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After rowdy meeting, New Hanover Health and Human Services Board unanimously approves (slightly tweaked) mask mandate

A sign that says "I Can't Breathe" sits on an empty chair, with sheriff's deputies in the aisle behind it. The room is largely empty.
Kelly Kenoyer
A sign was left behind after Sheriff's deputies removed the audience at the Health and Human Services Board public hearing during a recess. Representatives of the county said the removal was for public safety, and several members of the crowd were permitted back in for the final vote.

Masks are now indefinitely required indoors in all public settings in New Hanover County.

The policy came into effect Tuesday, August 31 — 11 days after a Notice to Abate a Public Hazard created a similar policy. While that order came directly from NHC Public Health Director David Howard, the new order was voted into place by the Health and Human Services Board.

Both the old order and the new one mandate the wearing of face coverings in all indoor public spaces. There are exemptions for children under the age of 2, some children under 5, for those giving a speech to an audience at least 20 feet away, and for those with disabilities that impede their ability to wear a mask. There are also exemptions for those who are actively eating or drinking, as well as religious gatherings, weddings, and funerals.

The policy is a response to another severe wave of COVID cases. There were 133 people hospitalized with Covid on August 31, compared to just one person at the beginning of August- it’s the highest number of hospitalizations from the disease since the beginning of the pandemic. Staff at the hospital are overwhelmed, and the case positivity rate is over 14%.

Despite the severity of the public health crisis, the mask mandate faced a severe backlash. When the Health and Human Services board held a public hearing Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters attended. Many stayed outside for a rally, but others came inside to speak. At least four were removed from the building by sheriff’s deputies, either for interrupting the few speakers in favor of the mandate, or for refusing to wear masks properly.

County Commissioner Rob Zapple attended, along with Commissioner Deb Hayes. Zapple addressed the crowd and the board. “Mask wearing alone will not end this pandemic, but it will help.” But he was unable to share more of his views, as he was shouted down by the audience.

Some opposed the mask mandate as an affront to their human rights, but others had more nuanced concerns. One speaker asked how long the policy would be in place, and when it would be revoked. Another mentioned the cutout for eating and drinking, and asked whether COVID can’t infect someone who is seated.

But despite the pushback, the volunteers on that board voted unanimously in favor of the policy.

“This virus is spread in particles, respiratory particles that are emitted when we speak, when we sneeze when we cough,” said Board Member Kara Duffy. “Even though they are very tiny and microscopic, and it is dependent on the type of mask, and volume of your voice, there a lot of variables, but [masks] do help to decrease at least the number of virus particles that can be spread into the air and then transmitted to another person.”

The new mask policy did change slightly through staff recommendations, which took public comments into account. Previously, the mask mandate would have been enforced by “compliance officers,” but now it will be enforced by “education compliance officers.” Those are defined as designated county employees who will receive specific training from their local health directors.

The mechanism for enforcement has also changed slightly- instead of punishments being meted out by any given officer, they’re meted out by the top brass: the local public health director. And those punishments- sanctions, criminal penalties, and orders of abatement- only come after three strikes and a lot of education.

The board can review the policy at any time, but they only plan to do so when COVID metrics have reduced enough that the virus is a smaller threat to the community. Those metrics include the number of covid-symptomatic people in the county, the test positivity rate, the hospitalization rate, and the cases per capita.

A full copy of the County’s mask policy is available here.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.