CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A new mask mandate for indoor, public spaces began Wednesday at 5 p.m. for the City of Charlotte and parts of Mecklenburg County that are not incorporated inside another town. Now, the requirement will expand to all towns in the county by Aug. 31.
Previously, the mask mandate was expected to take effect on Aug. 28, but the county announced the mandate must go into effect 10 days after the legal notice, which will be released Saturday. County commissioners met to expand the mandate earlier this week. It passed with a 6-2 majority.
Deputy Health Director Raynard Washington said Friday that Mecklenburg County is once again receiving daily death counts related to COVID-19. The county announced that 21 people have died in the last 14 days.
"This is PREVENTABLE," Washington tweeted. "Get vaccinated. Wear a mask."
Over the last seven days, Mecklenburg County has seen an average of 528 new COVID-19 cases daily. Hospitalizations continue to increase and the average percentage of positive tests is 13.2%. Just over half, 51%, of residents are fully vaccinated.
For those who are vaccinated, Friday's report had some good news. Since March 22, Mecklenburg County has confirmed just 432 breakthrough cases. That equates to less than 1% of fully vaccinated residents.
In addition, Mecklenburg County officials reported multiple outbreaks at hospitals and health care facilities, including Atrium Health-Pineville, Novant Matthews Medical Center and Levine Children's Hospital.
"The bottom line is we need people to get vaccinated and we need people to wear masks," said Gibbie Harris, health director of Mecklenburg County.
During the meeting, Harris urged the mask requirement, saying over the last six weeks, more cases have popped up in Mecklenburg County. Cases in the county went up from an average of 44 cases per day by the end of June 2021 to 473 cases per day by mid-August.
Requirements of the mask mandate
The mandate requires anyone 5 years old or older to wear a mask while indoors.
Whether you go to a store, a restaurant, a movie theater, or gym -- a mask must be worn while indoors unless you are eating or drinking.
The mandate also requires people to wear a mask during their indoor workouts at gyms or other facilities.
Notably, Harris said private schools will need to follow the mandate. This comes after parents opposed to mask mandates looked at private schools as an option for education.
Twenty-three people signed up for public comment, most of whom said they were against the mandate. One citizen who chose to speak virtually called the mandate "an abuse of power" and said he would refuse to obey it.
Another resident who said he was a business owner said the order was tyrannical and that businesses would suffer.
"Let me tell you what I'm going to do instead -- I'm going to go to a different county, or I'm going to go to a different state just like I did before and I'm going to spend my money there," said Jeff Johnson.
Harris urged the board to pass the mandate, explaining the worrisome trends the county is experiencing.
"We have to control community spread," she said. "And the way we're going to do that is with vaccines and with masking. It's going to take both right now."
One emergency room doctor who spoke virtually shared his experience treating patients for COVID-19, saying he had to live separately from his own family and newborn son for four months. He said he was in favor of the mandate, and shared his own studies into the virus. He also said masks work, and do not restrict breathing.
Exemptions to the mask mandate
The mask mandate does have exceptions for the following:
- People with medical or behavioral conditions or disabilities (including, but not limited to, any person who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious or incapacitated)
- Actively eating or drinking
- Seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing-impaired in a way that requires your mouth to be visible
- Giving a speech or performance for a broadcast, where the audience maintains at least 20 feet separation. The audience is still required to wear masks if indoors
- Has found face coverings impeding visibility to operate equipment or a vehicle
Places of worship, religious ceremonies like weddings, and funerals are also exempt in the City of Charlotte and county-wide mandate.
The county is looking for voluntary compliance, but the mandate order does say a person can be charged with a misdemeanor if they violate the mandate. Businesses can also be shut down by the health department if they don't comply, according to the document.
The county is asking businesses to enforce the mandate themselves and to call 911 if someone refuses to leave their establishment while not wearing a mask.
The latest COVID-19 data from Mecklenburg County showed a steep increase in hospitalizations. Health officials are optimistic the new mandate could help turn the tide.
"The reason for mandating is our numbers have risen high enough, fast enough, that we think it's necessary to get the community's attention with a mandate," Harris said.
"We did not consider a vaccine mandate because we are going to try to see whether or not we can manage this pandemic through the measures we have in place, which will be a mask mandate," County Manager Dena Diorio said.
The responsibility to enforce the mandate will fall on local businesses.
"If we don't get ahead of the virus, we're looking at potentially — we don't want this — but additional restrictions," Diorio said.
In the meantime, county officials are urging everyone to comply with the mask mandate and get vaccinated as soon as possible to stop the spread of COVID-19.