Even as Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged all North Carolinians to wear masks in indoor public places on Thursday, Mecklenburg County appears no closer to making that recommendation a mandate.
Cooper had a strong message for people who still haven’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
“After months of low numbers, our trends are turning sharply in the wrong direction,” he said. “I want to be clear about why: Unvaccinated people are driving this resurgence and getting themselves and other people sick.”
He urged all unvaccinated North Carolinians to get the COVID-19 shots as soon as possible. In the meantime, everyone should resume wearing masks, Cooper said.
Speaking of vaccines, Cooper said, “I think it’s responsible, it’s patriotic. It’s the right thing to do.”
Cooper did not reinstate a broad statewide mask mandate during a news conference Thursday, despite rising coronavirus infection and hospitalization rates spurred by the highly contagious delta variant.
Cooper’s mask recommendation aligns with new guidance issued this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it does not give any legal weight to the CDC guidance or provide a local enforcement mechanism, unlike previous restrictions imposed earlier in the coronavirus pandemic.
No new restrictions in Charlotte
Local governments can enact tighter restrictions, Cooper said. But so far, no additional restrictions are in place for all of Charlotte.
Cooper did not extend his previous executive order, requiring masks in certain settings including health care settings, transportation centers, child care facilities and detention facilities. That order expires Friday.
Mecklenburg County health officials did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Cooper recommended businesses require employees show proof of vaccination — otherwise they should do regular COVID-19 tests and urge employees to wear masks, he said. State employees at cabinet agencies will be required to do the same, he said.
The new requirement for cabinet agencies will begin Sept. 1.
Some Charlotte area businesses are already requiring masks indoors once again, including The Evening Muse in NoDa. And the Mecklenburg County Courthouse will begin requiring masks once more, starting next week.
‘High’ community transmission around Charlotte
The CDC on Tuesday urged people to don face coverings indoors, especially in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates.
That includes vast swaths of North Carolina, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 tracker. In fact, not a single North Carolina county had a low level of community transmission.
In the Charlotte region, only Iredell County is experiencing “substantial” community transmission, or the second-worst tier, according to the CDC tracker.
The rest of the counties are classified as “high” community transmission, or the worst tier of virus spread: Mecklenburg, Union, Gaston, Cabarrus, Rowan, Cleveland, Lincoln and Stanly.
And COVID-19 trends are worrisome across North Carolina, state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said Thursday.
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has more than doubled in just two weeks, she said. That marks the fastest increase in hospitalizations since the pandemic started, Cohen added.
“Bottom line, this is a moment of rapid viral spread, driven by a highly contagious virus, finding and infecting those who are still unvaccinated,” Cohen said. She also noted the accelerating spread of the virus around Charlotte, fueled by low vaccination rates.
More mask updates
In the Charlotte area, health officials on Wednesday said they would not take local action on masks.
Still, Mecklenburg Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said residents should resume wearing masks, regardless of their vaccination status. Businesses should also require masks again, she said.
“I am not ready to issue a (mask) mandate at this point,” Harris said Wednesday. “I would like to think that our community is going to step up.”
Harris said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools should also require masks, with the goal of keeping students in the classroom — instead of quarantining or isolating at home.
The CMS board will meet Friday morning to discuss and vote on masks. According to a memo shared with the Observer, CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston has asked the board to extend mask requirements for all students and staff, citing updated federal and state guidelines.
Starting Monday, face coverings will be required in all indoor spaces at UNC Charlotte, administrators announced Thursday afternoon.
That includes in dining halls, recreational facilities, common spaces and residence halls, according to a university alert. Masks are not required in personal dorm rooms or employees’ personal offices.
Also on Monday, with few exceptions, visitors to the Mecklenburg County Courthouse must resume wearing masks, according to a new policy adopted this week in response to the growing threat of the highly infectious delta variant.
Masks for fully vaccinated people have been optional at the courthouse since June 9. That stops next week.
The only exceptions: persons who can’t wear a face covering for health or safety reasons; those who are talking to a hearing-impaired person where the mouth must be visible; those who are eating or drinking; and those under 11 years of age.
Masks can be temporarily lowered for people who are receiving medical care or need to be identified.
For now, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. But unvaccinated people, while not mandated, have been urged to still wear a mask and social distance.
Health experts react
Charlotte-area hospital experts agree with the latest CDC mask guidelines, based on low vaccination rates and high community spread of COVID-19.
As health director, Harris does not have the authority to enact a countywide mask mandate by herself.
Such an action would likely require unanimous support from Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and Mecklenburg commissioners’ Chairman George Dunlap, as well as the mayors of the county’s six towns.
Harris said she and local officials are still discussing what new mask restrictions may be warranted as a result of the CDC guidance.
Lyles could not be reached for comment.
Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla, though, told the Observer he would not support another mask mandate. Matthews Mayor John Higdon told the Observer he’d need to review more data to justify “extreme action” like a mask mandate.
Just over half of Mecklenburg residents are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state public health data. To put an end to the pandemic, another 25% of Mecklenburg residents need to get immunized, Harris told WFAE Thursday.
Children under age 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
On average, the county is logging about 280 new cases daily, compared to just 40 one month ago.
“This is a pandemic now of the unvaccinated,” Cohen said. “They are at risk. This virus is contagious and it will find them.”
Observer reporter Michael Gordon contributed to this article.