New Hanover County mask mandate lifted

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) – The New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board has voted to lift the countywide mask mandate effective immediately.

The board’s 8-4 vote followed an at times contentious public comment portion of its special meeting Friday morning. Though the county’s rule has been lifted, businesses and organizations continue to have the authority to require masks indoors at their establishments.

New Hanover County Commission Chair Julia Olson-Boseman proposed the motion to repeal the indoor face coverings requirement after a motion that would have delayed any decision to mid-January failed to gain traction with board members. Board members voting in favor of lifting the mandate included Patrick Brien, Dr. Matthew Cox, Commissioner Olson-Boseman, Linda Robbins; Dr. Stephanie Smith, Board Vice-Chair Dr. Kim Thrasher-Horne, Dr. Delma Kinlaw and Dr. David Zub. Board members opposing the motion to lift the mandate included Dr. Virginia Adams, Dr. Kara Duffy, Frankie Roberts and Board Chair Dr. LaShonda Wallace.

At least four audience members were forcibly removed by deputies during the meeting. A speaker who went over his allotted time limit during the public comments portion of the meeting was the first to be removed. He was arrested by deputies for second degree trespassing and given a $2,500 unsecured bond Friday.

“This is assault,” the man said as deputies escorted him out of the room.

“Let him speak,” “he’s exercising his constitutional rights,” several audience members chimed in as he was being removed.

Three audience members were also removed for being disruptive while board members asked questions of county health officials.

Also in attendance were members of the far-right extremist group Proud Boys, who made a public appearance during a New Hanover County Board of Education meeting earlier this week. The school board was expected to take its monthly vote on whether masks should be optional or required. The board, which has previously voted to require masks for students and staff, pushed back its decision ahead of Friday’s Health and Human Services Board meeting.

One member, dressed in his black and yellow uniform, spoke to the board, calling its members “rational people” before reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. No members of the group have been removed from the meeting.

The board scheduled this meeting to reconsider the indoor face coverings requirement after several months of COVID-19-related metrics trending in a positive direction. Specifically, health officials pointed to a continued percent positivity rate below 5 percent.

The health rule was put in place in August as coronavirus case counts, hospitalizations, and percent positivity rates were spiking.

With the mandate lifted, WECT reached out to school board members to ask whether they would be more inclined to make masks optional.

“Firstly, I would like to say the health of our students is paramount, so despite any public pressure, that will always be at the heart of my decisions,” said board member Stephanie Walker. “Secondly, because I am not an expert, I am paying close attention to what health officials in our community are saying, so their advice carries a lot of weight. Additionally, I have to consider vaccines are only just rolling out for 5 to 11-year-olds, and they are due to be fully vaccinated by the end of December. I’m not opposed to making masks optional when conditions are right, and I believe we are so close in our efforts to protect all of our students with vaccines. I will withhold my final decision until we’ve had our questions answered by the health department and the board discusses our options on Monday. I expect most of my fellow board members will do the same.”

“I’m not speaking for the entire board, but considering today’s vote by our local HHS department and having studied all the data, the metrics over the past several months, my own PERSONAL vote will be in favor of making masks optional for our students and staff,” Nelson Beaulieu, the Vice-Chair of the Board of Education said in a response.

“I want to ask questions of the health department when we meet to decide,” said school board member Judy Justice. “That will inform my decision. In other words I haven’t made up my mind.”

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