GREENSBORO — Guilford County is now under a countywide mask mandate after the Board of Commissioners, acting as the Board of Health, voted 6-3 on Thursday night to immediately impose the order to slow the stunning spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
That means all residents over age 5 must cover their face while indoors in public spaces and private businesses. Businesses that fail to require face coverings at their operations are subject to fines and risk being declared a “public nuisance” if violations are frequent.
Guilford County has 15 restaurant inspectors and roughly 20 people who have been hired specifically to address complaints about companies that are not following the mandate.
There will also be a hotline where residents can call to report businesses that are not in compliance.
The commissioners will reconsider the mandate intermittently and as health guidelines change.
The controversial decision comes as the number of positive COVID-19 tests is around a staggering 30%. It was just two months ago that the board lifted the last mandate.
But that was a much different time then. The swift onslaught of the omicron variant has been a reminder that the pandemic can be forgotten, but only for so long.
Painting a picture of overcrowded emergency rooms, overtaxed hospital staffs and needless death, public and private health officials told the commissioners during a nearly 90-minute meeting that enacting a mask mandate would blunt the number of cases and hospitalizations overwhelming the health care system.
Still, the board’s three Republican members were unmoved as they voted against the directive.
“The public kind of, you know, thinks this board is a joke because ... we did not enforce it last,” said the board’s newest member, Republican James Upchurch.
Upchurch, who was elected as a Democrat in 2020 but became a Republican a year later, incurred the wrath of Chairman Melvin “Skip” Alston and drew an emotional response from Dr. Mary Jo Cagle, the CEO of Cone Health.
“Let me first of all take issue with Mr. Upchurch’s analysis that this board is a joke,” Alston said. “This is not a joke.”
Upchurch reiterated that he was speaking about the public’s perception.
“I never said this board was a joke. I never said that,” he clarified. “I said that is the perception of the public. I did not say that.”
Alston responded: “To the public, then, this board is not a joke. Our enforcement policies have been in place when we had the mask mandate. We did issue warnings, citations. It is not our desire to issue citations. We want the public to cooperate on their own.”
Upchurch asked several questions of Cagle and Dr. Cynthia Snyder, a Cone Health epidemiologist.
Upchurch pointed to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services data that shows the omicron variant is less severe than other strains of the virus.
“Have you seen a reduction of severity and things like that in your hospital?” Upchurch asked.
Cagle answered: “We have fewer in the ICU, but we’re being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the admissions.”
Her tone grew more somber as she spoke.
“We’ve had 41 deaths since Christmas. So I guess for us, 41 deaths is a lot of deaths from one disease. So we can talk about that it’s less severe, but to have 41 of our citizens die since Christmas? That doesn’t seem very mild to me.”
Cagle told commissioners about one death, a 43-year-old man who came to the hospital with signs of a heart attack. But doctors found no evidence of cardiac arrest — only blood clots resulting from a COVID-19 infection.
“And our doctors had to go tell that mom, and there were little kids involved,” Cagle continued. “This is a terrible disease. So I understand that most people who get this don’t have to go to the ICU. But when it’s bad, it’s really bad. We can’t predict for you guys how big or how bad it’s going to be on any given day. And it’s demoralizing.”
Upchurch said quickly, “there’s no denying that.” And then he moved on to other questions. One implied that staff shortages were, in part, caused when medical workers who refused the health system’s vaccine mandate were fired. He asked if the hospital had considered changing that policy.
At that point, Cagle seemed exasperated.
The six Democrats who voted to impose the mandate said after some research, they concluded that wearing masks would be an effective way of slowing the disease’s spread.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said a personal scare drove her to respect the coronavirus.
“I can tell you this is no joke,” she said. “When someone tells you that they tested positive for COVID and now you are wondering if you’re testing positive, that is one of the scariest feelings that I’ve ever had.
“Your constituents are my constituents. I don’t care where they live. If one person in Greensboro, one person in America, dies from this disease, it impacts all of us.”
Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.