Thursday, February 29, 2024

Masks are back: New Hanover mandates face-coverings indoors, goes into effect Friday

Mask mandate in New Hanover County will go into effect Friday, Aug. 20, as public health director David Howard signed an order of abatement to sidestep the normal 10-day public notice period. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — As of Friday, Aug. 20, 5 p.m., all individuals in New Hanover County will be required to wear face coverings indoors as Covid-19 cases continue to surge countywide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Hanover County ranks 11.46% in positive cases — health officials hope to remain 5% and below for public safety.

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The mask mandate will affect “offices and workplaces, business establishments, public transportation facilities and vehicles, and any place the public is invited or allowed to assemble.” Vaccinated or not, it also applies to all people ages 2 years and older.

According to the county, masks do not have to be worn by:

  • Anyone with a medical or behavioral condition or disability, including difficulty breathing.
  • Children under 2 years old.
  • Children under 5 years old, if a parent, guardian, or responsible person has been unable to place and maintain a face covering safely on the child’s face.
  • Anyone who is actively eating or drinking.
  • Anyone who is seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing impaired in a way that requires the mouth to be visible.
  • Anyone giving a speech or performance for a broadcast, or to an audience, where they maintain a distance of at least 20 feet from the audience.
  • Anyone at home or in a personal vehicle.
  • Anyone who must temporarily remove their face covering for identification purposes to secure government or medical services.
  • Anyone who would be at risk from wearing a face covering at work, as determined by local, state, or federal regulations or workplace safety guidelines, or who has found that their face covering is impeding visibility to operate equipment or a vehicle.
  • Anyone alone in an enclosed space, such as a room, office or vehicle.
  • Anyone participating in worship, religious, spiritual gatherings, funeral ceremonies, wedding ceremonies, and other activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights.

New Hanover is joining Wake County, as well as other North Carolina cities, such as Charlotte and Winston-Salem, to mandate face coverings.

The county already had an indoor mask policy for government buildings, which went into effect Aug. 5. The city of Wilmington also was taking precautions at Monday’s agenda briefing meeting, with social distance between seats and Plexiglass partitions between stations. Mayor Saffo addressed a potential mandate as well.

“I think we’ve got another wave that we’ve got to work through here,” he said. “[W]e’re seeing other cities and counties throughout the state are going to some mandatory mask mandates, and who knows what’s going to happen here in New Hanover County? But it looks like the numbers are trending back instead of in a better position than we were about a month ago.”

New Hanover Health and Human Services Board voted unanimously Tuesday on the proposed health rule, which normally requires a 10-day notice given to the public. However, David Howard, New Hanover County public health director, issued an order of abatement, in pursuant of general statute 130A-19, 130A-20, and 130A-41, to allow the mandate effective earlier — as Covid presents a “public health hazard to every resident and visitor to New Hanover County.”

“If we could issue this indoor mask mandate immediately, we would,” health board chair Dr. LeShonda Wallace said in a release. “But, as the Health and Human Services Board, we are required to follow statute and must abide by the 10-day notice period for health rules. That’s why we recommended Public Health Director David Howard to take the more immediate action to issue a face covering mandate through an abatement order.”

Health director Howard noted the county is tracking 10 times the amount of cases in August as it was a mere two months ago. He also confirmed the cases are burdening the local health system, with Novant’s New Hanover Regional Medical Center surpassing record numbers since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

According to the proposed health rule, the board moved on their decision based on key metrics studied over the last few weeks as numbers continued to rise from the delta variant — which the CDC said accounts for 90% of cases nationwide. The county health board noted in June only 217 Covid-19 cases were reported in New Hanover, with an uptick to 705 by the third week in July and 1,152 during the first 17 days of August. 

The percent positivity of cases has increased from 1.5% since mid-July, the county reported.

“The recent devastating impacts of COVID-19 cannot be diminished and the strain on our healthcare system and staff is not sustainable, so our community must take it more seriously than ever,” Wallace iterated in the release.

As of Aug. 13, NHRMC is averaging 71 patients a week with Covid-19, bringing its total Covid patient count to date to 2,419. Last week Dr. West Paul, NHRMC’s chief clinical officer, said 90% of cases in the hospitals consist of unvaccinated patients, with the average age in their 40s rather than 60s, as experienced early on in the pandemic.

A smaller percentage, he said, consists of breakthrough infections. Vaccines have proven to be effective against Covid, and though not 100%, will prevent severe illness and even death, Paul explained. 

“The rapid rise in hospitalizations must be slowed,” Howard said in a release. “Five more of our neighbors died last week and all were unvaccinated individuals. Please stop and think about that, and do what’s necessary to prevent this virus from impacting you, your family, and our community — this means masking now, distancing now, and vaccinating now.”

Commissioner Chair Julia Olson-Boseman expressed gratitude for the board taking action and supported fully a countywide mask mandate.

“The delta variant is proving to be incredibly contagious and our community needs to do all we can to combat its spread, so moving forward proactively to mandate masks is the right course of action for the health of our residents,” she said. 

“Masks have been proven as an effective tool to decrease transmission, especially when coupled with vaccinations, physically distancing from others, avoiding large indoor crowds and practicing good hand hygiene. And, even if you are outdoors at a crowded venue, we encourage you to wear a mask,” Wallace added.

A public comment section is available on the ruling here. It will close Monday, Aug. 30, noon. Thereafter, the health board will meet at a date and time to be determined in order to review all comments. A public hearing will be conducted and a vote on the rule’s adoption will also take place.

The county has signs available for businesses to download and hang locally in regard to face-coverings, and a list of frequently asked questions can be found online.

The proposed health rule can be viewed here and hard copies are available at the New Hanover County Health and Human Services building, 1650 Greenfield St.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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