Buncombe County, town of Black Mountain end state of emergency, mask mandate
In accordance with Buncombe County guidelines, the mask mandate expired in Black Mountain on Feb. 16.
"We all have to move forward," said Mayor Larry Harris. "It's all a good thing, I'm happy to see it."
Harris signed an order Feb. 16 rescinding the state of emergency put into place in March 2020. He also chose to align with the county commissioner's decision to allow the mask mandate to expire.
The town continues to encourage residents to get vaccinated and boosted to keep themselves and their families out of the hospital.
"We are still strongly encouraging masks be worn inside or when in close contact with others," said Savannah Parish, the town clerk, in a statement.
The town's decision to align with the county comes just days after public comments at the Feb. 14 Town Council meeting on Feb. 14 signaled impatience with the mask mandate.
"The mask ordinances are becoming extreme," said Joe Tyson, owner of Tyson Furniture in downtown Black Mountain. "As a business owner, it is absolutely impossible to enforce that ordinance without irritating customers."
At the Town Council meeting, Tyson said even members of the Black Mountain Police Department have come into his store without wearing masks. Due to the difficulties of enforcing the requirement and not wanting to ruffle feathers, Tyson implored the council to end the mandate.
While the mandate may be lifted, Harris said the community should respect the decision of those who choose to continue to wear a face covering, as they should also respect the decisions of those who choose to get vaccinated or not.
"If a merchant wants to continue requesting that you wear face coverings in their places of business, that's fine," Harris said. "We need to respect that."
As of Feb. 14, Buncombe County Health Director Stacie Saunders no longer recommended extending the mask mandate. In a report emailed to the county manager, Saunders said COVID-19 cases have declined so rapidly in recent weeks that the "must" can now turn into a "strongly recommended."
"Public health will not be recommending the extension on the requirement given the rapid decline in cases, transmission and hospitalizations but rather will move to Strongly Recommending the continued use of face coverings in indoor public spaces by all individuals," Saunders wrote in her email. "We will also continue to encourage vaccinations with boosters, testing after exposure and staying home when sick."
According to weekly metrics released by Buncombe County Health and Human Services, cases per 100,000 per week dropped from 523 to 386 between Feb. 7-14.
Saunders noted the per-100,000-per-week drop since Jan. 18 was approximately 67%.
Percent positivity has also steadily decreased from 19.6% to 15.5% in that same time frame.
According to a statement from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, with the prevalence of vaccines and COVID-19 cases moving "in the right direction," the governor encourages schools and local governments to end mask mandates.
“We are taking a positive step on mask requirements to help us move safely toward a more normal day to day life,” Cooper said. “It’s time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools, no matter how you feel about masks.”
North Carolina has administered 15.7 million doses of the vaccine, and 71% of the adult population is fully vaccinated. Roughly 65% of eligible adults have received a booster shot, according to the governor's office.
Buncombe county will continue to encourage vaccinations, trying to push beyond the 70% of the population that has received a primary series of shots. Buncombe has hovered at that number for weeks.
"There are some signals that the next chapter in COVID-19 response is beginning and our response locally should likely evolve," Saunders said.
Citizen-Times reporter Andrew Jones contributed to this story.
Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.