Sign of the times

Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland said posters asking people to wear masks and a press release announcing a mask mandate were delivered to businesses starting Sept. 1, when it took effect.

Orders declaring states of emergency in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro and requiring wearing masks or other face coverings inside most establishments open to the public in the two towns are in effect as of 5 p.m. Sept. 1.

The COVID-19-related orders were issued by Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore and North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson, with support of the two town governing bodies, stated a press release jointly issued Sept. 1 by Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland and North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper. The orders say the mask mandate is in effect for 30 days.

“These actions were taken to help battle the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 and mitigate the strain on community medical resources being caused by the virus,” the release stated.

It noted that after improved COVID-19 transmission rates locally in the spring and early summer, “Wilkes County is currently experiencing a frightening spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths driven by the highly transmissible delta variant.” It said an average of one in five COVID-19 tests is positive locally.

Wilkes had 142 deaths officially linked to COVID-19 by Tuesday, with ages among the last five ranging from 30s to 80s.

Wilkes had 140 such deaths by Friday, compared to 128 a week earlier and 123 two weeks earlier. At least 10 COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes residents occurred in an 11-day period ending in late August.

As of Friday, 8,725 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. That was up by 383 from the prior Friday and 719 more than Friday two weeks earlier.

Under the town mask orders, “establishments open to the public” may refuse service to people not wearing a face covering and adopt additional protective provisions

“Establishments open to the public” include but aren’t limited to retail and service businesses, restaurants, reception areas of professional offices, town offices, non-profit offices “and other places where members of the general public are permitted to and do enter to obtain goods, services, information or assistance.”

The orders exempt county or state government properties from the mask mandate. Noland said federal properties are also exempt.

The orders say that upon request, police will support an establishment’s refusal to serve someone not wearing a mask by removing the noncompliant individual in accordance with state trespassing laws.

They say police may charge a violator of the mask mandate with committing a class 2 misdemeanor offense, “but only in the event of repeat violations manifesting willful flouting or circumvention.” They also say police must first educate an offender about what is required and subsequently issue a warning before filing a charge.

The orders say the mask mandate applies to “customers, employees and any other occupants or users” of establishments open to the public.

Exceptions to the mask mandate are allowed, including children younger than 2 and people sitting at a table while dining in a restaurant. Also allowed are exceptions due to medical or behavioral conditions, “including but not limited to anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

The release said the mask mandate applies to unvaccinated and vaccinated people.

State records showed that 37% of Wilkes County’s total population was fully vaccinated as of Sept. 3, putting Wilkes among counties with the lowest vaccination rates.

Public health experts say that due to high case numbers and the delta variant’s ability to spread from asymptomatic or even pre-symptomatic individuals, indoor public settings remain risky sites of substantial transmission for unmasked people.

Chad Brown, president of Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro, said that on behalf of the local hospital and the entire Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist system, “We wholeheartedly support these important safety measures that can make a real difference in the fight against COVID-19.”

Brown said properly wearing a mask indoors and practicing social distancing outdoors are key to helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. “As the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increase locally, statewide and nationally we must take every possible measure to keep ourselves, our loved ones and the community safe.”

In an Aug. 27 meeting of local leaders concerning COVID-19, Eddie Settle, chairman of the Wilkes County commissioners, said he was confident that Wilkes County government would not enact a mask mandate.

The Wilkes Board of Education voted 3-2 on Aug. 30 to require that all students, staff and visitors wear masks while indoors at schools, at least for the next 30 days. This went into effect Aug. 31, with masks being provided for people who don’t have them. Masks were already required on school buses.

Under legislation signed into law the same day, school boards must adopt policies on masks in schools and vote each month on whether to modify them.

On Aug. 31, the Wilkes County Board of Health passed a resolution urging all residents and business to follow mitigation measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

The release said the Wilkes Health Department believes the orders issued Sept. 1 by the mayors of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro will help Wilkes residents stay healthy and safe.

It said that there is strong evidence that face coverings, in conjunction with vaccination, are needed to halt COVID-19 transmission and help end the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends this.

Inscore and Johnson issued states of emergency orders for their respective towns in March 2020 due to conditions during early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of April 2020, the issued amendments requiring face coverings in establishments frequented by the public.

These orders and amendments were repealed on May 8, 2021, due to improved transmission rates and other trends indicating the pandemic was less severe.

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