Featured photo: Photo from nursetogether.com

On Thursday evening the Guilford County Board of Health, an entity of the Guilford County Commissioners, voted to pass a mask mandate that applies to all of Guilford County. The move, which passed 6-3 (Republicans Alan Perdue, Justin Conrad and James Upchurch voted against the mandate) comes a week after Commission Chair Skip Alston used his emergency power to institute a mask mandate for just the unincorporated areas of Guilford County. At the time, the cities of Greensboro and High Point were not included.

However, with the passage of the mandate on Thursday, all areas within Guilford County are included. The mandate, which closely mirrors the one that was passed in August 2021 and rescinded in November, requires masks when indoors.

As noted in the ruling, “individuals must wear face coverings when indoors in all businesses, establishments, and public places. All businesses, establishments, and public places, whether for profit or not-for-profit, must require that all persons wear face coverings when indoors on their premises.”

The ruling is set to remain in place until Feb. 27 or until the Guilford County Board of Health modifies their decision. The ruling could change if the local emergency proclamation expires or is terminated. The ruling also noted that the board would reevaluate the mandate if the vaccine rate reaches 70 percent for those aged 5 years or older or the county’s average positivity rate during the two-week period is at or below 5 percent. The board also noted that they would revisit the ruling during their Feb. 3 meeting and regularly for the next several weeks.

As part of the meeting, Guilford County Health Director Dr. Iulia Vann shared stark statistics that showed the board members the rising COVID-19 numbers and the impact that masking could have on reducing the spread of the virus, particularly when the Omicron variant is causing record-number cases.

As of Wednesday, the 14-day positivity rate for Guilford County was 26.8 percent. The current vaccination rate for those over the age of 5 is at 53 percent.

“This virus is no joke,” Alston said during the meeting. “This virus is killing people.”

Dr. Vann also noted how Guilford County has the highest Pandemic Vulnerability Index (PVI) – a score calculated based on four categories including infection rate, population concentration, intervention and the health and environment – compared to other counties like Mecklenburg, Orange and Wake County. Vann noted that when the mask mandate was first implemented in August 2021, the PVI trended downwards as seen in the graphic below by the first blue line, and after it was rescinded, the PVI started to trend upwards, as noted by the second vertical blue line.

Vann also shared data from multiple studies during the presentation, including a meta analysis that looked at 21 studies that suggested that mask use “provided a significant protective effect” and could “reduce the risk of respiratory virus by up to 80 percent.”

In an interview for the Jan. 4 article, County Commision Chair Skip Alston told TCB that the county is prepared to enforce their mandate.

Some of the ways that the county will enforce the mask mandate include having staff man hotlines where people can call in businesses that violate the rule, directing staff to visit businesses to make sure they are adhering to the mandate and assigning 14 staff members to monitor restaurants specifically. Alston noted that the county is ready to hire more staff to assist in enforcement if needed.

The Board of Health’s mask ruling also notes that “administrative enforcement, including orders of abatement, civil penalties, and administrative citations, will provide additional and alternative mechanisms to efficiently and more immediately deter violations and enhance the effectiveness of this Rule to combat the further spread of COVID-19 in the community.”

Based on the ruling, individuals who violate the mandate after a warning could be subject to a $50 penalty. For businesses, the fine is higher at “$300 per violation for a first assessed violation, $500 for a second violation, and $1,500 for each additional violation by the same responsible party.”

The ruling notes that “criminal sanctions for violations…are not permitted under this rule.”

During the Thursday meeting, Jim Albright, the Emergency Services Director for Guiford County shared how dozens of staff members were out from work because of exposure to COVID-19. He noted how difficult it was to keep up with demand with the staff shortages and alluded to how masking could alleviate some of the stress.

Dr. Mary Jo Cagle, the CEO of Cone Health, also noted how difficult these last few months have been for her staff.

“We are stretched thin,” Cagle said. “This is a community situation; it’s going to take a community effort to keep us all safe.”

To learn more about the mask mandate, visit the county website here or read the ruling here. Find Guilford County COVID-19 data here.

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