Buncombe reinstates COVID emergency, indoor mask mandate

Blue face masks
EMERGENCY MEASURES: Buncombe County's reinstated mask mandate applies to "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.” Graphic courtesy of Buncombe County

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.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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23 thoughts on “Buncombe reinstates COVID emergency, indoor mask mandate

  1. dyfed

    Does the BoC have the statutory authority to impose a mask mandate? I genuinely don’t know the answer to this question. I guess it doesn’t matter if there’s no enforcement and no penalties, but I’m curious.

    • luther blissett

      It’s a good question, and I looked up the authorities that were cited. Pretty sure it’s covered by N.C.G.S. Chapter 166A which deals with emergency management: specifically, in the section on the powers available to to local government during a state of emergency:

      https://ncleg.gov/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/PDF/BySection/Chapter_166A/GS_166A-19.31.pdf

      Subsection (b)(2) authorizing prohibitions / restrictions for “offices, business establishments, and other places to or from which people may travel or at which they may congregate” is… pretty broad. But it’s there.

      • dyfed

        You’re right, that is terrifically broad. I’m no lawyer but it does look like it would cover mask mandates… as well as pretty much anything else one would desire.

    • LowerCrust

      Governor Cooper’s Executive Order of July 29 provides for local authorities to exercise such powers as local conditions may necessitate. These powers are not new to this order (they have been established and upheld by courts prior to this), but I believe this is the most recent iteration of these powers.
      https://files.nc.gov/governor/documents/files/EO224-COVID-19-Measures.pdf

      2.4. Effect on Local Emergency Management Orders.
      a. Most of the Restrictions in This Executive Order Are Minimum Requirements, And
      Local Governments Can Impose Greater Restrictions. The undersigned recognizes that
      the impact ofCOVID-19 has been and will likely continue to be different in different
      parts of North Carolina. Over the course of the COVID-19 emergency in North
      Carolina, COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred, at different times, in urban and rural
      areas; in coastal areas, the piedmont, and the mountains; and in a variety of employment
      and living settings. As such, the undersigned acknowledges that counties and cities
      may deem it necessary to adopt ordinances and issue state of emergency declarations
      which impose restrictions or prohibitions to the extent authorized under North Carolina
      law, such as on the activity of people and businesses, to a greater degree than in this
      Executive Order. To that end, nothing herein, except where specifically stated below
      in this Subsection 2.4, is intended to limit or prohibit counties and cities in North
      Carolina from enacting ordinances and issuing state of emergency declarations which
      impose greater restrictions or prohibitions to the extent authorized under North
      Carolina law. “

      • dyfed

        No, what you’ve quoted shows that the governor’s current orders don’t preempt local minimums. It doesn’t (and cannot) grant statutory authority to the county to impose a mandate.

        It doesn’t appear that order actually delegates any statutory authority of the governor to local authorities to impose mandates. It appears that the county is relying on its inherent authority to pass ordinances. But I’m not sure that an ordinance can do what they’re doing, assuming it had any force or effect (which this one doesn’t, because there’s no penalty and no enforcement).

        • LowerCrust

          What is quoted is not the entire order, plus it piggybacks on a succession of other orders and court rulings which have all generally served to legitimize these more specific actions. The Governor does not have statutory authority and cannot confer it upon other entities, but if one is looking for the ultimate statutory source of this authority, and the conferring of such powers to the Governor and to local governments as well, then I think the “NC Emergency Management Act” is probably the best (but not only) source.

          Note: I’m not making a case as to whether this is good policy or not – just offering my best response to what I presumed was a sincere question about the source of legitimate authority to enact such policy.

          https://www.ncleg.net/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/PDF/ByArticle/Chapter_166A/Article_1A.pdf

          • dyfed

            No, I hear you, it is a genuine question. I looked up the text of the whole order, and that’s why I was curious… there’s no delegation mentioned, and one presumes they would have to.

            The NC EMA does grant statutory authority to the governor to declare states of emergency and promulgate orders relating to those emergencies. I’m just confused about whether he can delegate that authority elsewhere without actually saying so, and is that a valid use. Eh, it was only a passing curiosity.

  2. Yeah, right

    Hey, the law is clear, just carry a bible into anywhere you go to engage in commerce, it’s now “a religious gathering” and F Buncombe Co.

  3. blueridgeguvnor

    Why did I bother getting vaccine if I still have to wear a mask ? I paid for my freedom by taking the experimental vaccine.

    Odds of getting Covid and needing hospitalization is so minimal, .007% or something.

    Why do we have to wear masks to make people feel better ? It’s not Science.

    • C-Law

      Now, now guvnah…comply, obey, leave the thinking yo your betters! Ha!

      Presented in a different way as a transcript of a phone call with the our betters at the CDC (enjoy!)—

      ME: CDC, should I get poke if I already had Covid?
      CDC: “Yes, you should be poked regardless of whether you already had COVID-19. That’s because experts do not yet know how long you are protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19.”
      ME: Oh, okay, we don’t know how long natural immunity lasts. Got it. So, how long does poke-induced immunity last?
      CDC: “There is still a lot we are learning about COVID-19 pokes and CDC is constantly reviewing evidence and updating guidance. We don’t know how long protection lasts for those who are poked.”
      ME: Okay … but wait a second. I thought you said the reason I need the poke was because we don’t know how long my natural immunity lasts, but it seems like you’re saying we ALSO don’t know how long poke immunity lasts either. So, how exactly is the poke immunity better than my natural immunity?
      CDC: …
      ME: Uh … alright. But, haven’t there been a bunch of studies suggesting that natural immunity could last for years or decades?
      CDC: Yes.
      NEWYORKTIMES: “Years, maybe even decades, according to a new study.”
      ME: Ah. So natural immunity might last longer than poke immunity?
      CDC: Possibly. You never know.
      ME: Okay. If I get the poke, does that mean I won’t get sick?
      BRITAIN: Nope. We are just now entering a seasonal spike and about half of our infections and hospital admissions are poked people.
      ME: CDC, is this true? Are there a lot of people in the U.S. catching Covid after getting the poke?
      CDC: We stopped tracking breakthrough cases. We accept voluntary reports of breakthroughs but aren’t out there looking for them.
      ME: Does that mean that if someone comes in the hospital with Covid, you don’t track them because they’ve been poked? You only track the UN-poked Covid cases?
      CDC: That’s right.
      ME: Oh, okay. Hmm. Well, if I can still get sick after I get the poke, how is it helping me?
      CDC: We never said you wouldn’t get sick. We said it would reduce your chances of serious illness or death.
      ME: Oh, sorry. Alright, exactly how much does it reduce my chance of serious illness or death.
      CDC: We don’t know “exactly.”
      ME: Oh. Then what’s your best estimate for how much risk reduction there is?
      CDC: We don’t know, okay? Next question.
      ME: Um, if I’m healthy and don’t want the poke, is there any reason I should get it?
      CDC: Yes, for the collective.
      ME: How does the collective benefit from me getting poked?
      CDC: Because you could spread the virus to someone else who might get sick and die.
      ME: Can a poked person spread the virus to someone else?
      CDC: Yes.
      ME: So if I get poked, I could still spread the virus to someone else?
      CDC: Yes.
      ME: But I thought you just said, the REASON I should get poked was to prevent me spreading the virus? How does that make sense if I can still catch Covid and spread it after getting the poke?
      CDC: Never mind that. The other thing is, if you stay unpoked, there’s a chance the virus could possibly mutate into a strain that escapes the pokes protection, putting all poked people at risk.
      ME: So the poke stops the virus from mutating?
      CDC: No.
      ME: So it can still mutate in poked people?
      CDC: Yes.
      ME: This seems confusing. If the poke doesn’t stop mutations, and it doesn’t stop infections, then how does me getting poked help prevent a more deadly strain from evolving to escape the poke?
      CDC: You aren’t listening, okay? The bottom line is: as long as you are unpoked, you pose a threat to poked people!!
      ME: But what KIND of threat??
      CDC: The threat that they could get a serious case of Covid and possibly die.
      ME: My brain hurts. Didn’t you JUST say that the poke doesn’t keep people from catching Covid, but prevents a serious case or dying? Now it seems like you’re saying poked people can still easily die from Covid even after they got the poke just by running into an unpoked person! Which is it??
      CDC: That’s it, we’re hanging up now.
      ME: Wait! I just want to make sure I understand all this. So, even if I ALREADY had Covid, I should STILL get poked, because we don’t know how long natural immunity lasts, and we also don’t know how long poke immunity lasts. And I should get the poke to keep a poked person from catching Covid from me, but even if I get the poke, I can give it to the poked person anyways. And, the other poked person can still easily catch a serious case of Covid from me and die. Do I have all that right?

      Erev Shabbat Shalom folks!

      “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants, the creed of slaves.” William Pitt the Younger

      • Lou

        Wow you are a perfect example of what has ruled this world for centuries. Get ready to move over because WE ARE NO LONGER GOING TO. Like to hear yourself talk much?

    • dyfed

      From a policy perspective, it’s security theater. The only way we could stop the virus now is to impose total lockdowns on a scale that no one could adapt to or accept, and even then, given that Covid has demonstrated an ability to circulate through local animal reservoirs, we’d just slow the virus. As it is, given that 90%+ of current cases are Delta variant which has a very high R0 compared to original flavor, masks cannot possibly slow the spread, but I think some people still believe that these measures will lessen the burden on local medical resources. I am skeptical–I’m not sure there will be much burden, given Covid-Delta’s lower lethality, and furthermore it seems unlikely that masking is a more effective NPI than occupancy restrictions or stay at home orders.

      Ultimately people want to get on with life, but still signal that they take the virus seriously. Since vaccination is invisible, that is the function of masks in the current environment.

        • dyfed

          Nonsense: check the data for yourself. The hospitalization and fatality ratios during last year’s peaks were much more dramatic, and almost all cases now are among the unvaccinated, which means it’s not due to presence of breakthroughs. Delta is less lethal. Positive tests may be rising in absolute terms, but in relative terms, symptomatic cases are down, hospitalizations are down, deaths are down. And don’t get all your opinions from ‘debunking’ sites—go read the data.

        • dyfed

          I like how your response includes personal insults, an attempt to smear me by tying me to antivaxxers (my family and I have been vaccinated since the month it was allowed), but no attempt whatsoever to actually, y’know, tangle with the data that shows you are wrong. Predictable. Would you like to try again?

          • bsummers

            Did you deign to read the “debunking site” info on this? Roughly, fatalities are down because vulnerable populations (elderly, etc.) are more often vaccinated now than before. They’re not contracting covid as much as, so the fatalities are down. The delta virus is still just as deadly. AND, it’s more easily transmitted.

            So any arguments that would lead people to think they can skip mask wearing etc., HAVE to be debunked.

            Speaking of, did you know that word has it’s origins in Buncombe County? Be proud.
            https://www.etymonline.com/word/bunk

        • dyfed

          “Roughly, fatalities are down because vulnerable populations (elderly, etc.) are more often vaccinated now than before. They’re not contracting covid as much as, so the fatalities are down.” I understand why you would think this, because it seems intuitive. But the data does not support it: the actual hospitalization and fatality *ratios* are down among those who contract COVID, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated. You can view this in the data yourself. We could believe that the fatality ratio was down due to hospitals being better at treating COVID, but that doesn’t explain why the ratio of hospitalizations to cases is down.

          • bsummers

            Whatever. Nothing excuses telling people there’s no benefit to wearing a mask when all the professionals are begging us to do it. People are dying. I’ll wear a mask even though I’m vaccinated, and you should too.

        • dyfed

          I provide you with a detailed explanation why the data don’t support your point of view. Your response?

          “Whatever.”

          It’s actually refreshing to see someone so nakedly appeal to authority over the actual data. You go on wearing your mask while vaccinated. Nobody’s going to stop you. Just don’t expect the rest of us to continue living as if fear can supply reasons that data cannot.

          So long.

      • luther blissett

        I’m not unsympathetic to this argument, though I think the jury’s still out.

        The far greater issue in terms of signaling is insecurity theater: the voluntary refusal to get vaccinated and the embrace of quackery. It’s not great to see signs above a locked cabinet in Tractor Supply telling people that horse dewormer and sheep dip aren’t medically approved treatments for Covid, and hear that people are poisoning themselves for the cause. It’s as if people got so opposed to removing their shoes in the security line that they cut off their feet. It’s up to conservatives to deal with that.

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