Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Understanding the governor’s emergency orders

Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Understanding the governor’s emergency orders
(Courtesy photo)

During the past month, the coronavirus pandemic has continued to seriously impact the city. Since there have been new developments with regard to the governor’s emergency orders, I thought that it would be useful to update those orders and their effects on the citizenry in this month’s column.

On March 20, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) issued an amended version of an earlier emergency order. The amended order contains several important provisions: It allows the state health commissioner to order the immediate closure of any restaurant in order to prevent the spread of the virus and it reaffirms a restaurant that allows more than 10 patrons to congregate inside is subject to the immediate suspension of its business license.

On March 23, Northam issued Executive Order 53, which includes several new restrictions backed by potential criminal sanctions. EO-53 prohibits public or private in-person gatherings of more than 10 persons, meaning that even a party in a private residence constitutes a violation. All schools are closed for the remainder of the school year.

The order also requires all restaurants, breweries and wineries to significantly restrict public access. Dining establishments are prohibited from allowing the public to congregate in dining areas although businesses may remain open for takeout or delivery. All theaters, gyms, salons and barbershops were ordered to close.

The order also outlines a list of essential businesses that are allowed to remain open. The list is lengthy and includes grocery stores, automobile parts stores, home improvement stores, banks, laundromats and dry cleaners. While these businesses are exempt from the order, they are specifically encouraged to utilize social distancing and enhanced sanitation procedures.

EO-53 exempts several specific activities from closure or restriction, such as provision of medical services, access to essential services for low-income residents, activities of the media and operation of the government.

On March 30, Northam issued Executive Order 55, entitled “Temporary Stay at Home Order.” The first paragraph of the order requires Virginia residents to stay in their place of residence whenever possible and to remain at least six feet from any other person when outside of their residence.

The stay-at-home paragraph of EO-55 includes several exceptions, allowing individuals to leave their residences to, among other things: obtain food, seek medical attention, visit family, exercise outdoors and travel to and from work. Importantly, the order does not provide for criminal sanctions against persons suspected of violating the stay-at-home requirement.

Northam did reiterate that persons engaged in private parties of more than 10 people could be subject to criminal penalties. Additional provisions of the March 30 order closed all in-person instruction at institutions of higher education and all public beaches.

I note that while the use of facemasks in public is encouraged, as of yet, the failure to use a mask does not constitute a criminal violation.

During the current crisis the courts remain open, albeit on a limited basis. Given that they require large numbers of persons to congregate in a small space, non-essential court hearings and trials are being continued until the pandemic abates. Alexandria courts continue to hear essential proceedings such as advisements and bond motions.

My office is staffed by a skeleton crew so that we can cover the limited number of court appearances that are ongoing. We also are here to serve the public. Should a citizen need the assistance of my office, for obvious reasons I would ask they call us instead of physically visiting the courthouse.

Finally, I would like to praise our counterparts in the criminal justice system for a coordinated and thoughtful approach to the current crisis. Stakeholders such as the Public Defender’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the Office of the Clerk of Court have diligently worked with us to reduce the number of incarcerated citizens in the Alexandria jail.

My office is agreeing to release on a case-by-case basis when doing so is consistent with public safety. My understanding is the jail population has been substantially reduced.

The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.