Mecklenburg County drops mask mandate as COVID-19 trends continue to decrease

CHARLOTTE — Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday night to drop the mask mandate in Mecklenburg County, and the change will go into effect on Feb. 26.

Health officials cited several reasons for the recommendation that led to the vote, including improved trends, vaccine availability and new treatments.

[ALSO READ: Gov. Cooper encourages NC schools, local governments to end mask mandates]

There is also a higher community immunity and enough capacity at hospitals and emergency rooms.

Federal regulations still require mandatory face coverings in certain health care settings, public transportation and in airports and on planes.

People who are at high-risk and who live in congregated settings should also wear masks.

Mecklenburg County officials said businesses and venues will still have the power to enforce their own mask mandates.

Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington said that K-12 schools and child care centers should establish plans now to transition to mask-optional by early March 2022.

As of Feb. 13 in Mecklenburg County:

  • The seven-day case rate for omicron decreased 87% since its peak on Jan. 16.
  • Hospitalizations were down to 400 per day, a 37% decrease over last week.
  • The percent positive cases were at 15.7%, down 58% from Jan. 9.

However, Washington said case counts and percent positivity rates are becoming less reliable. The county is shifting its focus to other early indicators of COVID-19, including wastewater surveillance and syndromic surveillance.

“Current trends point to a shift in COVID-19 conditions and indicate the need for a revised response plan that encompasses prevention, surveillance and equitable distribution of resources,” Washington said.

The mask mandate won’t officially be dropped until Feb. 26 due to how the public health rule was implemented. Washington says it requires 10 days of public notice. The mask mandate is not currently enforced, which means that in most settings, people will likely drop masks sooner.

“We are not getting rid of masks,” Washington said. “We are getting rid of a mandate.”

Commissioners ready to lift mandate

Washington said last week at a commissioners’ meeting, he would recommend the mandate be lifted if trends decreased.

“If we are in the position that this continues, I hope that next (Wednesday) I will be in the position to make a recommendation to rescind the mask mandate,” Washington said at the commissioners’ meeting on Feb. 9.

Commissioners said they were ready to get rid of the rule as soon as Washington gives the all-clear.

[PAST COVERAGE: Mask mandate remains for Mecklenburg County but metrics for lifting may change]

“I am looking forward to it,” Commissioner Laura Meier, D-District 5, said. “I think it is the right thing to do.”

“We need to learn how to live with this,” Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, D-District 6, said. “I think we are doing that.”

Dr. Katie Passaretti, an infectious disease physician at Atrium Health said the steady decrease in cases and hospitalizations do point to a mask mandate recension as the next natural step.

“I think moving into that phase of things over the next little bit makes sense as we hopefully continue to see further improvement in the number of cases,” she said.

But Passaretti said we are at a point where mask-wearing should come down to individual risk. She still recommends it for those who are unvaccinated and those with weakened immune systems.

“Weighing the risks to you and your circle of family, friends, contacts is going to be very important to make sure that we are continuing to protect the most vulnerable,” she said.

ABC News medical contributor Dr. Darien Sutton warns that even though COVID-19 metrics are decreasing, it remains a threat.

“I think universally dropping mask mandates is premature at this moment,” Sutton said.

It took two years, but the Italian restaurant, Osteria Luca, is back to business like it was before the pandemic.

“It seems like it is moving in the right direction, at this point, and I am happy with that,” owner Ken Martino said.

Martino said he is happy the county could get back to some sense of normalcy this week with the dropping of the mask mandate.

“I’ve been looking forward to this mask mandate ending for quite some time,” he said. “It is important that people continue to wear the masks, but I would certainly like it to end.”

At another meeting, the CMS Board of Education voted last Tuesday to keep the mask mandate in place for another month in the face of some parents’ opposition.

“If you believe in morality, can you deny that masking children for eight hours a day is a form of child abuse,” parent Beth Quinn said.

A teacher at Tuesday night’s meeting said she was grateful for the decision by CMS.

“I support mask mandates we have right now as a CMS teacher,” parent Ayana Perry said. “I support them as I deal with having students out on a daily basis.”

Under the current mandate, the county’s test positivity rate has to be below 5% for seven consecutive days before it can be dropped.

[PAST COVERAGE: CMS board votes to require masking at school as NC COVID cases surge]

(Watch the video below: Mecklenburg County commissioners talk about current policy on masks)