Mecklenburg County’s mask mandate will be lifted Feb. 26, ending a divisive health policy that was widely ignored and rarely enforced.
Mecklenburg commissioners on Wednesday voted unanimously to end the mandate, accepting a recommendation by county Health Director Raynard Washington, who said the county – and indeed the entire nation – is “at a pivotal point” in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Washington told commissioners there is growing recognition that Covid-19 “will become endemic” around the globe.
“This is a reality that we have been discussing for quite some time as it relates to Covid…and we must learn to adapt, adjust, to live with it,” he said.
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Washington said his recommendation to end the mask mandate came after he consulted with state health officials, other health directors in the state, as well as with both of the region’s major healthcare providers. No one during those discussions, he said, opposed the move.
Washington said he would recommend to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board next week that a similar mask requirement also be lifted in public schools.
The end of the county’s mandate does not preclude businesses and private organizations from issuing their own masking requirements. Nor does it end federal rules that require face coverings in some healthcare settings, on airplanes, in airports and on public transportation.
Washington stressed that Covid-19 still poses a public health concern, and he said that vaccines and hospital-grade masks remain the most effective way to prevent infection.
“Let me be clear about my recommendations this evening,” he said. “I am asking this body to rescind the county-wide mandate, but I am not discouraging people from wearing masks…This is not getting rid of the masks; it is getting rid of the mandate.”
He said residents who face greater health concerns relating to a Covid-19 infection must take responsibility to safeguard themselves.
At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners heard strong opinions from residents on both sides of the masking debate. At times, the meeting was interrupted by verbal outbursts, and Commissioners Chair George Dunlap threatened, at least once, to have a resident ejected.
Before the vote, commissioners acknowledged how divisive the mandate had been.
“We are in the third year of this, and we have all changed,” at-large Commissioner Pat Cotham said. “We have to acknowledge that it’s been tough… All of this has been stressful on adults, and it’s been very stressful on children.”
Washington said several factors contributed to his recommendation to end the county’s mandate. Among those factors, he said, was a rapidly declining positivity rate among residents being tested for Covid-19. He also cited a decline in Covid-related deaths and hospitalizations.
Washington shared data indicating that, as of Feb. 13, Mecklenburg’s 7-day infection rate was 274 cases per 100,000 residents, down 87% from Jan. 16.
Covid-related hospitalizations, he said, average 400 per day over the last week, down 37% from Jan. 28. And the county’s positivity rate of 15.7% was down 58% from Jan. 8.
Washington said that while the county’s positivity rate was still well above the 5% target previously set for lifting the mandate, he said a better public strategy was to focus on limiting the impact and severity of Covid-19.
He also said that data obtained through testing are becoming less reliable, especially as more residents are using home-testing kits.
To enhance Covid-19 monitoring, he said, state health officials have begun tracking the level of “viral particles” in Mecklenburg County’s wastewater. The monitoring is being done at four wastewater locations that represent about 371,000 residents, and the state is providing county health officials with “detailed weekly reports,” Washington said.
Before casting her vote, Commissioner Elaine Powell said residents on both sides of the issue should show more compassion for one another – and for county officials.
“If there is someone in Mecklenburg County that’s drunk with the power of a mask mandate, I haven’t met them,” she said. “We really have done the best we can to protect public health, and I’m sorry that anyone has suffered. It is time for this mask mandate to end, and I support that.”
According to the latest state data, 56% of Mecklenburg residents age 18 or older have had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. That compares with a 75% state average.
Washington said he would like to see those county numbers higher to avoid future outbreaks and viral mutations. He also cautioned that, while the mask mandate is ending, the virus – and the county’s needed response to it – remain unknowable.
“The pandemic is not over,” he said. “Covid is still a real threat to the community. There are people dying every day.”