Northam sets vaccine mandate for Virginia state employees, shifts school mask recommendations

Local Coronavirus Coverage

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam will require all state employees in Virginia to get the COVID-19 vaccine and prove it starting Sept. 1. Those who refuse will have to get tested weekly and show negative test results.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Health is shifting its mask guidance for PreK-12 schools to align with a recent reversal by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, all students and staff are being told to mask up, regardless of vaccination status, though a possible legal gray area is already emerging.

Northam made both announcements at a press conference on Thursday. It comes as COVID-19 cases are continuing to climb and the delta variant is causing uncertainty in the state’s pandemic response. 

The Virginia Department of Health reported 1,760 new cases on August 5. The percent of positive tests is 6.8%.

Northam said the vaccine mandate for state staff will impact approximately 120,000 employees. The administration estimates just over 70 percent of those employees are already fully vaccinated.

“I am directing this measure to keep state employees safe and to keep the people we serve safe ,” Northam said. “There is no reason we need to see more suffering and sickness.”

Specifically, the requirement will apply to all salaried employees in the executive branch, including state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Virginia Employment Commission, the Virginia Department of Transportation and several others. It also covers certain staff at state universities and colleges, as well as some contractors.

Northam said there will be no medical or religious exemptions since state employees can opt for weekly testing as an alternative to vaccination.

Asked what would happen if a staff member refused both options, Northam said, “I expect our employees of the Commonwealth of Virginia to follow the law…If they choose not to and choose not to get tested, then we will take the next measure but that is something I will discuss with the employee.”

Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s spokesperson, said the requirement will not apply to public school employees–a decision that will be in the hands of localities–nor will it apply to legislative or judicial staff.

While the Northam Administration still “has no plans” to mandate the vaccine for the general public, Yarmosky said this decision is meant to set the tone for others.

“I really encourage local governments and private companies to do the same thing,” Northam said.

The move signals a growing shift. Recently, similar vaccine requirements have emerged in a other states. In Virginia, some localities have already announced similar measures with exceptions, including Richmond and Fairfax. 

Furthermore, President Joe Biden recently announced a vaccine mandate for all federal employees, though they too will be able to opt for weekly testing and mandatory masking instead.

On the issue of face coverings in schools, while Northam is not reinstating a mandate through an executive order as he has previously, he said a new law passed by the General Assembly effectively makes universal mask-wearing in schools a requirement.

The bill, which took effect on July 1, mandates school boards to offer full-time, in-person instruction with certain exceptions. It also requires divisions to provide instruction in a manner that “adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies… to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” 

“I don’t know that it can be any simpler than that. It is the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia and I expect school districts to follow the law,” Northam said. “If they choose not to follow it, they should have a frank discussion with their legal counsel.” 

Several school districts in Virginia have already announced plans to make mask-wearing optional for everyone.

Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who sponsored the bill Northam is referring to, said the governor is misjudging the intent of the law and localities should still have the final say.

“That is an absolutely pivotal difference between the way I lead and the way he leads. I believe in trusting individuals and educating them and mandates me are condescending,” Dunnavant said.

State Superintendent Dr. James Lane said in an interview after the press conference that school districts who don’t comply with the CDC are opening themselves up to lawsuits.

“I think they would face significant legal pressure should there be a situation in a school,” Lane said.

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