Two months after unanimously ending Buncombe County’s local COVID-19 state of emergency on June 15, the county Board of Commissioners will consider declaring the pandemic an emergency again. A vote on the matter is expected during the board’s regular meeting of Tuesday, Aug. 17.
Although no documents were linked to the item on the board’s agenda as of press time, an Aug. 12 Facebook post by Chair Brownie Newman indicated that the declaration would be paired with a mask requirement for all indoor public facilities in unincorporated areas of the county. Currently, Buncombe recommends indoor masking but has instituted no legal mandate. He noted that the city of Asheville plans to reinstate a similar requirement, while rules in other municipalities would be left to their governing bodies.
“This action is being taken to slow the spread of the delta variant of COVID that is increasing transmission and hospitalization rates in Buncombe County,” Newman wrote. “Many businesses in Buncombe County who are working to ensure people wear masks while in their facilities have requested that the county reinstate the mask requirement policy. They have emphasized it is much more feasible to assure consistent enforcement within their premises when there is a local government policy reinforcing this approach.”
“We cannot require people to wear masks forever, and I do not support creating a long-term mask mandate. I see this as a necessary step at this time as we await the approval of vaccines for school-age children, [the federal Food and Drug Administration’s] regular (non-emergency) approval of vaccines or until our numbers stabilize,” Newman continued. “Once vaccines are available to kids who need to go to school, my intent is for the mandate to be lifted unless it is still necessary to prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed.”
Commissioner Parker Sloan has also called for Buncombe to institute a “required standardized vaccine passport system” for restaurants and performance venues. However, in response to comments to Newman’s Facebook post, the chair wrote, “The indoor mask policy is the only proposal on the table.”
On Aug. 3, Stacie Saunders, Buncombe’s public health director, had said county Health and Human Services staff would present additional COVID-19 preventive measures if three of the county’s five key metrics — cases per 100,000 residents, test positivity rate, deaths per 100,000, inpatient hospital beds occupied with COVID-19 patients and intensive care unit beds occupied with COVID-19 patients — passed certain levels. As of Aug. 10, only cases per 100,000 had exceeded the county’s threshold.
“On Aug. 17, Health and Human Services will provide an update to the board on current metrics along with recommendations for mitigation. As is standard practice, this information will inform their decision to take action and what actions may be taken,” Saunders wrote in response to an Aug. 12 request for comment. “As we shared in the previous update, we support all public indoor spaces requiring masks, along with universal masking for all students and staff in K-12 settings.”
State funding continues for county DWI task force
The N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program has awarded over $221,000 for Buncombe County to continue its DWI task force. The money will fund three positions in the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, as well as associated travel and training, through September 2022.
To receive the grant, the board must vote to provide roughly $42,000 in matching funds, which will be covered through the existing Sheriff’s Office general fund budget. As of 2019, the latest year for which data is available, Buncombe recorded 328 alcohol-related crashes, resulting in nine deaths and 161 nonfatal injuries.
Consent agenda and public comment
The board’s consent agenda for the meeting contains seven items, which will be approved as a package unless singled out for separate discussion. Highlights include the following resolutions:
- The creation of a seven-member ad hoc committee to review the county’s property reappraisal processes. According to a staff report available before the meeting, “The committee will review current concerns that have been presented to the assessor from citizens about the 2021 reappraisal.” As discussed during an Aug. 3 briefing of the commissioners, the committee would include two members from the Board of Equalization and Review, a real estate professional, an equity representative and three at-large members.
- Two budget amendments recognizing the receipt of $1 million and $750,000 in sales and occupancy taxes, respectively, above expected revenues in the fiscal year 2020-21 budget. The county previously approved an $8.5 million budget amendment reflecting higher-than-anticipated occupancy tax revenues for the fiscal year on May 4.
- A budget amendment to accept $210,000 in state lottery funds to support the design and engineering of “critical water, sewer, HVAC and window systems” repairs at Asheville Primary School. Commissioners had approved the Asheville City Schools application for the funding on Aug. 3.
The commissioners will also hold a briefing at 3 p.m. to discuss the county’s COVID-19 metrics and other matters. The full agenda and supporting documents for the regular meeting can be found at this link.
In-person public comment will be taken at the start of the meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. in Room 326 at 200 College St. in Asheville; no voicemail or email comment will be permitted. Both the briefing and regular meeting will be livestreamed on the county’s Facebook page and will subsequently be available via YouTube.