Buncombe County will require the wearing of face masks in most indoor public settings starting next week. The decision comes as North Carolina enters 'Phase 2' of its reopening Friday afternoon after restrictive stay at home orders due to COVID-19.
Buncombe County will follow the 'Phase 2' requirement as outlined in North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper's newest executive order that was issued Wednesday. That allows restaurants, pools, and salons to open Friday at 5 p.m. but only at half capacity. Bars, gyms, and indoor entertainment venues will remain closed during 'Phase 2' due to daily increases of confirmed COVID-19 cases, even though the number of hospitalizations due to the virus statewide have remained stable.
Where Buncombe County will go further than the state is the face mask wearing requirement. "(Masks) must be worn by all persons ages 12 years or older in all indoor public commercial facilities," said county public health emergency preparendess coordinator Fletcher Tove at a Friday afternoon press briefing. The requirement - which includes libraries and public transit - goes into effect Tuesday May 26th at 7 a.m. Masks must cover the mouth and nose. There are a list of exceptions to the rule Tove noted, including for those who can't wear masks due to disability or a medical condition, or if it is against their religious beliefs. Masks won't be required at indoor religious services, private offices, or in areas of businesses or restaurants that are not open to the public. Riders on public transit who do not wear a mask will not be asked to get off.
The mask requirement covers the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, but not those municipalities within the county that have their own government. Masks are recommended to be worn in public settings in those areas. Criminal citations will not be issued for those who violate the mask requirement where it is in effect. "Law enforcement and first responders have higher priorities to address," said Buncombe County board chair Brownie Newman at Friday's press briefing. He added that route has proven to be more effective in getting people to wear masks in other areas of the country where similar requirements are in place. Newman also said businesses can enforce the rule on their premises.
The county board of commissioners approved the face mask requirement at a special meeting Thursday on a party line vote of 4-3, with Democrats in support and Republicans against. Commissioner Al Whitesides said during the meeting several businesses in downtown Asheville asked commissioners to put such a requirement in place, a sentiment echoed by Newman Friday. "Many (local business owners) observed over the past month that people, who have traveled to our area from outside of Western North Carolina, wear face coverings at a lower rate than residents of Buncombe County," Newman said. "It is important that people who visit our area take the practical step of wearing face coverings when they are frequenting our local businesses to protect the heath and safety of our workers and residents."
Tourism is another area where Buncombe County will go further than the state during 'Phase 2'. Hotels, campgrounds, short-term rentals, and other lodging accomodations can again start accepting reservations for people from outside of Western North Carolina for leisure tourism. Those with more than ten units can only book at half capacity, while those with with less than ten can book at full capacity. Another area where Buncombe County goes further than the state is in stopping restaurants from offering self-service areas like buffets and salad bars. Governor Roy Cooper this week said 'Phase 2' in North Carolina will last at least five weeks before further easing of restrictions could occur.