(1/4/2020, 1:17 p.m.): This piece was updated with an additional response from Mayor Vaughan.

Later this afternoon, a mask mandate will be reinstated for all unincorporated areas of Guilford County, according to county commission Chair Skip Alston. The mandate will go into effect starting Wednesday.

As the chair of the commission, Alston has the authority to use his emergency powers to reinstate a mask mandate but only for unincorporated areas of the county. Alston told TCB that he would be announcing the decision in a press conference at 3 p.m. today. Individual municipalities such as High Point and Greensboro must sign on to the mandate on their own. So far neither city has agreed to participate.

The move comes in the wake of record-breaking COVID-19 numbers, both at the local and national levels. In Guilford County, the 14-day positivity rate has grown to 19.1 percent this month, a huge increase from the 4.2 percent it was back in November, when the countywide mask mandate was lifted. For daily positivity rates, a whopping 32.3 percent was recorded on Jan. 1.

The huge increase in COVID-19 cases has been attributed to the rise in the Omicron variant, which has been spreading quickly across the US since it was first detected in the country in December. Emerging research indicates that the Omicron variant may be more transmissible than previous variants, but that it is less deadly and causes milder symptoms. However, the best ways to prevent illness remain the measures first taken for the original COVID-19 as well as the Delta variant including social distancing, masking, hand-washing, getting vaccinated and getting boosted.

These factors, combined with concerns from local public health officials such as hospital administrators at Cone Health, prompted Alston to use his authority to enact a mask mandate.

“We have to remember that we are doing this for the safety and protection of our people in Guilford County,” Alston said. “We have to put politics aside and that’s why some mayors might not want to do it and that’s something that should disturb all of us, that we have allowed politics to jeopardize the lives of our citizens.”

What about Greensboro and High Point?

According to Alston, he met with the mayors of local municipalities on Monday afternoon to ask if they would sign onto his mandate. So far, the mayors of Gibsonville, Pleasant Garden and Jamestown have agreed to include their cities, but Alston said that neither Mayor Jay Wagner of High Point nor Nancy Vaughan of Greensboro have agreed to sign onto his mandate.

In an article by Fox 8 from Monday, Wagner stated that he does not support a mask mandate for his city.

“Many in Guilford County are calling for renewed mandates to combat the current surge,” Wagner said. “I do not believe in limiting your freedom with mandates, but responsibility is the price of freedom.” Instead of advocating for a mask mandate, Wagner called for the community to get vaccinated and boosted and to wear masks inside.

While Wagner was re-elected to a four-year term in 2019, Mayor Vaughan will be up for re-election in May.

In a set of forwarded emails from Vaughan, she explained to the rest of city council that she has chosen not to sign onto Alston’s mandate because she doesn’t believe that the city would be able to enforce such a mandate at this time.

“I believe that if we are going to institute a mandate than we must enforce it,” Vaughan wrote in a Jan. 3 email. “At this time, we do not have the employees needed for enforcement. We agreed to dissolve our mandate and our State of Emergency when the County agreed to provide enforcement.”

Vaughan also noted that she was wary about instituting a mask mandate overnight in correspondence on Tuesday.

“Having experience in calling for a face covering order under an existing state of emergency it can’t be done overnight,” she wrote. “It takes a few days to put it in place and there needs to be some mechanism for enforcement. The county said that they are unable to assist us.”

In response to this, Alston noted that the county assured Vaughan and others that they had the resources necessary to assist in enforcing the mask mandate if they chose to sign on.

“We have already communicated to Mayor Vaughan that we can enforce the mask mandate rule that we put in place,” Alston said. “We have people already ready to go, we assured her that…. The county health director and the county manager assured her that we are able to enforce the rule and it’s up to her to accept that.”

In a phone call to TCB, Vaughan clarified that she doesn’t feel comfortable reinstating a mask mandate because she wasn’t told by the county exactly how quickly they could enforce the mandate. She also noted that the city’s past mandate focused on employers and employees, but not customers.

“Businesses are free to require masking of their customers if they so choose but we shouldn’t require people making $15 per hour to enforce a city ordinance,” Vaughan stated.

Because of those differences, Vaughan said she didn’t want to agree to a citywide mandate yet.

“We don’t have agreement with the county on what would be acceptable,” Vaughan said. “The county thinks businesses should be responsible for their customers.”

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 said that, as before, county staff have the authority to issue warnings or citations to businesses in violation. He also noted that the county is ready to hire more staff to assist in enforcement if needed.

The best ways to curb the spread of COVID-19 remain the same: social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks and getting vaccinated and boosted.

“We know what we are doing in the county; we don’t want anyone second-guessing what we want to do,” Alston said. “I would hope that the mayors would look at this from a standpoint of doing what’s for the people and not what’s right politically. We don’t want to put politics before the people, and that’s what people are possibly doing, I know some of them are running for re-election this year. This is a controversial issue but that’s why we were elected, to make tough decisions.”

In response to the notion that she is resisting a mask mandate because it could hurt her chances for re-election, Vaughan responded, “Absolutely not.”

“We want to do something that is effective,” Vaughan said. “We are not risk averse but we are not going to be strongarmed into doing something either.”

While some in the community may be frustrated with Wagner and Vaughan’s hesitation to sign onto a mask mandate at this point, Alston said that at the health board meeting next week, the county commissioners will likely vote to institute a countywide mask mandate that would include both cities. Although commissioner James Upchurch of District 6 recently told TCB via email that he does not believe that there are the five votes needed to pass a mandate, Alston said on Tuesday that he believes there are.

“When we pass it next week, that would include the entire county,” Alston said. “I think that would be passed next week.”

Alston said that the Guilford County Board of Health, an entity of the county commission, is set to meet on Jan. 13 and can act after giving a 10-day notice.

While Alston’s mandate for today does not have a set time to expire, he noted that guideline for when the mask mandate could be rescinded would likely be included in the health ruling, which he expects to pass next week. In the past, mask mandates were automatically lifted when the 14-day positivity rate dropped below 5 percent.

What about Winston-Salem and Forsyth County?

Since mid-August, the city of Winston-Salem has required masks in all indoor facilities and some outdoor areas. According to city officials, the mandate would only be rescinded if the positive infection rate dropped below 5 percent for at least two weeks and less than 10 new cases per 100,000 population were counted for a 5-day average. As of Tuesday, neither Winston-Salem nor Forsyth County are anywhere near those numbers.

According to David Priest, the senior vice president of safety, quality and epidemiology at Novant Health, the hospital system’s rolling 7-day positivity rate has been 34 percent and the hospital has seen more than 500 patients come through their doors. The state has seen a 166 percent increase in cases in just two weeks.

While Winston-Salem has had its own mask mandate for months, Forsyth County has not implemented one since the start of the pandemic. While a previous statewide mandate would have included the county, the county commissioners have never implemented their own mandate in the almost two years of the pandemic. As with Skip Alston in Guilford County, the chair of the county commissioners, David Plyler, also has the authority to enact similar mandates if he so chose.

On Monday, TCB spoke to Plyler about why he and the other county commissioners have not instituted a countywide mandate thus far. Plyler equated instituting a mask mandate with a flooding of local jails, stating that if a mandate were to exist, that enforcement would lead to an increase in arrests.

“If you did enforce it, then you have other problems that includes a jail full of people,” Plyler repeatedly argued.

There has been no data to support that mask mandates increase populations in jails.

COVID-19 data for Forsyth County as of Jan. 3.

However, multiple municipalities and counties have enforced mask mandates throughout the pandemic without increasing jail numbers. Most enforcement strategies target businesses rather than individuals, as evidenced by Alston’s explanation of Guilford County’s enforcement policy. In a Winston-Salem Journal article from August, a city official noted that education and citations are the way they are handling enforcement of the mandate, not arrests. Multiple studies have also shown that mask mandates curb the rate of transmission amongst communities.

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