PITTSBORO — Pittsboro instituted an indoor masking requirement two weeks ago, becoming the only Chatham municipality to pass such ordinance since Governor Roy Cooper’s statewide restriction loosened in July.
But enforcing the mandate?
It’s proving challenging.
“Hopefully, for their health and the health of people around them, people will wear their masks,” Pittsboro Police Chief Shorty Johnson told the News + Record. “But there are just some people who are not going to wear masks, you know?”
The challenge for Johnson and his staff is the same they faced throughout most of the pandemic when North Carolina’s state of emergency called for masking in most public settings.
“We can’t ask questions as far as health or things like that if someone isn’t wearing a mask,” Johnson said when asked about seeing someone not adhering to the mandate. “It’s hard to know if someone has an exemption or what the circumstances are.”
Without grounds for enforcement, the mandate — issued under Mayor Jim Nass’ executive authority, per the ongoing state of emergency — is more symbolic than peremptory.
“It’s just more of a message of what we would like citizens, or the people in town, to do,” Johnson said.
But that’s not to say the mandate is totally impotent. It does empower one group of people to take a harder stance on masks: business owners.
“It’s basically up to the store owners or business owners if they have someone come in not wearing a mask,” Johnson said. “If they don’t want either to serve them or do business with them, then they can ask the person to leave. If the person doesn’t leave and (the business) calls us, the person could be charged with trespassing.”
Many shop owners and managers, such as Mary DeMare of downtown’s New Horizons Trading Co., had maintained mask requirements even before the town’s institution of an official mandate. But they’re grateful to see the town’s official support.
“I appreciate the town taking this step and getting our back on this,” DeMare said. “I mean, otherwise we were sitting out here kind of alone trying to have people wear masks. So, this is really helpful.”
About 90% of patrons respected New Horizons’ in-shop mask requirement even before the new mandate, DeMare said, and most others would comply after she or another worker asked. DeMare hopes those who may have resisted in the past will feel the weight of a town-wide restriction, but she’s disinclined to involved police except in the most extreme circumstances.
“Short of something happening like in one of those stupid viral videos of people yelling at each other because of masks or whatever, I can’t imagine that in Pittsboro we’re going to need to use the police for this situation,” she said. “That would be the absolute last resort. I’m not even considering it as an option, really.”
The town’s decision to introduce a renewed mask mandate was in response to worsening proliferation of the COVID-19 Delta variant, which has ravaged North Carolina in recent months, according to Nass.
“The virus is surging through our community and adjoining communities, and it is our responsibility to take appropriate steps to protect public health and safety,” he said in a press release announcing the mandate. “Wearing a mask is a simple step we can all take to protect the health of our loved ones, especially children who are not old enough to receive the vaccine.”
Many of Chatham’s surrounding communities earlier passed similar ordinances. Orange and Durham counties were the first to require masks back in August, with Wake County soon following suit. Several cities and municipalities have added their own mask mandates, including Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, Cary, Garner and Zebulon.
The town’s mask mandate will remain in effect without expiry.
“We hope to be able to rescind this mandatory mask order as soon as possible,” Nass said, “and ask that all of our citizens join together to keep our children and most at risk citizens safe.”
As of Tuesday, at least 1,410,902 people in North Carolina had tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 16,719 had died since March 2020, according to state health officials. On Monday, the most recent data available at press time, the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services reported 2,219 new COVID-19 cases.
Chatham County has seen more than 6,500 cases — including more than 100 COVID diagnoses in the last week — and 91 deaths related to coronavirus.
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @dldolder.