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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Durham County, City Reimpose Mask Mandate

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Raychel Espiritu
An indoor mask requirement for public places will once again go into effect in Durham as the delta variant of COVID-19 surges in North Carolina.

One of North Carolina's most vaccinated areas will soon compel people to once again wear a mask while they are at indoor public spaces.

Durham's city and countywide emergency order, which takes effect at 5 p.m. Monday, is the latest effort to combat the rapid spread of the more contagious COVID-19 delta variant.

In a Monday morning news conference, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said it's time to go “back to the basics” in order to combat what he now views as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“Face masks are a common-sense, non-economically damaging way of limiting transmission," Schewel said.

In all but two of North Carolina's 100 counties, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal mask wearing for both vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans. But at a time when nearly all available COVID-19 metrics show a spread of the virus at its worst levels in months, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper decided to let his statewide mask mandate expire July 30 and allow local school boards set their own masking policies.

Spread of the virus has only continued to surge since then, prompting some experts to fear an uptick in transmission within the dozens of school districts that have made masking optional for all K-12 students. Children under 12 do not yet qualify for a vaccine, and only 34% of North Carolinians aged 12 to 17 have gotten at least one shot of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, state health department data shows.

More than 72% of Durham County residents who qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine have gotten at least one shot, according to CDC data, which is less than the neighboring Orange and Wake counties but substantially higher than the statewide average of 60%.

Schewel, a Democrat, said in an interview that he trusts the governor's judgment to protect residents but believes it's time to once again compel North Carolinians throughout the state to wear masks.

“We've now reached substantial spread in almost every single county,” he said. “I think that unfortunately it's time that it would be wisest to reinstitute a statewide mask mandate.”

The 1,946 people currently hospitalized in North Carolina due to COVID-19 represents the highest count since Feb. 16 and a nearly five-fold increase over the past month when 418 people were in a hospital.

On Friday, new daily cases across North Carolina surpassed 4,500 for the first time since Feb. 11. On Sunday, cases neared 7,000, though some of that captures old data of more than 2,600 previously undisclosed positive test results from June 30 to July 31. The rolling average number of daily new cases has risen by more than 2,000 in the past two weeks, an increase of 155%.

On Saturday, more than 11% of COVID-19 tests came back positive, the highest daily positivity rate since Feb. 1 and dramatically higher than the 3% rate reported one month ago.

Durham County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Brenda Howerton pleaded for unvaccinated residents to comply with the masking order.

“This is serious. If it’s not serious for you, think about it being serious for your family,” Howerton said.

State and local authorities have been largely reticent to enforce mask orders. Schewel told reporters Monday that Durham typically enforces it “with a light touch” by having the city attorney write a letter notifying a business or person of their noncompliance before sending a police officer and sheriff's deputy to further address the situation.

“We do have the power to cite someone, but we’ve had to do very little of that,” Schewel said.

Those who are under 5, actively or eating or drinking or have medical or behavioral conditions, such as breathing problems, do not need to wear masks in Durham County while they are in “any indoor public place, business or establishment.”

The order has no expiration date, but Schewel said the city and county will reevaluate it every week or two.

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