11/24/20: N.C. IN ‘DANGER’: GOVERNOR ‘RATCHETS UP’ MASK MANDATE, AUTHORIZING CRIMINAL CHARGES FOR NONCOMPLIANCE; Face Coverings Now Required Indoors in Public Places Outside Home.

Dr. Mandy Cohen asked people yesterday to “consider celebrating Thanksgiving differently this year.” She advised them to “avoid traveling and getting together in person, especially indoors.”

All people in North Carolina will be required to wear a face covering when they are indoors in any public place outside of their homes that is also occupied by a non-member of their household and outdoors when they cannot maintain six feet of distance from non-household members, starting tomorrow at 5 p.m., according to a new executive order announced at a 2 p.m. briefing yesterday by Governor Roy Cooper.

The order also requires businesses to take more responsibility for ensuring that “masks are worn by everyone” in their indoor space, at the risk of criminal sanctions, and extends Phase Three until 5 p.m. on Dec. 11. The last executive order had extended the phase until Dec. 4.

“I have a stark warning for North Carolinians today,” the Governor said before introducing new Executive Order 180 and after citing the State’s “record-high” number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and its reach of the “grim benchmark of 5,000 deaths.” (See The Beacon, 11/22/20.)

 “We are in danger,” the Governor said. “This is a pivotal moment in our fight against the coronavirus. Our actions now will determine the fate of many.”

(Today’s statewide numbers are even worse than yesterday’s: 3,100 new COVID-19 cases and 1724 hospitalizations, according to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ dashboard.)

Although not mentioned directly by Governor Cooper, Executive Order 180 specifically authorizes state and local law enforcement to enforce what he called a “strengthened” Face Covering Mandate against individuals who fail to wear a covering. A violation of the mandate is a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Law enforcement also may cite a business or organization that fails to enforce the face-covering requirements, as they are ordered to do.

The offense charged would be a violation of N.C. General Statutes section 14-288.20A, which pertains to emergency prohibitions and restrictions.

See Executive Order 180 at EO180-Face-Coverings-Requirements.pdf (nc.gov).

That Governor Cooper, who has long sought to persuade, not force people to wear protective face coverings, is finally calling for criminal sanctions against those who do not wear them outside of their homes, and, therefore, violate his new executive order, is a testament to how “dire” and “deadly serious”—in his words—the situation is statewide.

Ten more N.C. counties are now in the “critical” red tier on the COVID-19 County Alert System map, according to the Governor, thus, bringing the total red counties to 20. This escalation is based on COVID-19 metrics received from county health departments for the period from Nov. 6 to No. 19.

(See The Beacon, 11/18/20 for an explanation of this system, which was introduced just last week. Dare County remains in the “substantial” orange tier; we will discuss its status below.)

The Governor said that the State’s plan had been to update the county alert map every four weeks, but with the next seven to 14 days in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19 being so “critical,” he decided to give North Carolinians a “snapshot” of where the state is now.  

See COVID-19-County-Alert-System-Report.pdf (nc.gov)

“We are on very shaky ground,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the NCDHHS, concurring with the Governor and elaborating upon the State’s “worsening” COVID-19 metrics.

“I do not want to see the bottom fall out,” she said grimly. “I’m particularly concerned about our record number of people in the hospital.”

The number of hospitalizations statewide topped 1,600 yesterday, according to the NCDHHS dashboard. Today, it is over 1,700. On Saturday, a record-high 4,514 new COVID-19 cases were reported, for a positivity rate of 8.5 percent.   

Although hospitals still have capacity for COVID-19 patients, Dr. Cohen said that some of them “are starting to feel the strain.”

The NCDHHS Secretary put the situation in easy-to-understand terms when she said, “The coming weeks will be a true test of our resolve—to do what it takes to keep people from getting sick, to save lives, and to make sure you have hospital care for whether it’s a heart attack, a car accident, or COVID-19, when you need it.”

“This virus is deadly,” Governor Cooper emphasized. “It’s spreading too fast, and it’s up to each one of us to slow it down.”

RESTAURANT GUESTS MUST WEAR MASKS WHEN TALKING TO EACH OTHER

Executive Order 180 requires face coverings to be worn in all “public indoor settings” and specifically elaborates upon these settings: for example, child care facilities; fitness and physical activity facilities; government operations; museums and aquariums; restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and wineries; retail businesses, etc.

A new restriction not singled out at yesterday’s briefing requires all guests at restaurants to wear face coverings—including at their tables—when they are “not actively drinking or eating.”

There is no exception in the Executive Order for “actively conversing.” The letter of the EO clearly requires guests to mask up when they are simply talking among themselves.

Restaurant employees must wear face coverings at all times.

The new order also requires retail businesses to ensure that all “guests” wear face coverings when they are inside their establishments. Further, any retail business that has more than 15,000 square feet of interior space must post at each public entrance a worker who “is responsible for [enforcing] the Face Covering and Emergency Maximum Occupancy requirements established by Executive Orders.”

While both the Governor and Secretary Cohen referred to “partnering” with businesses to “stem the tide” of COVID-19, the new order clearly puts a burden on businesses to ensure compliance person-by-person, at the risk of sanctions. You might analogize the employee at the entrance to a large retail store to a bouncer at a bar or nightclub. 

Executive Order 180 also makes a noteworthy exception for professional or collegiate athletes who are operating “under a COVID-19 health and safety protocol.”

Such athletes are to be “encouraged,” but not required, to wear face coverings when they are “strenuously exercising or recovering from exercise,” the order states, and when they are training for, or participating in, a sport that is under the oversight of a league or other organizer that has a COVID-19 protocol in place.

When such athletes are on the sidelines and in practice, or at any other time that “they are not strenuously exercising or recovering from recent exercise,” the Executive Order requires them to wear face coverings.

We will soon see how college football teams playing in North Carolina, as well as the Carolina Panthers, respond to these demands. 

The face covering mandate applies to all people at least 5 years old and is recommended for those everyone over age 2.

MASKS WORK: WHAT WILL IT TAKE?

“The [Three Ws] actions are simple and the effects are profound,” Dr. Cohen stressed yesterday yet again. “Masks work.”

And yet, people refuse to wear them. What will it take to change this behavior? Throwing people in jail?

And if people are arrested for not wearing masks, what will the public/community ramifications of such arrests be?

The preamble to the new Executive Order—the “whereas” portion—cites five studies that purportedly show the effectiveness of face coverings.

The evidence is there, the order virtually screams, if people care to read it and to give it due weight–much in the same objective manner that scientists apply in arriving at their decisions.

Dr. Cohen repeated yet again yesterday that the virus is transmitted through respiratory droplets in the air emitted by an infected person when he/she sneezes, coughs, talks, sings, or just breathes.

The mask “is a barrier,” she stressed. “Studies show masks reduce the spray of respiratory droplets. . . . The more people who wear a mask, the more the community is protected, and, therefore, the more you individually benefit.”

While we appreciate that Governor Cooper and Secretary Cohen are at their wits’ end, frustrated that millions of North Carolinians refuse to do something as simple—and as effective—as wear a face covering, we believe that the Secretary’s “get behind the mask” reiterations are ineffective, and the Governor’s soft-pedaling of the criminal sanctions he has authorized is a mistake.

The Governor should have said directly and honestly that people who refuse to wear a face covering as ordered are now subject to criminal charge and conviction. Local police may refuse or be reluctant to take action, but that is beside the point. Leaders who are not bold face criticism from their detractors.

Instead, in response to a question from a reporter about enforcement, North Carolina’s Chief Executive said: “The enforcement of the Executive Order can be done by local and state law enforcement, local health departments, the state Department of Health and Human Services—all of those enforcement tools are available.” 

That does not cut it, as far as we are concerned. He should be up-front about the possibility of an arrest and explain why such enforcement would be constitutional. We can already hear the grumbling among the maskless about the United States being a “free country.”

Instead of repeatedly urging people to wear a face covering for the sake of the public’s health, he should explain to those who refuse to do so—especially because of a “civil liberty” claim—why their thinking is wrong-headed. Engage them. Don’t just issue a “call to arms.” They are hearing a different call.

We also believe that Secretary Cohen should have said more about the option of filing a complaint with a local health department about a violation of the new Executive Order. Dr. Sheila Davies, the director of the Dare County Dept. of Health and Human Services, should step up and do the same.

In our reporting 11/22/20 about post-COVID syndrome in “long-haulers,” also known as long COVID, we sought to discuss the risks presented by this virus in a way that no one in the public eye is discussing.

It is well known in informed medical circles that some people–including young people–who have “recovered” from COVID-19, both mild and severe cases, still suffer from lingering or “chronic” symptoms. If someone thought he or she would experience cognitive impairment for months, if not longer, after acquiring COVID-19, would he/she reevaluate a decision not to wear a mask?

This is a new virus, a pathogen that has no long-term clinical history. It is not the same as influenza or the coronavirus 1 that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). It is not possible to know yet how this virus, which invades so many organ systems, may affect people who contract it and then recover. Cases vary by the individual. There is a big risk of the unknown here.

People should understand that, or at least be told that.

We believe that if both Secretary Cohen and Dr. Davies put on their scientist caps and communicated with the public about what is known about COVID-19 and its risks to the health of all people, they might connect with some noncompliant North Carolinians. While they both stand behind the “science,” they never discuss it apart from the COVID-19 metrics, and the metrics don’t involve much informative scientific data. They are quantifications that people can find ways to minimize and deny.

The Governor said yesterday that “We don’t want to go backward, but we will if it’s necessary.” He will “rachet up” restrictions even more, he said, in order to protect the health and safety of North Carolinians.

He also concluded that he and Dr. Cohen believe “that with these [new] rules in place, that if we get more compliance and better enforcement, that we can stem the tide without having to go backward with more restrictions.”

More compliance, better enforcement . . . Why would they get either? So far, what the Governor and the Secretary are doing has not worked.

Maybe they will get the cooperation of some local officials in stopping the spread and make inroads on the grass-roots level. The Mayor of Greensboro spoke eloquently yesterday about the safeguards she is requiring in her city, but Greensboro ain’t Mayberry, or Dare County, for that matter.

We think the State officials should consider taking a different approach with the public and speak to the noncompliant in a manner that would be meaningful to them.

DARE COUNTY’S ORANGENESS 

As stated above, Dare County remains in the orange tier in the State’s COVID-19 alert system, with a “substantial” risk of transmission of the disease. Currituck County is in the yellow tier, with a “significant” risk.

Interestingly, the data accompanying the map now show the number of COVID-19 cases all 100 N.C. counties had in a 14-day period per 100,000 people. Dare’s is a whopping 413.4 cases during the Nov. 6-19 period.

Last week, in response to a reader’s inquiry, we did calculations of Dare’s recent cases over a 14-day period and determined that it should be in the red tier, with far more than 200 new cases per 100,000 people. (See The Beacon, 11/19/20.) As this new data show, we were correct.

Dare County does not qualify for the critical red tier, however, as we surmised, because its positivity rate was less than 10 percent, and the impact of COVID-19 on its hospital is only “moderate,” not “high.”

To be classified as “red,” a county either has to have a positivity rate of at least 10 percent or a “high” COVID-19 impact on its hospital(s).

If Dare County COVID-19 patients were actually hospitalized locally, the impact on the Outer Banks Hospital might be considered high. Instead, they are transported outside of the area, a fact that diminishes the usefulness of the new mapping tool.

Dare County’s new single-day case numbers have been five or fewer since last Friday, according to the DCDHHS dashboard. We do not know yet, however, how many tests were performed locally the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 11/24/20

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