Meck County’s COVID positivity rate dips below 5%: What that means for masks

CHARLOTTE — Mecklenburg County could be very close to ending its mask mandate. Early Tuesday, the CDC listed Mecklenburg County’s COVID-19 positivity rate below 5% -- at 4.99%.

That’s the rate county officials are using to decide when to end the indoor mask mandate, but hitting this metric does not mean an immediate change is coming.

>> CDC’s COVID Data Tracker

In a move unanimously approved by county commissioners last week, the indoor mask mandate will be lifted once the average percent positive rate of COVID-19 falls below 5% for one week.

The county said that the mask mandate would not drop the first day the percent positive rate dips below 5% -- it will take seven consecutive days of the rolling average being below that percentage.

Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said last week that the rate must be 4.99% or lower for seven consecutive days. A vote or a meeting will not be required to lift the mask mandate.

The county clarified that the seven days can start before Nov. 17, which it did. Mecklenburg County’s percent positive rate dipped below 5% on Nov. 9. It must stay below 5% for seven days before the county will lift the mask mandate.

“Once the revised public health rule goes into effect on Nov. 17, any days prior to Nov. 17 with a positivity rate below 5% will be considered in the seven consecutive day requirement,” the county stated.

Before the county’s corrected statement, the county said it wouldn’t start counting until Nov. 17 because, legally, the county has to wait 10 days to enforce a rule change. Click here for the full clarification.

Earlier this month, County Commissioners lowered the threshold for lifting the county’s face covering health rule or “mask mandate.” Here are the details:

  • The original health rule (effective August 31, 2021) stated that the COVID-19 positivity rate had to be under 5% for four consecutive weeks before the mask mandate would be lifted.
  • Earlier this month, County Commissioners agreed to lower the four consecutive week threshold to seven consecutive days. This change aligns with time frames from CDC recommendations and recent NC DHHS guidance to K-12 schools.
  • The revised public health rule goes into effect 10 days after being published, on Nov. 17.
  • Once the revised rule becomes effective on Nov. 17, the positivity rate must be below 5% for seven consecutive days for the mask mandate to be lifted instead of the previous rule’s requirement of four weeks.
  • In addition, once the revised public health rule goes into effect on Nov. 17, any days prior to Nov. 17 with a positivity rate below 5% will be considered in the seven consecutive day requirement.

The seven consecutive day positivity rate is calculated on a rolling basis and includes all PCR tests reported to NC DHHS via electronic laboratory reporting. Using the seven-day rate lowers the possibility that random spikes increase the overall positivity rate.

The updated face covering health rule is available here.

Harris said last week that she supports the decision to lift the mask mandate under that condition. She said when the county reaches that goal, it will indicate that the county has moved in the right direction and it is an opportunity to give the public a break.

However, Harris said on Monday she is a little leery about the timing.

“That’s a little disturbing based on what Black Friday tends to look like,” she said.

Harris said she would not go to a large store with the Black Friday mob.

“But if I did, I would probably be double-masked,” she said.

Harris was criticized when the mandate was put back in place over the summer. She said it was the best decision in the public’s interest.

“There are still people who feel like we are holding them hostage by requiring them to wear a mask,” Harris said Monday.

Even if the mandate drops, you’ll still have to wear masks at the airport, and businesses can decide if they want to require them.

What about CMS?

The news that Mecklenburg County could soon be dropping its indoor mask mandate also impacts children in school.

Students and staff at all Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have been wearing masks since the start of the school year.

It’s still unclear whether CMS plans to consider the county’s changes when it looks at its own mask policy.

Currently, this is the criteria for considering making masks optional at CMS:

  • The percent positive rate in Mecklenburg County would have to be below 5% for 30 days -- much longer than the county-wide 7-day requirement.
  • The policy could also be modified if 50% or more of kids 5 to 17 are fully vaccinated.
  • If CMS sees an increase in the number of clusters districtwide, or the number of schools seeing clusters increased in the last 30 days, it would recommend keeping the mask mandate in place.

As of Tuesday, COVID cases were up in CMS schools over the past two weeks.

Anticipation building as mask mandate could be coming to an end

“I hear the frustration,” Commissioner Leigh Altman said last week. “I read the emails. I entreat this community to reach down deep and understand that we are following the metrics. This is about listening to the science, the data and doing our best to navigate through this.”

Channel 9′s Glenn Counts spoke to people about how the metric could be a sign of hope.

“Just transitioning from the mask to hopefully some sort of normalcy, and we’re hoping that soon we will be able to go back to normal,” said Jose Hernandez with the Latin American Coalition.

Hernandez said the community can’t wait for things to return to normal.

Erika Turner is the owner of Clux, an event planning business that handles private and corporate events. Her business actually thrived during COVID and she survived a bout with the virus.

“I’m grateful, I think that’s the first thing I need to say -- I’m very very grateful,” Turner told Channel 9. “We are definitely, definitely seeing the anticipating of everyone getting back out.”

She said she has been living on weddings and other family gatherings, but if the mask mandate was out of the way, she expects corporate business to come bouncing back.

“If we can open those doors and this mask mandate can go away, I think that people are going to become more comfortable booking,” Turner said.

Questions have been raised about the metrics being used to calculate the percent positive rate. There’s a difference between the county and state percent of positivity rate, which has created some confusion.

Officials with the health department said they’ve noticed that the state is reporting lower rates than what NCDHHS is.

The county health department told Channel 9 it calculates the positivity rate by dividing the number of positive tests collected on a given day by the total number of tests taken, however, the figures do not match the state’s numbers.

For example, the county reported a 7.1% positivity rate two weeks ago. At the same time, the state reported 5.8%.

Mecklenburg County Deputy Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington visited Channel 9′s studios last week and explained that there is an issue happening with the data coming back from the lab and that they are working with the state to sort out the discrepancy.

The countywide mask mandate was implemented at the beginning of September due to the rise in COVID-19 cases.

The mandate requires face coverings to be worn in any indoor public place, business or establishment within the city of Charlotte and the unincorporated areas of Mecklenburg County, regardless of vaccination status. The requirement applies to anyone age 4 or older.

(WATCH BELOW: Anticipation grows as Meck County inches closer to lifting mask mandate)