NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board faced heckling and disorder at its meeting Tuesday, in which health officials ushered in a new indoor mask requirement.
The board had previously voted in favor of requiring masks indoors Aug. 17. Since health rules require a 10-day public comment window before they go into effect — and county officials wanted something in place as soon as possible — health director David Howard issued an “order of abatement” that mandated mask-wearing as of Aug. 20. Abatement powers are delegated to local health directors, providing authority to deal with “public health nuisances” and “imminent hazards.”
The parking lot of the county health and human services headquarters on Greenfield Street was nearly full before 8 a.m. Dozens of members of the public showed up to the meeting in opposition of the move. Everyone entered the meeting room, where mask-wearing was strictly enforced, through a security checkpoint manned by New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
At the last board of commissioners meeting, exemptions were permitted; county administration changed its policy the day after, on Aug. 24, accepting no exemptions to mask-wearing during county meetings.
Board members received public comment on the proposed rule. Then they unanimously voted in favor of the mask rule, with a few tweaks to the original version.
Chairwoman Dr. LeShonda Wallace tried to set the tone early. Anyone not wearing a face covering, or who disrupted the meeting, would be removed by deputies, Wallace told the crowd.
She overviewed the worsening state of the pandemic in New Hanover County. The average daily number of Covid-19 patients hospitalized at New Hanover Regional Medical Center was 111 last week –– the highest on record –– and the positivity rate of local Covid-19 tests has risen to 14.2% from 2.6% in late June. Then she introduced Howard, who noted proposed revisions to the draft rule.
Under the draft rule, compliance officers, county employees specially trained to enforce the mask mandate in the field, wielded discretion to enforce violations. The approved version changes the term “compliance officer” to “education compliance officer,” and shifts enforcement responsibility to Howard and law enforcement.
Sanctions are in play starting with the third violation. As health director, Howard has statutory authority to issue abatement orders against “imminent hazards.” In the approved language, it is stated those orders “may include temporarily closing a facility’s operations.”
(“An order of closure is lifted when the public health hazard has been completely and satisfactorily corrected,” according to the rule.)
The criminal penalties, which are under the purview of law enforcement, will only be pursued after softer attempts at compliance and can be levied separately from potential orders of abatement.
Howard rounded out his presentation before Wallace called on each board member one-by-one, asking if they had questions for the health director. The crowd was mostly restrained, with only a few light heckles, until Julia Olson-Boseman, chairwoman of the board of commissioners and member of the board of health and human services, posed a question to Howard. People started yelling.
“We have questions for this gentleman,” said one man. “If you guys don’t want to ask them, then we’d like to ask these questions.”
Wallace immediately called on the sheriff’s deputies. Around half a dozen uniformed officers were stationed at the back corners of the multi-purpose meeting room that housed a Covid-19 vaccine hub for many months. More deputies were seated on the fringes of the audience. Olson-Boseman stood and pointed out the man who called out.
“Deputies,” Wallace said, “could you please remove the gentleman in the pink shirt?”
The man rose and walked out of the room, flanked by masked law enforcement. As he was led out the door he yelled: “You’re all a bunch of Nazis!”
Howard moved through more questions from board members until a final query came from Wallace, regarding exemptions to the rule: “If someone is in the room alone, are they required to wear a mask?”
The crowd howled with laughter and started jeering the board members, who were seated in two rows of folding tables facing the audience. County health officials and administrators sat behind the board. Heckles continued through Howard’s answer — which was that masks aren’t required in work-alone office environments or similar private settings. Next came the allotted 45-minute public comment period.
At times, county manager Chris Coudriet moved across the back row to converse privately with other top-level officials, including deputy county attorney Kemp Burpeau and Howard.
The early insults and barbs from the first speakers — stating the board was being used as a political tool, making allusions to Nazi Germany, threatening a lawsuit — set a rally-like tone in which critical comments were cheered on and affirmed by the crowd.
The third speaker, identifying as a doctor in healthcare, addressed the board in support of the mask rule. The crowd soon started to loudly chide her, taunting and interrupting her remarks about how rising Covid-19 case counts have strained the healthcare system.
Wallace soon interjected. Identifying a seated man “drinking a coffee,” Wallace asked deputies to remove him for not wearing a mask.
“I’m drinking my coffee,” the man protested. “I’ve got to drink it before it gets cold.” Wallace disagreed.
Deputies moved in to deal with him. “One hundred percent, support our police,” someone said while the crowd member was being removed.
“We love you guys very much,” another person said to the officers.
The third removal happened only a few minutes later. During a moment of quiet between speakers, one man loudly exclaimed, “You don’t allow hydrocloroquine (sic) or ivermectin, but you make us wear masks.”
As deputies led him toward the exit door, he continued to address the crowd, boisterously voicing his displeasure with President Joe Biden’s recent handling of Afghanistan.
Around 20 minutes into the public comment period, board of commissioners member Rob Zapple rose to the podium. A Democrat first elected to the board of commissioners in 2014, Zapple sat in the front row of the audience next to fellow commissioner, Republican Deb Hays.
“This is clearly a decisive issue,” Zapple said, looking toward the attendees. “I think the trouble we’re having today is having a simple conversation about this.”
Zapple tried to soften the energy of a crowd mostly unmovable in its disdain for the mask mandate. He vouched for the health and human services board members, who earlier speakers had disparagingly criticized as appointees attempting to over-exert their power. Zapple sustained heckles but trucked on. There wouldn’t be a shadowy enforcement group cracking down gratuitously on mask-violator businesses, Zapple said.
“There’s been a lot of information from healthcare professionals across our nation concerning the effectiveness of masks, and at times this information has been confusing and contradictory,” Zapple said. “The goal of this new rule is to provide our entire community with a simple tool that is available to all, and will, at the least, help to protect you and the people around you.
“It is not a perfect solution, and mask-wearing alone will not end this pandemic,” Zapple continued. “But it will help.”
This last statement revved up disruptions and attendees ridiculed the county commissioner for talking longer than the individual time allotment. He asked Wallace for a few more seconds to wrap up, but she declined and moved the public comment period along.
Two speakers later, Libby Dunn, 2022 Republican board of commissioners candidate, voiced her opposition to mandatory masking in schools. She told an anecdote about a school kid afraid to take his mask off in the cafeteria to eat, for fear of catching the virus.
“Didn’t anyone tell this kid that the science says Covid doesn’t spread while eating?” Dunn joked.
Dunn’s remarks ignited the crowd, carrying over a fervor into the next group of speakers. Wallace directed deputies to remove a few more disruptors. One man, who had removed his mask and was being escorted out, said he had multiple sclerosis and struggled to breathe while wearing a mask.
“Talk and walk,” one deputy told him, leading the man toward the exit.
Someone yelled, loud and slow: “Vote for Jonathan Uzcategui! He’ll make changes.” (Uzcategui is a Republican city council candidate.)
Around that time, some people in the crowd also yelled comments and questions to board members about the New Hanover High School catwalk shooting that took place the day prior. County officials recessed the meeting and deputies cleared the room. An NHCSO spokesperson said none of the kicked-out attendees were charged with any crimes.
Only a fraction of the previous crowd re-entered the room when the meeting came back online, and the talks moved from public comment to board discussion. The indoor mask mandate was approved unanimously, extending the timeframe of mandatory masking in New Hanover County indefinitely.
Key metrics health officials want to see improve are hospitalizations and total case counts, as well as reducing the percent positivity rate of Covid-19 tests to 5%.
The statewide mask-wearing rules of last year — enacted by Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders in response to the spread of Covid-19 — sunset earlier this summer on the heels of new federal guidance that effectively made masks optional.
Covid-19 infections have since surged locally, especially in recent weeks, an uptick officials attribute to the delta variant. New Hanover County confirmed more than 600 coronavirus cases during each week in August. The numbers in June hovered at around 25-to-60 cases confirmed weekly, before sharply rising in July. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently started advocating for indoor mask wearing regardless of vaccination status.
“The health rule requiring face coverings indoors is meant to be a temporary measure that is revisited frequently by Health and Human Services,” according to a county news release. “The goal is to reach a five percent or lower percent positivity rate, ensure the hospital system is not overwhelmed, and for overall case counts to be trending downward or remaining level without continued increases or spikes.”
In the absence of measures from Raleigh, Cooper signaled to local governments nothing prevented them from making moves of their own. In a late-July executive order, signed in the waning days of his prior state rules on masking, the phrase “Local Governments Can Impose Greater Restrictions” is underlined.
The reach of the local mandate extends to “any enclosed area to which the public is invited or in which the public is permitted.” It applies to anyone older than two, with some exemptions carved out for those under five.
Read the mask mandate: here
Find more information about the mask mandate, including about exemptions: here
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