This story was last updated at 12:50 p.m. on Tuesday, June 23.
Wear a face covering.
No, really, just wear it.
See, when we say it, you can argue with us or agree with us. You can take it as a word of advice, or words to decry. We know. We’ll see your emails.
But what if we told you that in order to walk the streets of Charlotte, you must, under the orders of the city or county or state, wear a mask?
That’s the issue North Carolina’s two largest cities discussed this week in the coronavirus story of 2020. As we continue to open the state, and COVID-19 numbers continue to rise, if all that stands between us and spreading the virus is a piece of cloth, then why not just write the masks order on a prescription pad for everyone?
In Raleigh, the Wake County seat, city leaders are moving forward with a mandate. In Charlotte, the questions of whether and how to implement such a requirement weigh a little heavier on leaders.
This week, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles asked North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper to issue a statewide mask requirement.
“The studies show it can make an impact on our increasing numbers,” Lyles tells the Agenda. “If done statewide, it increases participation and is perceived as more enforceable with an executive order.”
Raleigh left some exceptions with its mandate, such as outdoor exercise, religious reasons, and children. And the mayor there, Mary-Ann Baldwin, said that police won’t cite or arrest anyone for not wearing a mask.
Mayors of other towns in Wake County are hesitant to require face coverings, the Raleigh News & Observer reported. Other nearby counties, such as Orange and Durham, have moved ahead with issuing their own mask mandates.
In Mecklenburg County, current coronavirus trends aren’t looking good. Hospitalizations are on the rise, and the number of new cases every day keeps growing. As of Wednesday night, 134 county residents have died from the virus.
People are social distancing less. A trip to any area grocery store (except ones like Costco that require masks) reveals that not everyone wears a face covering, despite officials’ recommendations.
What the state says: “We’re looking at trying to get more people to use face coverings,” Cooper said last week. “We believe we can flatten this curve and prevent a second surge from happening.”
In a briefing with lawmakers, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said last week that health officials only have so many tools at their disposal to deal with COVID-19. There is no vaccine yet, nor is there a treatment.
What’s becoming more evident in new research, Cohen said, is that face coverings are effective in slowing the spread of the virus.
“Our fate is not sealed here. There’s a lot we can do,” Cohen said. “We need to live with this virus, and we want to continue to make progress on easing restrictions.”
Cooper is expected to address the mask issue this week.
What county officials can and can’t do: Mecklenburg County officials discussed mandatory masks for nearly an hour Tuesday night.
“I think we are losing the messaging war,” commissioner Trevor Fuller said. “As much as we say put your mask on, wash your hands, et cetera, the message we are really sending is that we are inexorably moving into reopening no matter what the data is.”
But commissioners can’t mandate masks on their own. They need the approval of not just Lyles, but also the mayors of the six towns surrounding it.
At least one of those mayors won’t sign on. Cornelius’s town board unanimously voted against requiring masks on Monday.
“With that direction from the board, I do not plan to sign as mayor a local order to require masks at this time,” Cornelius mayor Woody Washam said in an email to the Agenda Wednesday.
“I am personally committed to wearing a mask when out in public and challenged my commissioners to do the same.”
Why do suburbs have that much influence? A couple of years ago, the surrounding municipalities agreed to align their emergency management plans with Charlotte-Mecklenburg County’s, meaning the county emergency management oversees response for everybody. And they’re currently operating under the emergency orders of the state.
“Right now we’re (the county) under the state of emergency order of the governor,” Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla said Wednesday. “There’s not much I can do under those circumstances.”
Aneralla, the former county Republican Party chairman, said he wears masks in places that require it, and he takes it off in places that don’t, like restaurants.
Mecklenburg County still moved forward: The county commission voted to have staff return next week with a formal recommendation on mandatory masks.
Democrat Pat Cotham was the lone commissioner to vote against that proposal.
“If you know we can’t do it, then why are we going through this process?” Cotham told the Agenda on Wednesday. “And then you think, is it political?”
A bigger concern: Cotham says the county should focus on rising numbers in the Latino community, for instance, or vulnerable populations. And mental health — she’s worried about the anger around the masks issue.
“People are generally stressed, so they need a focal point,” she said. “They’re mad at life, so it’s a lot easier for them to be mad about somebody that disagrees with them on this one subject (masks).
“If we just encourage people, that would be better and we might calm down. People are focused on this right now. But it could be something different tomorrow.”
OK, so if the county can’t do it, certainly the city will, right? Charlotte City Council hasn’t formally taken up the issue of requiring masks. Mayor pro tem Julie Eiselt says it’s likely the city would follow the recommendation of the county, which handles public health issues and the health department.
“There have not been talks very far down that path with the city as of now. I think most of us on council would be open to having that conversation,” councilman Larken Egleston says.
Multiple city council members — including Braxton Winston, Dimple Ajmera, James Mitchell, Eiselt, and Egleston, all Democrats — support a mask mandate.
In an emailed statement, city spokesman Cory Burkarth didn’t rule out a citywide mask mandate.
“We are in conversations with Mecklenburg County and other municipalities and we are currently discussing this issue,” Burkarth said.
Enforcement challenges: Police departments everywhere are already pressed to reform in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and killings of Black people. Is now really the time to ask officers to ticket people for not wearing a mask?
County health director Gibbie Harris and other elected officials know that implementing a mandate wouldn’t be easy.
“What we’ve found in a couple of counties that have required masks is there’s no way to really enforce it, and they’re not seeing that the requiring of mask-wearing had made much of a difference in their communities,” Harris told commissioners Tuesday night.
A requirement causes lots of other issues for some people: Underlying health conditions such as asthma, for instance, make it difficult for some people to use face coverings.
Confusing messages: Early on in the coronavirus outbreak, health officials didn’t insist that masks were helpful in preventing the spread of coronavirus.
In fact, many even said that it mask-wearing could be harmful, if it meant taking away from personal protective equipment like N-95 masks from health care professionals.
But! Now we know that a person wearing a mask is less likely to transfer the virus to someone else. It’s pretty simple: coverings catch spit.
“I think that confused the situation significantly,” Egleston said of the changing guidance.
So after all of that, should you wear a mask? Yes. All 11 people we quoted in this story are wearing masks, even if they disagree on whether to make it mandatory. Join them. If you don’t, they might require us to.