Mecklenburg County will drop its indoor mask mandate starting Feb. 26, ending a policy that was enacted to calm the spread of COVID-19, if only it had been enforced.
The Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously on Feb. 16 to lift the mandate which has been in effect since Aug. 31, 2021, and requires masks be worn inside public places across all municipalities regardless of vaccination status.
Since the original mandate was enacted by the board over the summer as a “public health rule,” its dissolve can only legally go into effect 10 days later.
The board’s Feb. 16 decision to rescind the mask mandate came at the recommendation of Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington, who cited improved overall COVID-19 trends; the availability of vaccines, testing and treatments; higher community immunity; stable hospital capacity; and lack of enforcement as his reasons.
Under Washington’s predecessor, Gibbie Harris, Mecklenburg County had been watching for the average COVID-19 positivity rate to fall below 5% for seven straight days before dropping the mask mandate. However, Washington said Feb. 16 that case counts and percent positivity rates are becoming less reliable as metrics to track community spread due to the availability of at-home tests, the results of which aren’t reported.
Instead, the county is shifting its focus to other early indicators of COVID-19 including wastewater surveillance and syndromic surveillance of emergency room visits for Covid-like illness.
Masks still remain mandatory in certain healthcare settings and on public transit, including airports and airplanes. Washington recommends people with compromised immune systems and underlining health conditions continue to mask up, too.
“The pandemic is not over. Covid is still a real threat to the community,” Washington told commissioners on Feb. 16. “There are people dying every day, so it’s still important for us to continue to take every measure to protect life in the community, but I do think there’s a way to be more focused in that.”
He added that the most important public health emphasis going forward will be efforts to close vaccination and booster gaps across the county.
Discussion turns to debate
Dozens of residents in favor of eliminating Mecklenburg County’s mask mandate held signs during the meeting and were vocal throughout the tense discussion that followed Washington’s presentation. The majority were not wearing masks.
Of those who took to the podium, many were parents who voiced concerns about mask-wearing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The school board is scheduled to meet Feb. 22 and could lift its mask mandate then.
“Look at the hypocrisy,” said CMS parent Maggie Franklin. “The Charlotte Hornets play unmasked while our children are forced to play the same game with masks. Citizens of every age are allowed to sit maskless at a restaurant to eat their meal but the same rule does not apply to the school desk. Tell me commissioners, what makes a dining table different from a school desk? I’ll tell you. Money.”
Eve Weiss, a ninth grader at Ardrey Kell High School, told commissioners she hasn’t seen some her friends faces in two years and “nobody realizes the affect it has on us mentally.”
“People will still wear them even if we are told we don’t have to,” Weiss said of the masks. “If they want to, they will. Why can’t it be a choice?”
Stacy Staggs, a parent with two immunocompromised children who spoke against removing the mandate, said she feared for the safety of the county’s children.
“The message is clear,” she said. “My children, kids like ours, those who are immunocompromised, are not welcome in the county of Mecklenburg.”
Her speech prompted loud, dramatic groans from the crowd, with one person even yelling “Brainwashed!”
Sherri Sonnier-Johnson told the board she was representing the minority. Or in her words, “people who have not come out in an orchestrated campaign to sway your opinion” — no doubt referring to the people in the audience all holding the same signs.
“It’s not always the squeakiest wheel,” Sonnier-Johnson said.
“Nobody thinks this is the best thing or a great thing, but we make the decision to wear it because we think it’s the better decision for the larger community,” she continued. “Not just what I want. Not just what I think is the most comfortable.”
Commissioners weigh in
Clearly moved by comments from those in favor of removing the mandate, Commissioner Vilma Leake made a motion to “allow these parents to take their mask off and enjoy life.”
“You need to go home and grab your babies and love them and take the daggon mask off,” she said, spurring a standing ovation from the audience.
Others weren’t so happy with the public’s participation.
“Look at yourselves,” said Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell. “Look at this group in here. This is an extremely homogeneous group. We have a majority minority community and this group has acted as if Covid isn’t real.”
Commissioner Laura Meier revealed she’s been wanting the mask mandate to end for a while and for children to be without masks, but there’s been something missing: respect.
Speaking to the audience, she said there needs to be more respect toward those who choose to still wear a mask once the mandate is lifted because “there are people who are terrified to go outside.”
“We need to not judge people if they’re wearing a mask,” said Commissioner Pat Cotham, echoing Meier’s concerns about respect.
“We don’t know what all of us are going through, but I do know that there’s this common theme that the masks are adding to the stress in families because we see children who are struggling,” Cotham said.
Mecklenburg’s policy does not have any effect on the mask requirement in CMS, which is independent of the county and could only be rescinded by the school board. The district has been following state and county COVID-19 rules and restrictions since the beginning of the school year.
Currently, state officials are only recommending schools issue indoor mask mandates, but not requiring it.
Washington said during the Feb. 16 commissioners meeting that K-12 and childcare providers should establish plans now to transition to mask-optional by early March 2022. The CMS board is scheduled to discuss its mask mandate during its Feb. 22 meeting.