WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Following a heated public hearing Tuesday morning, the New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board unanimously voted to approve a new health rule that mandates face coverings in all public buildings in the county.
The new face covering mandate applies to public places such as “offices and workplaces, business establishments, public transportation facilities and vehicles, and any place the public is invited or allowed to assemble.” The county-wide mandate applies to anyone two years and older, regardless of vaccination status.
The meeting started with a presentation on the proposed modifications to the mandate. Those modifications include the following:
- Remove enforcement discretion by Education Compliance Officers to Section VIII: Health Rule Enforcement, Authority and Discretion
- Add “educate and reform” to Section VIII: Health Rule Enforcement, Authority and Discretion
- Clearly indicate allowable penalties in Section VIII: Health Rule Enforcement, Sanctions
- Change “shutting down” to “temporarily closing” in Section VIII: Health Rule Enforcement, Sanctions
- Remove the term “nuisance” in Section VIII: Health Rule Enforcement, Sanctions
- Add “provide education and information relative to the need for face coverings in public indoor places” to clarify expectations of Education Compliance Officers in Section VIII: Health Rule Enforcement, Enforcement Progression
- Remove the reference to Education Compliance Officers issuing warnings in Section VIII: Health Rule Enforcement, Enforcement Progression, leaving that to law enforcement officers
- Remove reference to a temporary closure lasting 24, 48 or 72 hours in Section VIII: Health Rule Enforcement, Enforcement Progression as closures will end as soon as an establishment complies with the mandate
An education compliance officer is defined as the New Hanover County Health Director and/or designated county employees upon receiving training by the local health director.
Tensions were high as the health board heard from community members on both sides of the issue during a 45-minute public comment period.
Some thanked the board for their action to slow the spread of coronavirus in the community while others voiced their anger and frustration with the requirement to wear masks indoors.
“It takes courage to make decisions that aren’t always popular but are in the best interest in public health,” said one woman. “I think that’s what you guys are doing when you make a decision to ask us to wear a mask.”
Several community members had to be removed during that meeting due to outbursts or refusal to wear a mask.
“We understand your concerns. We understand your objections,” said public health director David Howard. “We are not in the business of infringing on anybody’s personal choice or right. We had many comments thanking us, many people concerned about the virus, their family members who have chronic health conditions.”
Some in attendance expressed concerns about the health impacts masks would have on their families, calling the mandate a joke that’s not based on science.
Some community members claimed the masks are not effective when it comes to keeping the virus from spreading through the air. The board noted those concerns but clarified that COVID-19 tends to spread through water droplets rather than the virus by itself, which masks are very effective in stopping.
“They are effective to some degree, but as it was also noted by board members in the meeting, the layering approach of maintaining some distance, maintaining face coverings, becoming vaccinated against the virus reduced the likelihood of transmissibility,” said Howard.
County health officials said the mask mandate is in response to an increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the area and is meant to be a temporary measure that would be revisited “frequently” by the county’s health and human services department.
“Its duration will be dependent on the community’s COVID-19 metrics improving, including—but not limited to—hospitalizations, case counts, and percent positivity rate. The goal is to reach a five percent or lower percent positivity rate, ensure the hospital system is not overwhelmed, and for overall case counts to be trending downward or remaining level without continued increases or spikes,” the county stated in a news release following the board’s vote.
Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, the board met on Aug. 17 and voted to move forward with the face covering mandate as a proposed health rule. All new health rules require a ten-day public notice with opportunity for public comment.
Public Health Director David Howard then issued an order of abatement that was in line with the face-covering rule, which went into effect at 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 20.
The new health rule approved on Tuesday now replaces the order of abatement.
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