Durham county, city reimposes mask mandate

FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020 file photo, an early voter wears a mask and shield while waiting in line for to cast a ballot in Durham, N.C. Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and Durham County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Brenda Howerton on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, discussed a new emergency order set to take effect at 5 p.m. Monday requiring indoor mask wearing. They cited the dangers the delta variant is posing. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

RALEIGH — One of North Carolina’s most vaccinated areas is compelling people to wear masks again in public indoor spaces.

Durham’s city and countywide emergency order, which took effect at 5 p.m. Monday, is the latest instance of a local government reimposing mandates citing the COVID-19 Delta variant.

In a Monday morning news conference, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said it’s time to go “back to the basics” to combat what he views as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“Face masks are a common-sense, non-economically damaging way of limiting transmission,” Schewel said.

In all but two of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends indoor mask-wearing for both vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans. But even though nearly all available COVID-19 metrics showed infections at their worst levels in months, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper let his statewide mask mandate expire July 30 and allowed local school boards set their own policies.

More than 72% of Durham County residents who qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine have gotten at least one shot, according to CDC data, which is less than the neighboring Orange and Wake counties but substantially higher than the statewide average of 60%.

Schewel, a Democrat, said in an interview that he trusts the governor’s judgment to protect residents but believes it’s time to once again compel North Carolinians throughout the state to wear masks.

“We’ve now reached substantial spread in almost every single county,” he said. “I think that unfortunately it’s time that it would be wisest to reinstitute a statewide mask mandate.”

Durham County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Brenda Howerton pleaded for unvaccinated residents to comply with the masking order.

“This is serious. If it’s not serious for you, think about it being serious for your family,” Howerton said.

Durham is not the only city set to require masks. At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the town of Boone will reimpose its mask mandate for residents, workers and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.

State and local authorities have been largely reticent to enforce mask orders. Schewel told reporters Monday that Durham typically enforces it “with a light touch” by having the city attorney write a letter notifying a business or person of their noncompliance before sending a police officer and sheriff’s deputy to further address the situation.

“We do have the power to cite someone, but we’ve had to do very little of that,” Schewel said.

Those who are under 5, actively or eating or drinking or have medical or behavioral conditions, such as breathing problems, do not need to wear masks in Durham County while they are in “any indoor public place, business or establishment.”

The order has no expiration date, but Schewel said the city and county will reevaluate it every week or two.