Stanly commissioners once again reject proposed mask mandate for county employees

Published 11:53 am Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

For the second time in as many months, a mask policy for county employees was introduced during the Stanly County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday night.

And for the second time, the vote failed.

Commissioner Peter Asciutto again introduced what he called a common sense mask policy, which would require all county employees and visitors to be masked when inside county facilities or closer than six feet from others.

The policy would remain in effect until either the county’s percent positivity rate dropped below 10 percent (it’s currently 16.6 percent), the percentage of fully vaccinated residents exceeded 60 percent or a majority of commissioners voted it down.

“As an elected official, I feel an added weight on my shoulders because ultimately we’re responsible for the public health and to help out the citizens,” Asciutto said.

He said his “wake-up” call regarding the current surge came when 10 Albemarle firefighters contracted the virus in June.

“It showed that it was here and back,” he said.

The spread of COVID-19, Ascuitto said, doesn’t just impact the health of the county, it also affects the economy and the ability to offer students an in-person education.

Ascuitto included a powerpoint of data collected from the Stanly County Health Department showing that since the last meeting on Aug. 9, the county had reported more than 1,500 cases along with 13 additional deaths.

On a personal note, Asciutto mentioned that he had two friends die from the coronavirus in the last month.

Vice Chairman Tommy Jordan seconded his motion to allow the mask policy to be discussed among the commissioners. This was more progress than last month, when Asciutto’s previous mask mandate received no second motion.

Several commissioners mentioned that while they believed in the importance of masks, they were uncomfortable mandating employees to wear them.

Commissioner Scott Efird was concerned about the wording of Asciutto’s policy, saying he would be open to “encouraging” or “recommending” people wear masks.

“The wording of it just bothers me a little bit, that we can require somebody to do something,” he said.

Commissioner Lane Furr noted that he’s been impacted by the pandemic more than any other member, since his wife died after contracting COVID-19. He did not believe he nor any other commissioner had the right to tell people what to do.

He and other commissioners did support allowing each individual department to decide for itself whether masks would be needed.

As someone who has been vaccinated and wears masks in public, Furr said more positive messaging about the importance of safety protocols were needed to try and convince people who otherwise might be skeptical.

“I believe we can lead them there (in terms of wearing masks) if we get them the right information,” he said.

Similar to last month’s meeting, Jordan said the commissioners were not elected by the public to create mandates for county staff. He worried that if Asciutto’s mask mandate were passed, it would lead to a reduction in county staff.

While he understood that Asciutto is tired from fighting to protect people from getting sick, he said other people are tired of hearing about COVID-19.

“They’re COVID fed up,” Jordan said. “We all are.”

Echoing Jordan’s sentiments, Commissioner Zach Almond said that if the board were to survey the public, the vast majority would likely be opposed to the approval of a mask mandate. While he said things like social distancing and masks are important, “I’m not going to be breathing down somebody’s throat telling them what to do.”

Commissioner Mike Barbee emphasized that mask-wearing should be up to the individual.

“I don’t believe we should take anymore freedoms away from people,” he said.

Chairman Bill Lawhon stated the only way the county will get past the pandemic is once enough people gain antibodies — through either infection or vaccination — to achieve herd immunity.

After several minutes of discussion, the board voted 6-1 against Asciutto’s mask mandate.

Asciutto also briefly talked about the county’s lagging vaccination rates. Only 35 percent of residents are fully vaccinated and 39 percent have received at least one dose — some of the lowest rates in the state.

In order to encourage more people to get vaccinated, Asciutto, who is a vaccine community ambassador for Atrium Health, offered up several ideas to the board, including creating a vaccination incentive where two vaccinated employees could receive $500 each as a result of weekly drawings.

“I just think as elected officials we should get together and try to do something,” he said.

Lawhon, who is against offering financial incentives for people to get the shot, said that it is up to each individual to decide whether to get vaccinated.

Many of the other commissioners also rejected offering money to encourage people to get vaccinated.

The department administers vaccines from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. People can make appointments by calling 980-323-0205.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

email author More by Chris