NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Caution-prone members of the New Hanover County Health and Human Services board were set to extend the indoor mask mandate into January at the board meeting Friday morning. County chair and health board member Julia Olson-Boseman then reversed course at the last minute by proposing an alternate motion to lift the rule immediately. She had the votes, and as of this morning, the mask mandate is no longer in effect.
In the time since local health officials and political appointees made indoor masking mandatory in August, the percentage of local Covid-19 tests that yield positive results, averaged over a seven-day window, has fallen from over 15% to around 2.6%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Statewide, the percent positivity rate is around 4%.
The widely used benchmark indicative of manageable coronavirus spread is a 5% rate of positive tests. Despite the county’s success at clearing that hurdle, some board members, nervous about the approaching winter or a new variant, wanted to keep the mandate in place.
There are nine patients currently hospitalized with Covid-19 at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, down from a peak of 145 on Sept. 1, according to health officials. The county is averaging 15 new coronavirus cases per day.
As was also the case at the board’s August meeting — a rowdy morning in which multiple attendees were removed for outbursts or not wearing masks — around a half-dozen New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office deputies lined the perimeter of the room.
More than 10 members of the Cape Fear Proud Boys stationed in the back row of the audience Friday morning, following their appearance at the school board meeting three days prior.
Board chair LeShonda Wallace summoned the deputies after one speaker, wearing a shirt that said “Chaplain,” went over his allotted time.
“This is assault,” he yelled as sheriff’s deputies forced him out.
Commissioner Rob Zapple, citing the apparent wins in the metrics, subtly urged the board to change course on the mandate: “I think it may be time to make an adjustment, but I’ll leave that in your hands.”
When it came time for the board to act, members talked apprehensively about lifting the mandate. Hesitant to do away with a staple piece prevention tactic against Covid-19, they feared future influxes in NHRMC’s Covid-19 wing, and future coronavirus surges tied to holiday gatherings.
“We can’t predict the future,” public health director David Howard said. “Reasonably, if people who don’t normally spend their time together …. are getting together for the holidays, we might see an increase in transmission.”
His statements provoked members of the crowd to cry out in protest, calling Howard a “liar.”
There were worries among county leadership about potential unrest should the mandate be extended. After one board member proposed a motion to prolong the mandate into January, another member seconded the motion, setting the stage for a vote.
Then Olson-Boseman — the chairwoman of the board of commissioners who sits on the health and human services board as well — swooped in and proposed the exact opposite idea. Deputy county attorney Kemp Burpeau explained that as an alternate motion, Olson-Boseman’s proposal to nix the mandate would be voted on first. It carried 8-4.
Olson-Boseman, who attended virtually, initially incorporated a week-long buffer period into her motion, during which the mandate would stay on the books. She later interjected to say it should instead be rescinded immediately.
“It was time to lift the mandate, while still encouraging the community to make good decisions on when and where to wear a mask,” Olson-Boseman said in a county press release.
“The county is going to remain vigilant in monitoring the virus and we are investing resources in a pandemic operations team that will be at the forefront to help advise, educate, and respond to the needs in our community because the pandemic is not over, and will eventually become endemic and will continue to be present.”
The mask mandate enforcement strategy previously emphasized education over citations, and rested significant authority with Howard and law enforcement. Sheriff Ed McMahon, however, signaled he would not cite people for mask violations, leaving mask-policing largely in the hands of business owners. (McMahon has told at least one constituent he opposes mandatory vaccinations, and that NHCSO “will not be enforcing any such mandates.”)
Howard confirmed during the meeting when asked that his strategy was to educate non-compliant business owners on the protection masks provided.
“We are aware of the places that refuse to use the masks in their establishments,” Howard said. “We haven’t come down terribly hard on those, but we continue to communicate with them.”
The crowd cheered when the vote came down 8-4.
The Cape Fear Proud Boys, which created a Telegram channel on Oct. 16 and is slowly amassing a subscriber base, stood and applauded. They did the same throughout the meeting for speakers who voiced opposition to mask-wearing, and took cell phone videos as sheriff’s deputies removed audience members.
One of their representatives, who called himself Johnny Ringo, was the sole member to speak. He urged the board to end mask requirements for children, suggesting it only spreads germs further. He then invited the crowd to join in the Pledge of Allegiance, gaining the participation of about half the audience and none of the board.
“I’m sorry you’re not proud of this country,” he said. “But we are.”
Pat Bradford, the publisher of Wrightsville Beach Magazine, led a prayer: “Those who don’t believe that masks work, you should not try to force them on,” Bradford continued afterward. “It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional. It’s ungodly.”
Of the dozen speakers who took turns addressing the board, the overwhelming majority protested the mask mandate.
Three women were escorted out for vocal disruptions while the board considered the pros and cons of the existing mask mandate.
The man removed by law enforcement after talking longer than allowed had forewarned the board he would exceed his time limit. He had a similar run-in with deputies outside a board of education meeting in October when he tried to enter without a mask and was physically escorted away, then told to go home or face charges.
The New Hanover County Board of Education made plans at its Tuesday meeting to convene this coming Monday over Zoom to discuss lifting its own mask mandate. The school board intended to lean heavily on the outcome of the Friday health board meeting for guidance. Vice chair Nelson Beaulieu previously floated the idea of dropping the requirement for middle and high schoolers, age groups that have been eligible for the vaccine since May.
The time of the meeting has yet to be announced.
Last Friday, the school system reported just five cases of the virus in its weekly Covid-19 update.
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