BOONE — People are now required to wear masks in indoor public settings in Boone after the Boone Town Council voted on Aug. 6 to reinstate their mask mandate regardless of vaccination status as per the June 18, 2020, order.
The order is effective Aug. 10 at 5 p.m. with enforcement by police starting three weeks later. The council voted to make it so law enforcement can provide warnings, but can not issue citations — which would be a class 2 misdemeanor after substantial warning — until three weeks after the order is effective.
The town voted 4-1 in favor of the mandate with council member Sam Furgiuele voting against.
The full State of Emergency Declaration — which outlines exceptions to wearing a mask including if a person has trouble breathing and for those dining at a restaurant while they are at their table — can be found at www.townofboone.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/SOE-8621.pdf.
The mandate does not apply to those who are two years old or younger.
The town also voted that businesses are free to adopt additional COVID-19 protective measures, and any business that will that does so, will be supported by the town police department through proper execution of trespassing orders.
The town will also voluntarily suspended — temporarily — outdoor seating restrictions that would otherwise apply, and allow any establishment to seat people outside rather than inside. The mandate comes after the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests nearly tripled from 3.27 percent July 18 through July 24 to 9.04 percent between July 25 and July 31, according to AppHealthCare.
After the town council voted to mandate masks, they voted to give town of Boone employees who have already been vaccinated $150. Any Boone employee who gets their first shot within the next two weeks would also get $150. The payments to employees is coming from federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Those who get the shot from now until the end of August also qualify for $100.
Boone Town Manager John Ward said that 126 town of Boone employees are vaccinated, while 62 are not.
The council also discussed requiring town employees to mask indoors and to test on a weekly basis. There was a concern that those requirements would create the potential to lose employees. The town council voted 3-1 in favor of requiring town employees to get tested weekly starting in two weeks if they are not vaccinated.
Active COVID-19 cases in Watauga County have gone from 22 on July 30 to 63 on Aug. 6.
When the council began discussing the mask mandate, council member Virginia Roseman gave a strong plea to the board in favor of reinstating the mask mandate. She said she continues to wears a mask eight to 12 hours a day.
“I have immune issues,” Roseman said. “I grow cancer polyps throughout all of my digestive system. Every six months, I have to do procedures to have them removed. I am the person who is scared of getting this disease, or this virus, because it will probably kill me.”
Roseman said that she works in a profession that puts her in front of 300 people daily. Her work, she said, puts her in close contact with those people, but she said she still goes in and does her job. Since the mask mandate ended, she said she has still worn a mask.
“I have never not worn a mask in an indoor environment,” Roseman said. “The reason is because I care about that person. But you know what, I ... care about myself and I care about being here for my family. So I wear masks. I’m the person that has the health issue. I am the reason I am begging this (council) to help me to put a mask mandate on indoor establishments. That’s my statement as a citizen.”
Furgiuele likened the mask mandate to smoking and how secondhand smoke affects people.
“If it were only about them, then go for it,” Furgiuele said. “But what we’ve learned over the last decades is that even smoking has impacts on other people. I agree that we have a moral responsibility to try to protect the public. It’s the innocent people that I think we’re legislating for if we take action.”
Boone Police Chief Andy Le Beau spoke to the town to talk about enforcement of any proclamations that the town created. He said it’s easier for his department to deal with a state level order as everyone knows about it, rather than a town level one especially as a tourist destination. He said it would come down to educating the public.
“We’re going to have many local people that aren’t necessarily in tune with locally at the town of being the decisions that we make,” Le Beau said. “Education is extremely important.”
He said the police department would be happy to help any businesses that call them for people who are not complying with the businesses order or the town council order. He said trespassing someone from the premises is a good solution if that came up. Le Beau also said it would be hard for his officers to enforce social distancing since people can move before an officer can get there.
“I think, you know, having the mandate, will certainly cause many and most law-abiding citizens to want to comply and who understand the dangers of COVID and Delta variant,” Le Beau said. “I’m happy to help out in every way I can. I just think it’s important for us to understand that there are limitations when it comes to enforcement.”
Before the members discussed the mask mandate, AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene provided a COVID-19 update and answered questions from council members. She said that the county is starting to see the level of cases similar to what the county experience in the spring and that the cases picked up at the end of July.
She said the majority of severe cases and those who are hospitalized are in those who are unvaccinated.
“I will tell you we had no one in the hospital for a period of time, related to COVID-19 even earlier in July and this morning (Aug. 6), we had up to eight patients hospitalized locally,” Greene said. “You are 25 times less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID if you’ve been fully vaccinated. That is really important information for folks to remember.”
Greene also answered questions from almost every council member. Furgiuele asked if the health department is seeing more cases in younger people, which she said they are especially in the last two weeks. She said she believes it’s because they are unvaccinated.
Furgiuele also asked if the health department has seen people who had COVID-19 get contact the virus again; Greene said yes, but it’s a low number.
Roseman asked Greene if the Delta variant was more contagious, which she said current data suggests it is more contagious.
Furgiuele also asked Greene if it was reasonable to conclude that the town of Boone taking early steps to require mask and other measures might have had an impact in improving the local situation. Greene said that was true which is why Furgiuele was in favor of reintroducing some of the preventive measures.
Five people spoke during the meeting’s public comment section, either in support or against a mask mandate.
Community member Joan Brook said she was glad that Appalachian State University announced that people would be required to wear masks indoors on campus.
“I believe that that’s the best way to be safe,” Brook said. “Everyone in person should be required to wear masks.”
Another community member, Tyler Sherwood, spoke against the mask mandate, saying that they should be optional. He also said he believed that the vaccine should not be mandated or required for anyone since the long term effects are not known. According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the vaccines are built on both mRNA and viral-vector vaccines technology that have been around from over 30 years of scientific work and development.
Annie Woodford spoke about how she has small children and family who are at higher risk. She wanted the council to mandate masks for the public indoors again.
“I’m begging you to follow the advice of our country’s top experts, people who have devoted their lives to public health and medical science to make math required in our community,” Woodford said. “I don’t think it will affect the business on King Street or in Boone because people always flock to this beautiful town and if they are masked, you will be doing your part to protect our elders and our children.”
Boone Area Chamber of Commerce CEO and President David Jackson also spoke on the potential impact on businesses. He said that some businesses — The Cardinal, Lily’s Snackbar and Speakeasy Tattoo Co. — are already mandating masks for customers and employees.
“I have been encouraged to hear more employers around here, providing good information about vaccines to their employees,” Jackson said.
He also heard from businesses that said it’s not tenable for staff to enforce mask wearing by patrons who refuse to do so, but it would be easier if they had town orders to back them up.
“Our message since the end of the (state executive order) has been to keep a mask in your pocket and know that if a business requires it, you must comply or face not being able to visit that business,” Jackson said.
Pam Williamson also spoke in favor of masks, saying that she knew it was hard for people, but the council needs to do what they need to do to protect community members.