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Lax facemask enforcement frustrates those who wear them

Steve Smith, Henderson County’s director of public health for Henderson County, has trouble understanding why some people view facemasks as a threat to freedom.

“You and I both wear a seatbelt every day because the government says we should to keep ourselves safe,” he said. “We don’t drive a car when we’re intoxicated and have drunk a lot of alcohol. The government says we shouldn’t do that, to keep others safe. I don’t make much distinction between taking those kinds of precautions and the same kind of thing we’re talking about with a mask today.”
Smith was speaking about an hour before Gov. Roy Cooper’s order mandating face masks went into effect and then as now it was clear that enforcement of the facemask rule is a murky proposition. Sheriff Lowell Griffin announced the day after Cooper imposed the order that his officers would not charge people who go maskless.
Griffin cited the order itself — “Law enforcement personnel are not authorized to criminally enforce the face covering requirements of this Executive Order against individual workers, customers or patrons.” — to reinforce his position.
“Simply put, the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office will not be issuing citations or making arrests based on this order,” he said, adding that law officers will make a trespassing arrest if a business owner reports a recalcitrant patron.
“Please understand that every business reserves the right to require customers and patrons to wear a facial covering,” he said. “Any person who fails to wear a facial covering after being asked to do so by a business can be asked to leave. If that person refuses to leave, then the business has the right to have that person charged with the crime of trespassing.”
For the mask order to work as intended, Smith said, individuals need to take responsibility.
“I am aware that law enforcement here and in other jurisdictions is not being anxious to step in and execute heavy-handed tactics about this. I understand a little bit of that perspective,” he said. “Even if they were willing to jump in, you’ve got 117,000 people in Henderson County. It’s just going to be impossible to force everyone to wear a mask. I hope we can continue to promote the rationale and logic behind wearing masks and why that’s important to protect people. It’s literally one of our only tools.”
Even before the facemask mandate, people reporting violations of now-standard public health advice — standing six feet apart, wearing masks, hand washing — are among the most common complaints the health department receives.
“When we get calls coming in on our general information line, questions about masks and compliance, lack of compliance, are probably one of our most frequent topics,” he said.
People who refuse to wear masks, he said, put themselves and others at risk and reduce the effectiveness of the only low-cost universal defense that can curb the spread of covid-19.
“I would say today in Henderson County probably 30 percent of our cases, while positive cases, are people that are asymptomatic,” he said. “You may have convinced yourself that you don’t need to wear a mask because you’re not sick but I come in contact with people every day where that is not the case, and if you accept the fact that you could be transmitting that virus to other people unwittingly I think we all have an individual responsibility to not do that.
“People want to go back to work and want to get on with their lives and the best way for that to happen is for us to be somewhat responsible so we’re not besieged with a bunch of unnecessary cases, so that we can continue to ease restrictions in North Carolina and Henderson County.”

DMV flouts rules

Four days into the order, people are spotting plenty of exceptions.
“At the DMV they’re queued up outside and the DMV employees let people in,” said Gordon Smith, a retired engineer who visited the tag office Tuesday. “Everybody in the line had masks on, those two employees didn’t have masks on. I said, ‘You’re kind of representing the government here and the governor mandated with an ordinance and you should be wearing masks.’”
The employee responded that, “‘Our DMV here is a contractor and our contractor told us we don’t have to wear masks if we don’t want to.’”
When Smith called the sheriff’s office, “his staff told me he thinks the law is unconstitutional and he’s not going to enforce it.”
Smith said he spent about two hours in line and never got his tag renewed because the system had crashed. Unfortunately, he has to go back.
“It’s not like with the DMV we can boycott it,” he said.
He also reached someone at the office of Gov. Roy Cooper. “She said she would pass that along” that the Henderson County tag agency was refusing to enforce the mask requirement.

The Hendersonville DMV agency operator, Donna Pryor, said Wednesday no one from the health department or police had contacted her.

"There are health exemptions in there," she said.

The employee who was allowing people in on Tuesday "for the longest time she's wore a mask every day and she was having trouble breathing and she wasn't wearing yesterday I don't think," she said. "According to the governor's order I'm not even supposed to question it" if someone claims a medical exemption.

The facemask order lists 11 exceptions, including a broad medical one exempting anyone who "should not wear a face covering due to any medical or behavioral condition or disability," and goes on to say: "No proof or documentation is required if an individual falls into an exception category."

After receiving a tip, the Lightning on Sunday visited Green River Eddy’s Taproom & Grill, a part of Saluda outfitters. Neither the bartender or a manager wore masks, although they said they welcome people who do.

“I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule on that,” Angela Nicholas, who said she was the public relations manager for the business, said of waitstaff or bartenders wearing masks. “Maybe I’ll call the health department just to verify.”
In an interview Monday, Nicholas went on to describe in detail everything Green River Eddy’s is doing to protect patrons and employees.
“We posted what everybody is supposed to post,” reminding patrons to wash their hands, wear a mask and wait six feet apart, she said. “We’re doing our best to follow those rules and guidelines, but there is a statement that says if you can physical separate yourself (by six feet or more) you don’t have to have a mask.”
Tables on the outdoor deck are spaced far apart. “They’re very very few that are eating inside and when they do they have plenty of space. We have face masks we’re handing out for free if they want one. We’re doing everything we can to sanitize, we’re continuously spraying, we’re wiping down menus, we’re wiping down everything customers handle, we’re using all throw-away cups and food containers. I feel like we’re doing everything we can to ensure everybody’s healthy. Obviously it’s a family run business and they don’t want any of their family members or employees to get sick.”
Saluda police have not received a complaint about Green River Eddy’s nor has the Polk County Health Department.
“We do contact and educate them on the requirements,” said Josh Kennedy, Polk County’s health and human services director. “Enforcement falls to local law enforcement. We’ll end up forwarding this to the police chief of Saluda. We went around and notified all of our restaurant owners, advising them of the new executive order.”

The order says, "Restaurants must have all workers wear face coverings when they are or may be within six feet of another person. In addition, restaurants must have all customers wear Face Coverings when not at their table, unless the customer states that an exception applies."

Smith appealed to restaurant diners to speak up if they see violations.

“We would ask for the assistance of restaurant patrons in this matter," he said. "Restaurants are very interested in getting their businesses back online today and public health supports that effort, but if patrons observe a lack of attention to face coverings in a particular establishment please share those concerns with the owner or manager. Customer satisfaction will be a significant motivating factor with most of these establishments.”

People ‘have dropped their guard’

A face covering, public health officials say, protects others as much or more as protecting the mask wearer.
“My mother is 83 years old. I hope people around her are wearing masks,” he said, adding that people should “be just as respectful of other families whose grandmothers or grandparents may live here.
“It’s not about what an individual may want. It really is about the common good and as corny as that may sound that really is an important concept here. I have to be honest, I don’t understand some of the rhetoric in the objection to masks.”
The mask order comes as Henderson County records a steady rise in cases. In the early weeks of the pandemic, more than 80 percent of covid cases were associated with long-term care facilities. Now, just 40 percent of cases are linked to congregate care. Through contact tracing, health department nurses are tracking the cause of the infections.
“I think individuals have dropped their guard and convinced themselves there’s not much of a threat now,” Smith said. “They’re having birthday parties, they’re congregating in large groups like funerals, they’re going down to the beach and staying in a beach house with multiple people. So they’re doing these group settings and not using masks, not using any social distancing, so it only takes one person in that group to expose everyone else and you have an exponential spread cases.”
If people want to go back to the way things were in those relaxed days B.C. — before covid — they ought to cooperate with the mask order.
“We’re not trying to hammer people. We’re really just asking for their cooperation,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, we all have a choice about how bad we want this to be and how much we want to protect our community and I’m asking people to be partners with this. Let’s not be adversarial about it.”