Buncombe County is going through a bit of a rough patch. Its Board of Commissioners canceled an Aug. 17 meeting at which they had planned to consider a new COVID-19 state of emergency — because of the flooding associated with Tropical Depression Fred, which caused the county’s heaviest two-day rain event in over 50 years.
The board proceeded to convene an emergency meeting on Aug. 18 regarding Buncombe’s COVID-19 response. And in a 6-1 decision, its members voted to declare a renewed emergency due to the coronavirus, as well as reinstate a mask mandate for all public indoor facilities in Asheville, Montreat, Woodfin, Weaverville and unincorporated county areas. Robert Pressley, the board’s lone Republican, was the sole vote against the measure.
The requirement covers all “business establishments, offices and workplaces, public transportation facilities and vehicles, and any indoor place the public is invited or allowed to enter and gather,” with the exception of weddings, funerals, religious gatherings and “other activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights.” Following the meeting, Fletcher Tove, Buncombe’s emergency preparedness director, said the county was not planning any enforcement measures and that the order contained no language specifying penalties for violations.
The mandate was recommended by Stacie Saunders, Buncombe’s public health director, who noted that COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, test positivity rate and virus-related deaths per 100,000 had all exceeded the county’s established metrics for enacting stronger measures to control the coronavirus. She said that mask wearing, together with continued vaccination efforts, would slow transmission of the virus’s delta variant, which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is over twice as infectious as previous strains.
“In this time of substantial or high transmission, it’s really important that it’s not an ‘or’ anymore: It’s an ‘and,’” Saunders said about combining masks and vaccinations to reduce viral spread. Although the measured benefits of masking have varied across available research studies, according to the CDC, the widespread use of face coverings in a community has generally been associated with lower infection rates.
None of the 22 public commenters at the meeting expressed support for the mask requirement, although Commissioner Al Whitesides told the Citizen Times that over 80% of the many emails he’d received on the topic as of Aug. 17 were in favor. Those who spoke on Aug. 18 shared a wide range of concerns about mandated masking, saying it represented an infringement on personal freedom, an enforcement headache for businesses, a cause of deleterious health effects and an unnecessary burden for those who have already been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“This was supposed to be a two-week flatten the curve, and right now we’re going on to two years,” said Resa Johnson, an Asheville-based chiropractor, about the continuation of mask requirements. “Children are becoming claustrophobic. They are having trouble breathing. … I think that this has gone on for quite a substantial amount of time and I think it’s really dangerous to our youth.”
Prior to voting against the mandate, Pressley alleged that his Democratic colleagues had already made up their minds before hearing public comment. (Newman had made a Facebook post on Aug. 12 stating that the board “will vote to reinstate a mask requirement.”) “This is both sides. We need to listen,” Pressley said.
“I have never decided on a motion until we make the motion,” Whitesides countered. He said that he’d listened to all of the commenters but that the preponderance of evidence justified required masking.
“This virus — we do know this — it is contagious. And it’s unfortunate that we have to police and wear masks for the people who don’t want to wear them, because they affect all of us,” Whitesides said. “That’s the concern that I have, and that’s why I will vote for this.”