CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington recommended the county drop its mask mandate during a county commissioners meeting Wednesday. The board of commissioners voted unanimously in favor of that recommendation, determining to rescind the indoor mask mandate.
The mandate will end on Feb. 26. The effective date is, by law, required to be 10 days from the vote. The mandate was reinstated in August, at the start of the delta variant surge. The percent positivity rate at that time was around 14%.
WCNC Charlotte's Hunter Saenz learned the health department considered different metrics for proposing to end the mask mandate:
- Shifting COVID-19 conditions
- Higher community immunity
- Stabilized capacity at hospitals
- Lack of enforcement
Wednesday's meeting was packed with county residents looking to weigh in before the vote. Many people in attendance brought signs, asking county leaders to get rid of the mandate, while a couple residents asked leaders to keep the mandate in place.
Ultimately, Washington argued cases and hospitalizations are down, and there's a higher immunity in the community thanks to vaccines and the fact that many people have already gotten the virus.
Washington said he still recommends mask-wearing in public indoor settings for the general public, especially for those in high-risk groups and settings.
Impact of COVID-19 metrics
County officials had previously said the percent positivity rate would need to stay below 5% for seven consecutive days to remove the mask mandate. The percent positivity rate in Mecklenburg County on Feb. 14 — the latest data available — was 14.5%. That's down from 20.8% on Feb. 8, but still above the 10% threshold indicating high community spread of COVID-19. No longer following that guideline, commissioners voted on removing the mandate anyway.
"To be perfectly honest, regardless of presence or absence of a mask mandate at the county level, I think we've all been out and about," Atrium Health's Dr. Katie Passaretti said before Wednesday's vote. "Mask wearing is a variable and has been for some time. It really is a good time to focus on individual risk benefits."
Masks have proven to be a vital tool in getting through the pandemic, health experts say.
"Let's remember how much they've helped prevent many, many more deaths than we would've had otherwise," Dr. Charles Bregier with Novant Health, said.
Doctors still say some people should keep theirs on. Those groups include people who are at risk for a bad outcome or severe illness or hospitalization. Bregier also said those who are unvaccinated should "think twice" before making a decision on wearing a mask.
Passaretti also noted that the omicron variant is having a different impact than the delta surge last fall. That's why despite recent records for new cases, some health experts are OK with easing restrictions.
"This surge is somewhat different as far as severity of illness, speed of onset, and speed of decrease," she said.
The CDC said it is expected to make changes to its recommendations soon, including new mask guidance. Those guidelines often dictate state and local policies.
How will businesses and schools in Mecklenburg County move forward?
Washington also recommended K-12 and daycares should follow the NCDHHS Strong Schools K-12 toolkit, encouraging schools to start planning to switch to masks-optional by early March.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has allowed each school district to vote periodically if masks will stay or go. Currently, masks are required at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Washington said he planned to join the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education meeting next week. The school board would still have to vote to change masking policies within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district.
And when it comes to businesses, it largely comes down to the personal prerogative for each business. At the Open Kitchen, for example, masks are going to stay required, at least for now.
"Our staff at the restaurant feels that it’s a little premature and we will probably, most of us — 90% of us will continue to wear a mask,” Christina Skiouris, president of Open Kitchen, said.
Skiouris said the business wants to stay open and have staff to work so, for them, it's better safe than sorry.
“We’re ready for it to be over we just want to make sure that we’re safe," Skiouris said.
WCNC Charlotte is part of seven major media companies and other local institutions reporting on and engaging the community around the problems and solutions as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. See all of our reporting at charlottejournalism.org.