RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Gov. Ralph Northam's orders to stay at home and close non-essential businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus have resulted in fewer than a dozen citations for violations, according to surveys by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Virginia Sheriffs' Association.
But some are demanding that the state begin the process of re-opening, including the owner of a Roanoke fitness center who was charged with a misdemeanor Sunday after he defied the closing order undertaken against the global pandemic.
Thomas Milton, the owner of Titan Fit in Roanoke, plans to keep his gym open, even though he faces up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500 for allegedly violating the governor's executive order.
Milton's lawyer, Greg Phillips, said Milton has followed sanitation and social distancing guidelines that have allowed other businesses to remain open in Virginia. Phillips said that Milton feels strongly that his fitness center should remain open as a place for its members to exercise. He said about a third of the gym's 150 members are first responders, including police and firefighters.
“Why will the governor trust a cashier at the ABC (state liquor) store or a clerk at Walmart to practice social distancing, but not (Milton) or other gym owners?” Phillips said.
Northam's order to close non-essential businesses is in effect until May 8, while his stay-at-home order for Virginia residents remains in effect until June 10. That order directs residents to stay home except to meet essential needs such as buying groceries or going to a medical appointment.
Virginia Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran said the low number of citations is a reflection of the public's general willingness to follow guidelines set by health officials to help blunt the outbreak. He said police have used conversation and education to encourage people to adhere to the orders.
"There is no heavy-handedness. We really seek compliance," he said.
John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, said his survey showed that many sheriffs were using verbal warnings rather than citations to get people to comply.
“A lot of folks are calling in to the sheriffs' offices to see what they need to do so they won't violate the orders,” James said. “People are genuinely trying to comply. They don't want to have a situation where they get sick or their family gets sick."
The surveys completed on April 10 and April 15 asked law enforcement agencies statewide how many citations they have been issued since Northam's March 23 order closing restaurant dining areas, gyms, hair salons, museums and other non-essential businesses and his March 30 stay-at-home order.
The police chiefs association said its survey showed just six citations, while the sheriffs association said its survey reported three citations.
Chincoteague police cited three people for organizing a party of about 18 people at a closed restaurant and the pastor of a local church where officers observed at least 12 or 13 people gathered. Northam's order bans gatherings of 10 or more people.
The Pittsylvania County Sheriff's Office cited the operator of a gaming parlor and a woman who hosted a house party of about 35 people the day before Easter, said Sheriff Mike Taylor. In Northampton County, citations were issued to a resident and two guests at a house party attended by at least 20 people.
Some Virginia residents and business owners are urging Northam to begin lifting the restrictions, which have slammed the state's economy.
Last week, several dozen people protested at Virginia's Capitol Square. Another “ReOpen Virginia” rally is planned for Wednesday, when the General Assembly is scheduled to hold a one-day session to take up the governor's vetoes and proposed amendments.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.