As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, the city of Charlotte has been under an indoor mask mandate, and come Aug. 31, all of Mecklenburg County will be under one, too.
The Board of County Commissioners voted 6-2 Wednesday to adopt a “public health rule” that requires masks be worn inside public places across all municipalities regardless of vaccination status effective Tuesday, Aug. 31*. Commissioners Pat Cotham and Ella Scarborough were the only two to vote against it.
There are several exceptions to both the city and county mask mandates, including anyone under the age of 5 and anyone actively eating or drinking, among others. Worship, religious, spiritual gatherings, funerals, weddings and other activities “constituting the exercise of the First Amendment” are exempt from the county mandate, but not mentioned in the city’s. You can read the full Mecklenburg County mask mandate on the MCPH website.
Charlotte’s interim mask requirement ends Sept. 1, but the county’s mandate has no official end date. Instead, Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said her team will watch the COVID-19 data in the community and reevaluate their recommendation for masks at least every 30 days. They’ll be looking for the positivity rate to drop to 5% for 30 days. It’s currently at 13%, according to Harris.
Some business owners, such as Pure Pizza’s Juli Ghazi, have publicly stated they have no intention of following or enforcing either mask mandate in their businesses.
Harris pointed out that, over the past six weeks, the county has seen an escalation of the COVID-19 situation and “the Delta variant is responsible for a lot of that.” The number of COVID cases has increased from 44 per day at the end of June to 473 per day in the middle of August, while hospitalizations and case positivity rate are up, too.
The mask mandate came as a recommendation from the Mecklenburg County COVID-19 Policy Group, which guides the county and its municipalities on pandemic response. The group met privately on Monday, followed by a press conference at which Harris and County Manager Dena Diorio shared the recommendation with the public.
County commissioners held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the group’s recommendation.
“I feel like I must act to protect this community’s children,” said commissioner Leigh Altman, noting that kids under 12 years old are still not authorized for the vaccine. “We must protect our children’s ability to attend school in person.”
Cotham, on the other hand, commented that “the people have kind of had enough,” adding that she’s uncomfortable with the idea of a countywide mask mandate and the precedent it sets in terms of “overriding” municipalities that may not want to comply.
“I cannot support anything where we’re forcing another body of government — the six towns — to do what they may not choose to do,” Cotham said.
Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell responded that, “Mecklenburg County is the responsible body when it comes to this topic.”
Commissioners hear from residents before vote
Masks have been a divisive, hot-button issue throughout the pandemic, but Commissioner Laura Meier says now should be a time for the community to unite. She believes the economy is bouncing back from the pandemic in part because people have been wearing masks and she wants to “keep it that way.”
“We should be holding each other up and be accountable,” Meier said. “It’s so simple. All we have to do is wear a mask.“
Board chair George Dunlap assured the public the county mask mandate is “not a stay-at-home order; it’s not about fining the public; it’s not a demand to get vaccinated.”
“We have to do what is best for the community, whether you agree or not,” Dunlap said. “And yes, I’ve heard the threats, that you’ll move out of Mecklenburg County, and I’m sure there are places that would welcome your ways.”
Dunlap was speaking to members in the audience, many of whom signed up to speak against the mandate on Wednesday. They voiced concerns about a lack of data showing the effectiveness of masks against the spread of COVID-19 and shared a general feeling of distrust in their government.
“It’s not because we’re stupid. It’s not because we don’t care. It’s because we want reality and nothing is real these days,” said Matthew Childs, who revealed that he recently tested positive for COVID-19 and felt fine. “Everything is fake. Nothing makes sense … Why do I even need to wear a mask? It makes no sense.”
Jeff Johnson said the flip-flopping of pandemic restrictions is “getting out of control” and feels “tyrannical.” He called it “child abuse” that children are required to wear masks in school.
“Do you remember the story of the boy who cried wolf?” Johnson asked the board. “That’s what this feels like to me.”
Dr. Arin Piramzadian, chief medical officer at StarMed Healthcare, was the only speaker at Wednesday’s meeting in favor of the mandate, as well as the only medical doctor to address the board.
“We know that masks work. Physicians have worn them for decades,” he said. “We tell children to cover their mouths when they sneeze. It’s literally the same concept.”
*The county originally announced the mask mandate would take effect Aug. 28, but because of laws that state it must take effect 10 days after issuance of a legal notice to the public, which is going out on Aug. 20, the mask mandate was moved back to Aug. 31. This story has been updated to include that change.