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After 5-5 split vote, New Hanover Health Board adjourns without passing mask mandate

Health Director David Howard addressing the HHS Board.
Ben Schachtman
Health Director David Howard addressing the HHS Board.

After a two-hour meeting which saw, at times, tense debate between board members, the New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board voted 5-5 to nix a mask mandate; the split vote means no mandate will be instituted.

Note: This is a developing story and will be updated with additional information.

After hearing a presentation from County Health Director David Howard — who noted a very high positivity rate (over 30%) and the increased pressure on hospitals, and NHRMC in particular — and several public speakers — all of whom spoke against a mandate — board members moved to discuss next steps.

Those board members in favor of a mandate, including Chair Dr. LeShonda Wallace and member Dr. Kara Duffy cited the need to protect vulnerable members of the community and reiterated the urgency of alleviating the stress on the hospital system.

Health board member Dr. Delma Kinlaw was the most outspoken against a mandate. He echoed comments made by public speakers, including questions about non-fitted mask efficacy and the apparently lower lethality of the omicron variant — he also pushed Howard on the utility of the testing positivity rate as a metric for the health board's decisions. Kinlaw made a point of saying he was not opposed to masking, but referenced results of a county survey showing that 61% of respondents were opposed to a mask mandate.

Kinlaw clashed with Chair Wallace after she asked him to 'summarize' his comments. Wallace said her concern was giving all board members a chance to weigh in and — after about a dozen members of the crowd shouted "censorship" — denied she was trying to silence Kinlaw.

Kinlaw also asked why Howard had not finished the slides of his presentation, skipping those covering 'alternatives' to a mask mandate. Howard and Wallace responded that alternatives had been included in his comments but, ultimately, Howard returned to the podium to speak more on potential alternatives to a mask mandate — including increased messaging, a focus on testing and vaccine equity, and a focus on increased engagement from public leaders. As Port City Daily reported earlier this month, a discussion of this type of alternative had been requested by County Manager Chris Coudriet, who also said he would not support a unilateral mask 'abatement' order by Howard.

After Kinlaw spoke, health board member and County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, Jr. made the motion to not institute a mask mandate. Barfield said he had concerns about the lack of enforceability of the mandate (the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office stated during the previous mandate that it would not enforce the mandate, leaving the issue up to health department employees — and private businesses who have to police customers). Barfield shared a story about his daughter being accosted while she was at work as an example of the hostility created by past mandates — but also made it clear that, in his house masks and vaccines were the norm. Still, he said he couldn't support another mandate.

The vote was split, 5-5. Without a tie-breaker, the mandate discussion ended with no action — effectively meaning no mask mandate for the county. The board did not discuss if and when the issue would be revisited.

Below: Health Director David Howard's initial presentation and the additional 'alternatives' discussed later.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.