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NC governor recommends end to mask mandates, state lawmakers pass mask bill

Tim Moore screen shot.png
House Speaker Tim Moore (center) called Rep. David Willis of Union County (left) to stand beside him Thursday as he introduced a bill to end school mask mandates.

Updated Thursday, Feb. 17, 4:01 p.m.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday encouraged schools and local governments to end their mask mandates. His recommendation came as state lawmakers passed a bill that would let students opt out of wearing masks — and one day after Mecklenburg County commissioners unanimously voted to drop the county’s mask mandate.

Cooper said rescinding mask requirements would be a step toward “learning how to live with” the coronavirus, as the state’s key COVID-19 metrics continued to fall after the surge fueled by the omicron variant and vaccines remain widely available.

“Parents might still want their children wearing a mask inside school. Businesses might want their employees and customers to wear masks,” Cooper said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “At this stage in the pandemic, it’s right for them to make these choices in most situations.”

Meanwhile, legislators in North Carolina’s House and Senate on Thursday afternoon passed a “Free the Smiles” bill that would allow all students to opt out of wearing masks in public schools. The House passed it 76-42 while the Senate passed it 28-17, The News & Observer reported.

In a speech to the House Education Committee, Speaker Tim Moore said the measure will protect children from being forced to continue wearing masks and protect school boards from liability connected with mask decisions.

"But most importantly, it is going to reaffirm the absolute right that parents should be the ones making these decisions for their children. And not government," Moore said.

When asked about the measure at Thursday’s new conference, Cooper said he had “concerns” that it was “unwise and irresponsible.”

“I mean, are we going to let people pick and choose which public health rules they’re going to follow?” Cooper said.

School boards have already begun dropping mask mandates for staff and students. The North Carolina School Boards Association tracker says 59 school districts currently allow staff and students to go unmasked, while 56 still require masks indoors. Mandates remain in place in the largest districts, including Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Guilford.

Moore called Rep. David Willis of Union County to the podium with him as he spoke, calling Willis a major supporter of ending mandates. Moore said the bill is needed "because some of the districts do it differently."

"Union County may lift the mask mandate but Charlotte-Mecklenburg may not," Moore said. "Look, those kids in Charlotte-Mecklenburg deserve to be protected just as much as every other child."

Some Democrats on the House Education Committee said they're eager to see mask mandates end, but questioned whether the bill removes options that could be needed if conditions change.

"I just want to make sure we are considering not taking away local control because that is what the teachers are concerned about as well," said Rep. Kandie Smith of Pitt County.

The House Education Committee did not vote on the bill, but Moore said he hopes it will be approved unanimously when the committee does vote.

Union County Public Schools dropped its mask requirement when the school year began in August. CMS has required face coverings since the pandemic began. Mecklenburg County commissioners voted Wednesday night to lift the countywide indoor mask mandate, effective Feb. 26. The CMS school board plans to discuss its mask plan at Tuesday's meeting.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.