The wording on the masks signs downtown has been changed to read, “masks suggested in crowded areas.”
I know some may think that weak mayor caved in and changed the mask requirement. Others might say it was about time for that overreaching mayor to come to his senses about mask wearing.
I didn’t make the decision, the entire Highlands Board of Commissioners did. All of the town’s emergency orders have been made by the entire board, not by the mayor taking unilateral action. I think board action is the best path to follow when making such critical policy. I have fully supported their decisions.
At last Thursday’s budget workshop, I asked the town manager to place the discussion of the mask requirements on the agenda. Normally, these kinds of items are not on budget workshop agendas, but during the pandemic situations change very fast.
At the April board meeting commissioners reviewed the mask policy and left it in place, with the proviso that we would track the mask wearing issue and revisit it periodically. Little did we know that the CDC would loosen up their outdoor mask recommendations, and that Governor Cooper would change his order on outdoor mask wearing soon thereafter.
The governor issued a new order (#209) that went into effect on April 30.
It basically eliminated the outdoor mask order (#180) that we enforced through North Carolina Statutes concerning states of emergency. As a result, the town only had a town emergency order in place requiring masks on commercial sidewalks.
To be frank, the enforcement of such a local order could have become confrontational and not well received in state courts.
After a long discussion, and yes debate, the board unanimously voted to change the signs to the current language of suggesting and encouraging the wearing of masks in crowded street areas. The state requirement to wear masks inside business remains in effect, and there is a clear procedure for enforcement of that order.
Given where the country is in regard to wearing masks, I believe the board made the best decision for the current circumstance. We now have a huge number of visitors from towns and states where the outdoor mask requirements have already been rescinded. The board came to the conclusion that the risk of outdoor expose to COVID versus the potential for confrontation and total noncompliance was not compatible.
The several commissioners noted that many of our residents and visitors have been fully vaccinated, and their risk to being exposed to COVID, especially outdoors, is very minimal. The question was posed as to why should these folks be expected to wear a mask outdoors? Also, for enforcement purposes, how would a distinction be made between unvaccinated and vaccinated people?
I know that some may think the board’s decision was not the right one. My feeling is that if someone is concerned about contracting COVID on our sidewalks, by all means, whether vaccinated or not, wear a mask. If one is not vaccinated, I believe that person should do the right thing and wear a mask.
Finally, if everyone were to get a vaccination as soon as possible, we would not be discussing this issue as we move into the summer and fall seasons. I am vaccinated, but I will continue to model responsible behavior by wearing a mask on commercial sidewalks and in businesses.
Around June 1 Governor Cooper will make another decision about masks. The town will follow his lead.
- Town of Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor