds of complaints about businesses alleged to have violated the governor’s executive orders requiring mask wearing and other measures meant to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The Post made a request under the Freedom of Information Act for complaints made to the health department about alleged violations and responses by the health department.
Executive Order 63, issued May 26, requires face coverings to be worn in certain indoor public spaces.
Executive Order 67, issued June 30, allows restaurants to operate provided owners comply with certain guidelines, including employee mask wearing, no bar seating, and social distancing and sanitation requirements, among others.
The Virginia Department of Health in July set up an online portal, at https://redcap.vdh.virginia.gov/redcap/surveys/?s=Y4P9H7DTWA, where Virginians can file complaints about businesses they allege are not complying with the executive orders.
Complaints may be made anonymously, although a few people on the Shore identified themselves.
Of 320 complaints filed with the Eastern Shore district through Dec. 15, nearly 60 appear to be a form of protest against the orders — including profanity, criticism of Gov. Ralph Northam, messages about tyranny, and the like, rather than actual complaints against real businesses.
One complaint referenced “Reverend Parris’s Church; Accomack County,” with the address given as Salem, Massachusetts — an apparent reference to Samuel Parris, who was the Puritan minister in Salem Village, Massachusetts during the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Two were about Hampton Roads businesses and were referred to the appropriate health departments.
Dozens more were about businesses that fall under the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services or the Department of Labor and Industry, including grocery and other stores. Those were referred to the appropriate agency.
In most of the remaining complaints, health department employees followed up by discussing requirements with business operators, providing educational materials or signage, and similar actions.
Several complaints resulted in on-site inspections and three resulted in notices of alleged violation being sent to restaurants.
None so far resulted in a restaurant’s permit to operate being suspended.
The notices included a warning that if violations were not remedied or if they continued, the health department could suspend the business’ food permit or seek enforcement action, “including Class 1 criminal misdemeanor and civil injunctive relief.”
One notice was sent Nov. 30 to Club Car Cafe in Parksley. Another was sent Nov. 12 to Steamer’s Restaurant on Chincoteague. Another was sent July 7 to Mallards at the Wharf in Onancock.
The notice to Mallards said the health department received complaints June 15 and 22 alleging violation of executive order 63 by not requiring all customer-facing employees to cover their mouth and nose with a face covering.
On July 4 and 7, complaints were filed alleging violation of executive order 67 by allowing customers to congregate and be served at the bar during a July 3 concert.
The notice to Steamer’s said the health department received three complaints Nov. 12 alleging violation of executive orders 63 and 67 by allowing customers to congregate and be served at the bar without proper social distancing and without requiring customers to wear face coverings while entering, exiting, traveling through and spending time inside buildings open to the public. A photograph also was submitted.
One complaint said their party was sitting at a table in the bar area and there were eight people standing at the bar and ordering drinks at the time.
“Our table was crowded by these people who were being served at the bar. We made a comment to the employees working and nothing was done. We left because we felt uncomfortable because these groups of people were in our seated space,” the complainant wrote.
The notice sent to the Club Car Cafe said the Accomack County Health Department “has made observations, and received numerous complaints” alleging violation of executive orders 63 and 67.
The health department received complaints, including about employees and customers not wearing face coverings and lack of social distancing, on June 29, July 15, July 20, July 21, July 24, Aug. 4, Oct. 13, and Nov. 30.
A health department employee visited the Club Car July 23 but did not observe any executive order violations, according to the notice.
The next day, the same employee visited again and saw employees behind the lunch counter without masks.
The health department and the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority conducted a joint inspection for executive order 67 Phase 3 compliance Aug. 14 and observed one employee with mask below the nose. The inspection resulted in requiring the operator to move one table from the bar area and a reminder that no service from the bar directly to customers is allowed.
Jon Richardson, chief operating officer of the Eastern Shore Health District, said in a Dec. 14 email the Club Car Cafe’s owner the weekend before “reached out to us, (and) has indicated he is providing masks for anyone who shows up and needs one.”