Unmasked: County commissioners vote 8-0 to end mask mandate; schools could follow in a few weeks.
◼️ Health director says improving conditions merit a more focused approach
◼️ Takes effect Feb. 26, after 10-day notice period
◼️ Health numbers have been plunging since January
by Tony Mecia
Mecklenburg’s mask mandate is on its way out.
By a unanimous vote, with Covid numbers plunging, Mecklenburg County commissioners decided to end the requirement of wearing face coverings indoors.
The vote followed a 20-minute presentation by new health director Raynard Washington, who said that higher rates of immunity, improving hospital capacity, advances in testing and sharply lower Covid numbers require a different approach — which he called “Covid-19 response 2.0.”
“We have tried our best to make sure we are being informed by what the conditions are here and, of course, acknowledge that those conditions are starting to shift, and it is time to make a transition in our response,” Washington said.
In his first big Covid decision since taking over from Gibbie Harris last month, Washington said he felt comfortable recommending an end to Mecklenburg’s mask mandate, which has been in effect since August. After a 10-day notice period, the health rule will cease to exist on Feb. 26 — though you’d have to imagine you’ll start seeing fewer masks around town a lot sooner.
He said both of Charlotte’s big hospital systems supported the move, and that other cities in North Carolina that require masks are moving in the same direction.
New way to track: Washington also outlined a radically different way to track future surges in Covid as the response to the pandemic evolves. Instead of relying on traditional numbers such as number of confirmed cases and percentage of tests coming back positive, he said the health department will pay attention to four wastewater testing stations in Mecklenburg County. He said there are increasingly drawbacks to using numbers of confirmed cases, since many people are testing at home and their positive tests don’t show up in official counts.
Instead, relying on wastewater sampling — as UNC Charlotte has done — provides a more complete picture of the spread of Covid in the county. [Read more: The Ledger wrote about UNC Charlotte’s wastewater testing in September 2020]
Schools: Get ready to go mask-optional
State and federal health officials continue to recommend masks in schools. In North Carolina, that decision falls to individual districts. With the county rescinding its mask mandate, the decision on mask-wearing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools now shifts to the school board.
Washington said he is encouraging schools to start making plans to transition to mask-optional. Although government guidance continues to encourage wearing masks in school, Washington said he expects that advice to change soon — and he implied that if it doesn’t, he might recommend it anyway.
“I do believe even if no additional guidance changes, we will be at that point in the next two weeks,” he said.
He said he plans to attend Tuesday’s school board meeting to answer questions from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.
Health director Raynard Washington on Wednesday night.
Continuing mask saga
Wednesday’s meeting was the latest chapter in the mask-on-again, mask-off-again saga. Gov. Roy Cooper ordered mask-wearing in June 2020, then removed the requirement as cases fell in May 2021. Mecklenburg County commissioners ordered indoor mask-wearing in August 2021.
Though businesses generally complied and required customers to wear masks, the rules were rarely enforced. The county health department and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police told The Charlotte Observer this week that they had taken no mask-related enforcement actions since commissioners ordered mask-wearing in August.
Most counties surrounding Mecklenburg did not require masks in the last few months. Covid cases in Mecklenburg, as in the rest of the country, have been plunging since early January, and at least 11 states have relaxed masking requirements.
Washington said Wednesday that numbers of Covid cases had fallen 87% since their Jan. 16 peak, and hospitalizations are down 37% since peaking on Jan. 28.
The 7-day average of Covid cases in Mecklenburg has been plunging since mid-January. (Source: N.C. Department of Health and Human Services)
CDC about to relax guidance: Some health officials, including the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have said it’s premature to remove masks. But CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that the agency would soon be updating its guidance: “We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen.”
Washington said Wednesday that masks will still continue to be required in some settings, such as mass transit, airports and healthcare locations. And people who are immunocompromised should continue to take precautions, he said.
He said he understood that news of the mask mandate going away might be hard for some people to hear. But he said Mecklenburg should focus on vaccinations and boosters for those who need them, which he said is a more focused approach.
“Covid is here,” he said, “and we must learn to adapt and adjust to live with it.”