Support wearing masks

From left, Eddie Settle, chairman of the Wilkes County commissioners; North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson and Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore jointly issued a statement Thursday encouraging Wilkes residents to wear masks in public when social distancing isn’t possible. They endorsed other steps to prevent the virus from spreading also.

Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore and North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson say they’re waiting to see how COVID-19 case numbers continue trending locally before deciding whether to enact local restrictions and take enforcement action to help slow spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, Eddie Settle, chairman of the Wilkes County commissioners, emphasized that county government won’t do any more than ask Wilkes residents to follow state guidelines. “I want to be very clear, we the county are not imposing any restrictions on our citizens,” Settle added.

County government’s stance on steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 differed from that of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro earlier in the pandemic, including when Johnson and Inscore signed an order prohibiting short-term lodging establishments in their towns from renting to out-of-town and out-of-state guests in April. Settle issued a statement then urging owners of these businesses in portions of Wilkes outside the towns to exercise extreme caution and follow recommended public health guidelines.

On Nov. 18, Gov. Roy Cooper urged leaders in over half of North Carolina’s counties, including Wilkes, to authorize levying fines against people and businesses for non-compliance with his COVID-19-related orders.

Cooper earlier issued orders requiring wearing masks in public when social distancing (staying six feet away) isn’t possible, limiting crowd sizes at gatherings and other steps, but enforcement has been limited. “We may have to do more even on a statewide level or at a local level in some way. That decision has not yet been made, but we are hoping that this effort can help us slow the spread,” said Cooper.

North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper released a statement Thursday on behalf of North Wilkesboro and Wilkesboro saying North Carolina municipalities have the legal ability to impose additional restrictions beyond the governor’s executive orders with limited exceptions.

The statement said, “Municipalities are authorized to enforce the provisions of the governor’s executive order in accordance with North Carolina criminal law. The towns have not elected to implement additional measures at this time, but reserve the right to do so if trends do not improve.”

Settle, Inscore and Johnson jointly released a statement Thursday saying they support Cooper’s COVID-19-related precautions and urge people to follow them. The three leaders said these include wearing masks in public, engaging in social distancing, washing hands frequently and complying with crowd limits. Social distancing is staying about six feet away from a non-household person.

Settle also said that he has no plans for action forcing compliance with the precautions. Inscore said then, “We’ll withhold making a decision on being more restrictive until we reach a certain point (with COVID-19 numbers) within the next few weeks.

Wilkes was included among “red” counties in a new COVID-19 County Alert System announced Wednesday. Under the system, red counties are those with “critical community spread” (the worst of three levels) of COVID-19.

Categorization of counties in the new system is based on COVID-19 metrics, including new COVID-19 cases the prior two weeks in each county. This was nearly 400 for Wilkes on Wednesday, more than only four counties. The% of positive tests in Wilkes since the pandemic started was 10.5%. Only seven counties having a higher percentage.

Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard stated Thursday, “In an effort to slow the spread, I am urging everyone over the next four weeks to truly limit interactions to those within your immediate household. While the holidays are upon us, I insist that people try to keep it virtual and only go out for essential trips or work.”

Willard continued, “While I discourage gathering with others, I understand sometimes it is necessary. If you have to gather with others, I ask that you take the following steps to ensure the health and safety for you and our community: keep it small, keep it outdoors, keep mask on at all times, and go get tested ahead of time. Testing is widely available throughout the county. Please call Wilkes Health at 336-651-7449 or your local provider to schedule a test.”

The statement Hooper released on behalf of the two towns continued, “Notwithstanding the severe public health danger that a prolonged pandemic poses, the economic and community impact will be crippling for years to come. As long as the current conditions exist, businesses will not be able to fully reopen, schools will be at risk for closure, large gatherings will remain prohibited, and the rhythms of day-to-day life will continue to be interrupted. Focused action by all residents is required now to snuff out community spread and bring the virus back under control.”

Hooper concluded that COVID-19 metrics indicate Wilkes has entered a dangerous new phase of the pandemic. “Hospitalizations and deaths, indicators that usually lag behind new cases, will increase in the coming weeks. Case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths will all continue to increase unimpeded unless residents change their behaviors.”

He continued, “The three Ws (wearing a face covering, waiting six feet apart, washing hands frequently) are critical but insufficient on their own. Residents must also avoid gathering with anyone outside their immediate household, isolate if experiencing symptoms, and stay home as much as possible. Residents who have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms must get tested so that health authorities can swiftly identify others whom they might have exposed, and advise them on how to isolate safely and break the chain of transmission.”

Settle also said he asks people to use precautions if they are sick and remain at home if they have a fever.

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