Highlands Commissioners lift outside mask mandate

A couple of extra issues were on the budget workshop agenda last Thursday that didn’t have anything do to with navigating finances for FY 2021-2022.

First, Town Attorney J.K. Coward presented the Town of Highlands scholarship award recipients as proposed by the scholarship committee. Every year the town disperses funds from the scholarship fund to graduating seniors and students in continuing education.

Coward said the same amount was dispersed this year as last … a total of $45,000.

As is the norm, Highlands School Valedictorian and Salutatorian got the highest awards, $3,000 and $2,500, respectively. The rest of the seniors who applied received scholarships ranging from $1,750 to $750, based on grade-point average. The higher the grade point average the more the student got.

The second issue, this one discussed a length, was whether to rescind or continue the mask mandate.

Since NC Governor Roy Cooper recently relaxed his order to wear masks outside, Mayor Pat Taylor suggested the town revisit the issue.

“He recently rescinded his emergency order, which we were following and were building on,” said the mayor. “There may not be a need for an across-the-board mask mandate outdoors now.”

Last week, Governor Cooper rescinded the mask mandate outdoors unless people are in crowded areas and can’t social-distance.

The problem is two-fold.

People are coming to Highlands from neighboring states where the outside mask mandate has long been lifted and if Highlands doesn’t follow the governor’s lead, people traveling to Highlands even from other areas in North Carolina won’t know what’s allowed. In Macon County outdoor masks stopped being required a while back.

“A lot of people are coming from states where mask requirement outside is completely gone,” said Police Chief Andrea Holland. “So, I thought we should discuss it. I think at some point, the government has to quit trying to control what the people are doing,” she said.

Town Manager Josh Ward said up until last week, the town has had very good mask compliance but then the police saw it starting to fall off.

While on foot patrol last week, Chief Holland said she noticed more people on the streets without masks than with masks for the first time since COVID restrictions were mandated in Highlands.

“We are getting a lot of pushback now because people are done. They don’t mind wearing them inside the stores, but it’s hard to control it on Main Street. We would have to get the whole department out there just to control masks,” she said. “My suggestion is to let it open up and let people be responsible for their own health.”

Mayor Taylor said, and Commissioner John Dotson agreed that Highlands has been very successful in making masks a requirement. “But we are in a transition period,” he said.

“We were dead on the money when we came down hard and heavy early on, it served our purposes well,” said Dotson. “But now I think we should take the fallback position of the state. Since the governor says you don’t have to wear a mask outside, then do that here. It makes It easier for people who are coming and going through the state of North Carolina and they don’t have to make specific decisions about when visiting certain places.”

The discussion ran the gamut with commissioners thinking out loud while considering what to do.

“People can make their own decisions, but somebody’s decision can negatively impact someone else,” said Commissioner Brian Stiehler. “But then again, I think we are in the point in the country that if you wanted a vaccine, you could have had one. If you don’t have a vaccine because you think you don’t need it for whatever reason or if you got the vaccine and you trust that you are protected, why are we worried about protecting people that don’t want to get the vaccine? I don’t want to spend resources having the police telling people to put on a mask, but at the same time, I don’t think we should do away with it either.”

Early in the discussion, Commissioner Donnie Calloway said to make it easy. “Just say ‘masks are recommended in crowded areas.’”

“I think we should err on the side of caution. We don’t know enough about these variants coming up, we really don’t know. So, I think we should recommend wearing a mask and then we don’t have to enforce it,” he said. “If someone isn’t wearing a mask, the police don’t have to bust their chops.”

What is the definition of a crowded area, was the next question.

Commissioner Amy Patterson said Highlands’ sidewalks are “crowded areas,” but Chief Holland said there are some days when the sidewalks aren’t crowded.

“Masks are still required in public places, but there are some days when the sidewalks aren’t crowded so people can socially distance on the sidewalks, but then there are days they can’t so those of us who want to wear a mask, who want to keep ourselves safe from those who are not, then let us choose to wear a mask instead of telling someone they have to,” she said.

Commissioner Patterson said a person’s behavior impacts other people’s behavior and that’s why there are rules concerning certain things – “anything that impacts other people’s health,” she said.

“We are talking about not enforcing something that we think is better for us. I don’t fall back on anyone else’s opinion. I make my own opinion. So don’t say, because the governor says this, we should do this; figure out what our specific local environment needs. The governor doesn’t live in Highlands. The governor has to do what’s best for the majority of his state. We have to do what’s best for a small subset of that. We need to do what is best for the healthcare of our citizens,” she said.

Mayor Taylor reminded commissioners that Governor Cooper said municipalities and counties could be more stringent than he.

Commissioner Dotson held his position.

“But now, instead of being more restrictive than the state, we need to fall back and parallel what the state says. We were more stringent than the state was, and we did what needed to be done at the time. But now, if outside, you don’t have to wear a mask but if inside you do,” he said.

Eventually, a consensus was reached.

“In the beginning, we didn’t know anything, and we didn’t have a vaccine, so masks were our best option. We needed everyone to do it because there was no other way to protect ourselves. To protect everyone, we had to make masks mandatory,” said Commissioner Patterson. “Now we have other options to protect ourselves which are the vaccines. So, if you are scared of variants just wear a mask. The virus isn’t over. We haven’t won the war. But we have options. Now because you can opt to get the vaccine, we don’t need to make people wearing the mask mandatory outside.”

The signs on the Highlands’ streets in the commercial district now read: “Masks Suggested in Crowded Areas.”

Pictured at the top of the article is a sign in downtown Highlands on third and Main streets suggesting people wear a mask when outside. Masks are still required inside businesses.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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