ASHEVILLE – An indoor mask mandate has been extended for all parts of Buncombe County following a 6-1 vote by the Board of Commissioners.
With hospitalizations from COVID-19 and transmission levels among county residents remaining high, the board voted to follow the advice of Buncombe Health Director Stacie Saunders and continue the mask mandate through Oct. 29.
The mandate comes as an extension of an Aug. 18 emergency declaration.
The board’s one Republican, District 3 Commissioner Robert Pressley of Bent Creek, opposed the mandate with no comment. Pressley was also the lone board member to oppose the reestablishment of a mask mandate following a resurgence of cases fueled by the delta variant, saying there were a “lot of things we can do to prevent this.”
Some key local pandemic indicators have actually declined — with cases per 100,000 dropping from 351 per week to 295 and the positive test rate decreasing from the mid-9% range to 8.3%, health officials said. But they remain at levels concerning enough to health officials to mark Buncombe as a “high-transmission” county. Last week 14 people died from COVID-19.
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Democratic Board Chair Brownie Newman, said hospitalizations were central to his vote. Currently 13.4% of inpatient hospital beds are occupied with COVID-19 patients, and 54% of intensive care unit beds are being used to treat those with the virus.
“It not only impacts the quality of the health care for people who are sick from COVID, but it the affects everybody else because the resources of the hospital are stretched very thin,” Newman said. “You will hear that from people who work there. They will acknowledge that the people who are coming into our hospital are not getting the kind of care that they need.”
The mandate continues the same rules imposed Aug. 18 with the only difference being the inclusion of Black Mountain and Biltmore Forest. Those two towns declined initially to re-enact the mandate. In this case mayors of all the county’s municipalities consented County Attorney Michael Frue said.
Masks must be worn in businesses and other indoor facilities by anyone five years and older when people outside of one household are present. Churches and other religious and spiritual gatherings are exempt, as are people in restaurants and bars when they are actively eating and drinking.
Counties and municipalities are given the power to declare emergencies under Article 1A of North Carolina General Statute 166A. Like the original order, the extension does not address enforcement or penalties.
Some members of the public questioned the need for masks. Several speaking at the meeting espoused theories counter to widely accepted public health standards, including that cloth masks do not work and that they can cause physical or psychological harm.
Tom Kirchgasser, who said he has been vaccinated and follows the mask mandate, said getting schools restarted “was the most compelling argument” that he heard for the rule in August. But science is showing that children are less at risk of serious illness, he said.
“The continuation of an emergency declaration, I think, is very high bar and one that needs to be taken quite seriously.”
Speaking later in the meeting, Newman said that while children are less likely to get sick, it is known they can pass the disease to others “contributing to illness and death.”
Children under 12 years cannot get the vaccine though it is anticipated that Pfizer shots will soon be approved for children 5-11 years of age.
Democratic Commissioners Parker Sloan and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara talked about reasons the order could be lifted prior Oct. 29. Sloan, a District 3 commissioner from Candler, suggested the board look at tying the mandate to the transmission level.
“The public could monitor and root for” a drop in the level, he said.
Beach-Ferrara, a District 2 commissioner from Asheville, said increased inoculations could decrease transmission.
“The sooner we have the highest number of people in our community vaccinated, the sooner we will be able to take steps to restore our lives to normal,” she said.
Currently, 65% of all county residents are partially vaccinated, and 73% of the eligible population is partially vaccinated.
Buncombe health workers have administered almost 100,000 doses of the vaccine, with about 3,000 of those coming in outreach settings, officials said.
Recent state health data show the unvaccinated are four times more at risk than vaccinated people from becoming ill with COVID-19. Unvaccinated people are 14 times more likely to die from the disease, the data shows.
Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.