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County manager hopes Health Board will consider ‘alternatives’ to mask mandate

Published: Jan. 3, 2022 at 4:35 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board still has more than two weeks before voting on whether to implement a mask mandate in the county, and responses from residents have been, as expected, divided.

County Commission Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman told WECT the reason the HHS Board members would be deciding on the mandate is that they are professionals in their fields, including healthcare.

However, despite those sentiments, County Manager Chris Coudriet is suggesting that the HHS Board look at alternatives to mask mandates.

“Commissioners, I respect and applaud the HHS board for its vigilance, debate, and review. That noted, I also believe our community will expect that board to consider alternatives to a mask mandate. As an aside, the data supports masking as a key strategy. I’m of the opinion the sinking of a percent-positive over 15 to less than 2.5 percent, with about a 1 percent increase in vaccination status, is aligned with masks last summer and into fall,” he wrote in an email to county commissioners as well as the county’s health director.

Last week in North Carolina record daily high numbers of cases were seen due to the Omicron variant, and the Chief Epidemiologist at NHRMC called for leaders to hold an emergency meeting to implement a mask mandate.

It appears they will not be doing that.

Coudriet continued in his email to county leaders that he would be directing county staff to move forward with exploring other options.

“I have asked Donna and the health team to identify policy alternatives to a mask mandate and be prepared to advance said alternatives. The HHS Board does have narrow authority to consider such a rule, but as staff I believe we have a duty to surface options,” he said. “I hope the county commission does not consider this thwarting the HHS board. My objective is to ensure a range of policy options are placed before the HHS board for rigorous debate.”

The HHS Board is made up of appointed individuals who do not have to answer to the county manager, unlike health department staff.

So what sort of alternatives is Coudriet suggesting?

When asked if examples of alternatives to a mask mandate would include closing down businesses and limiting the number of people allowed indoors, New Hanover County Spokeswoman Jessica Loeper explained that is not what Coudriet is suggesting.

“He is not proposing restrictive measures like you mention below, but is inferring more that a set of policies around education, encouragement, and signage at establishments and businesses be recommended to the HHS Board as a layered approach rather than just recommending or considering a mask mandate,” she said.

For the previous mask mandates signage was implemented as were educational efforts.

“The HHS Board does have health expertise as noted by Chair Olson-Boseman, but the County Manager wants to make sure they are considering a variety of options in their decision versus just a health rule enforcing masks,” Loeper said.

The departure from having elected leaders implement a mask mandate occurred over the summer as the Delta variant took hold and David Howard, the county health director, issued an order of abatement requiring masks until the Health and Human Services Board met to implement the health rule.

State statute gives the health director the ability to abate health concerns; however, when asked about implementing another abatement, Coudriet made it clear he would not support such an effort.

“...Even if the HHS board asked David to implement an order, I would not consent so it would not be in place as a bridge to any final action of the HHS board itself,” he said.

Despite the power belonging to Howard, he does report to the county manager so that is why Coudriet said what he did.

“The standard practice in New Hanover County, since the Health and Human Services staff reports to county management, is that if an abatement order is needed, the health director has the authority to issue the abatement but does so with the consultation and approval of the county manager,” Loeper said.

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