NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC – Following a public hearing today, the New Hanover County Health and Human Services (HHS) Board voted unanimously to implement a health rule that mandates face coverings in all indoor public places within New Hanover County. The final rule can be viewed here.
The health rule, as required by statute, received public comments over 10 days and those comments, as well as those made at today’s meeting, were all considered by the board. The HHS Board determined that, based on the current high levels of transmission, percent positivity rate, hospitalizations, and deaths related to COVID-19, that the health rule was necessary to protect the public’s health.
“When we look at the COVID-19 data in our county, case counts have increased 10 times from June to August – with 217 new cases in June to 2,285 new cases in August,” said HHS Board Chair Dr. LeShonda Wallace. “That alone is significant, but there are a lot of other factors to also consider. Hospitalizations went from single digits at the start of the summer to now having more than 120 people in our local hospital, with an average patient age of 40. Patients are younger and reportedly, healthier than they were previously, and that is a real concern. We have also had three times more COVID-19 deaths over the last three months – with four deaths in June and now 25 deaths in August. Our positivity rate – which is the number of positive COVID-19 tests compared with the total number of tests performed countywide – has grown to 14.2 percent from 2.6 percent in late June.”
Dr. Wallace continued, “All of these facts, coupled with what we know about the virus, how it spreads, and what tools can help interrupt that transmission, led the Health and Human Services Board to implement this health rule county-wide until these same metrics that have surged over the summer improve. Face coverings are one of the tools we must use. The CDC has confirmed that properly designed and properly worn cloth or surgical masks prevent the respiratory droplets that carry the virus that causes COVID-19 from easily passing through. They help reduce the risk of COVID transmission, so for the time being, they should be worn anytime you are indoors in a public space to help protect yourself and our community.”
The health rule requiring face coverings indoors is meant to be a temporary measure that is revisited frequently by Health and Human Services. Its duration will be dependent on the community’s COVID-19 metrics improving, including – but not limited to – hospitalizations, case counts, and percent positivity rate. The goal is to reach a five percent or lower percent positivity rate, ensure the hospital system is not overwhelmed, and for overall case counts to be trending downward or remaining level without continued increases or spikes.
“We want businesses to be able to continue operations, we want schools to stay in person, we want people to be as safe and healthy as possible,” said Board of Commissioners Chair and HHS Board member Julia Olson-Boseman. “To accomplish that, we have to do all we can to mitigate our risks from the virus. Wearing a mask may not be a fun or popular choice, but it’s necessary and I appreciate this board taking the lead and implementing this health rule. And the purpose is not to penalize people or businesses. The board discussed that and made several minor, non-substantive updates to the rule to help clarify this. It is about education and helping our businesses and residents comply as much as we can. It’s not about legal or law enforcement action unless a situation rises to that. So, businesses – hang signs and offer masks to customers, and residents – please respect this rule and the business you enter.”
The health rule replaces the Public Health Order of Abatement that was implemented Friday, August 20, and continues the same mandate – requiring face covering inside all public places, to include offices and workplaces, business establishments, schools, public transportation facilities and vehicles, and any place the public is invited or allowed to assemble. The county-wide rule applies to anyone 2 years and older, regardless of vaccination status.
The health rule is directly in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ guidance urging all people, including those fully vaccinated, to wear face coverings in indoor spaces when they are around people they do not live with, to reduce the spread of COVID-19. CDC information about masks can be viewed at CDC.gov.
The indoor mask mandate does not apply to the following individuals:
“We are still in the middle of a pandemic and an emergency public health crisis,” said Public Health Director David Howard. “We have to do all we can to slow transmission and ensure the virus can be managed as we move into the future, so I appreciate the HHS Board taking this action. We know COVID-19 isn’t going away completely – it will be an endemic, meaning it will still be around but under control with less transmission, hospitalizations and deaths. But we have to get to that point, and as infections and hospitalizations rise, mitigation efforts like mask wearing must increase coupled with increased vaccinations. And then as infections and hospitalizations fall, we can relax mitigation efforts. Vaccines are the best way to help us meet our goals to create immune protection and to help us relax these measures, so I hope anyone who hasn’t gotten vaccinated yet will.”
Signs for business to hang, Frequently Asked Questions, vaccine resources, and more is available at Health.NHCgov.com.