Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins has apparently declined to help enforce public-health provisions of Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order that starts, on Friday, reopening Virginia businesses the governor closed to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.
Jenkins communicated his stance late Tuesday on the Facebook page of the Sheriff’s Office, in response to an inquiry by the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, an arm of the Virginia Department of Health which is charged with enforcing Northam’s order.
“My response to that request is that we will not trample the constitutional freedoms of our citizens to enforce an edict of the Governor,” Jenkins wrote. “I do not speak for any of the other jurisdictions in the health district.”
His Facebook statement was swiftly echoed on social media and praised by conservative news outlets, including Washington Examiner staff writer Paul Bedard.
Late Thursday, Jenkins could not be reached for comment.
Jenkins was responding to Health District Director Wade Kartchner’s request to the five-county district’s law-enforcement agencies for assistance in enforcing Northam’s Executive Order 61.
“As you know, the Governor’s order #61 was announced on Friday and we are looking to partner with the various law enforcement agencies in our health district to manage compliance with the order,” Dr. Kartchner wrote the agencies. “VDH is tasked as the enforcement arm of the order, but we cannot do this without your assistance.”
“I’ve discussed this briefly with Sheriff [... X ...] and the initial idea is to have his staff handle calls and do the initial physical investigations if needed, bringing our environmental health staff in if a summons is to be filed with the court. If this works elsewhere, that would be great from a uniformity perspective,” he added. “If not, we would welcome your input as to how you would like to handle this aspect of reopening.”
Kartchner said Thursday that he did not speak with Jenkins or receive a reply to his note.
“We have been given the unenviable task of enforcing the order,” he said via email. “I sent the email out to find some common ground with other agencies that will be fielding complaints as well ... in order to be better prepared.”
The health district, which has a small staff, normally enforces regulations governing restaurants, wells and septic systems.
“Barbers, shooting ranges, personal grooming, brick-and-mortar retail, and farmers markets are typically outside our purview,” Kartchner said.
Having a governor grant the Virginia Department of Health the authority to enforce such public health provisions amid a viral pandemic has never been done before, he said.
Jenkins, first elected sheriff in 2012, won a second term in 2019.
An outspoken gun-rights advocate, he made headlines last year promising to deputize thousands of residents after the Virginia General Assembly passed what he called “unconstitutional gun control legislation.” Reacting to the legislature’s gun-control measures, more than 120 Virginia counties declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries.
On Friday, most of Virginia will enter the first phase of the Northam administration’s reopening plan.
The governor has exempted Richmond, Northern Virginia and the Eastern Shore’s Accomack County from his order at localities’ request. Leaders in those jurisdictions expressed concern about reopening too early and risking residents’ lives when the coronavirus is widespread and testing and contact tracing lag behind.
Northern Virginia leaders said the region should remain under stay-at-home orders until the end of May, because the virus is more widespread there.
On Monday, Northam told reporters that, for restaurants, Phase Two of reopening Virginia would mean 50% capacity in dining rooms with no bar seating and 6 feet between tables, indoors and outside.
Non-essential retail stores can reopen at half their capacity. Barbershops and salons can reopen for appointments, but their staff and customers must wear masks.
Culpeper has more COVID-19 cases per capita than many other counties in the northern part of the state. That includes Fairfax County, which has the most cases in the state.
Culpeper County has 329 cases of coronavirus, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Five people have died of COVID-19, and 27 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized in Culpeper, the department reports.
With a population of 52,605 people, Culpeper’s per capita infection rate is 0.63%.
Fairfax County’s infection rate is 0.61%. With a population of 1.1 million people, Fairfax has 6,951 coronavirus cases.