NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– The day after several attendees and speakers were maskless at New Hanover County’s Aug. 23 board of commissioners meeting, the county changed its administrative face-covering policy.
The revised policy includes the provision that the county will grant no exemptions to those refusing to wear a mask when attempting to attend county board or committee meetings.
A county spokesperson did not directly address whether the unmasked attendees at the county meeting prompted the policy change.
The revision was put in place after the Aug. 20 countywide mask mandate, “to ensure clarity for all county staff and the public when inside a county facility or at a public meeting,” the spokesperson explained.
Those who choose not to wear a mask at public county meetings will be offered one, per the updated policy, revised Aug. 24. The original Aug. 5 policy covering masks inside county buildings made no distinction for meetings on county property.
If prospective attendees still refuse to wear a mask, they won’t be allowed to attend in person and will instead have to stream the meeting virtually. According to the policy, county staff are responsible for making the public aware of the rule. Sheriff’s deputies will be posted at the entrance of meetings to ensure compliance.
The sheriff will not arrest anyone for not following the county mandate, a sheriff’s spokesperson confirmed last week. Deputies may choose to charge an individual for trespassing.
Strain on hospitals
To confront the rising threat of the delta variant exhausting the region’s healthcare system, the county began clamping down on the spread, harkening back to peak pandemic times. First, it instituted a vaccination protocol for county employees on Aug. 10, requiring staffers to verify inoculation status or submit to weekly testing (the health and human services board had recommended mandatory vaccines the week prior).
Then on Aug. 17, the county health director issued an abatement order, unilaterally mandating masks across the county –– including its municipalities –– with 12 exemptions. It went into effect on Aug. 20. A separate public health rule, covering essentially the same mandate proposed by the health board, required 10 days of public notice. That rule could go into effect after a public hearing Tuesday, Aug. 31.
At the upcoming hearing, where an anti-mask contingent is sure to attend to decry their civil liberties being allegedly stripped, the county won’t accept any excuses: “exemptions will not be recognized,” the public notice states.
At last week’s board of commissioners meeting, eight public speakers addressed the board without a mask on. Seven unmasked speakers shared statements in opposition to the mandate and one masked speaker was in favor of it. Separately, one masked and one unmasked (with the covering temporarily dangling from her ear) speaker asked commissioners to save the library and museum, in opposition to the county’s current Project Grace plans (technically, one of them sang this request to the tune of “The Christmas Song”).
One exemption to the abatement order includes if someone is giving a speech or performance broadcast to an audience, so long as they are 20 feet apart. Even so, some members of the audience sitting side-by-side were unmasked, including those who had aired their grievances.
These individuals claimed various exemptions when entering the building and interacting with deputies, according to a county spokesperson. The county was operating on the honor system, accepting exemptions claims without asking for proof.
Those in opposition to the mask mandate doubted the efficacy of face coverings and likened the rule to a violation of their rights; one speaker wore a shirt that read “communism, you masked for it”; another threatened violence. Opposition also centered on the fact that the order was instituted by an unelected bureaucrat with no public input; should the health board adopt the rule, only one member, commissioners chair Julia Olson-Boseman, is elected on the board composed of appointed medical professionals.
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