Buncombe County Commissioners mandate facemasks in 4-3 vote

Buncombe County Commissioners. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County.

By Leslee Kulba

Asheville – Buncombe County is now requiring the wearing of facemasks by, “all persons 12 years of age and older in all indoor public commercial facilities.” At a special meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners held after Governor Roy Cooper’s announcement of Phase 2 orders for reopening the state’s economy, a lot of time was spent debating when facemasks should be worn. Cooper’s orders require the masks for close-contact services, but only “strongly encourages” their use otherwise when people are outside the home.

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara said she would have preferred to wait until after the Memorial Day weekend to ease stay-at-home orders. The county’s COVID-19 dashboard showed the number of cases in Buncombe County had risen from 102 to over 200 in the last week, and an article in the local daily reported Mission Hospital was handling 56 suspected cases, up from 13 over roughly the same period.

Commissioner Anthony Penland stated making masks mandatory represented government overreach in this county. He asked how the county was going to enforce mask-wearing because constituents had been asking if they were going to be arrested. In a series of leading questions, Penland established that the county was not going to criminalize failure to wear a mask, and County Attorney Michael Frue confirmed the right to control the premises one owns or manages was based in common law. Frue compared ordering maskless people off-premises to a grocer telling kids not to skateboard in his parking lot. A returning perpetrator, once-warned, can be charged with second-degree trespassing.

Commissioner Robert Pressley, who owns Celebrity Hot Dogs, argued individual business owners should be the ones to decide what they want to enforce on their own premises. He said he was fine with the county telling him what his employees must do, but he did not want his employees, one of whom was his daughter, to have to tell a “big, burly” customer he had to wear a mask. Pressley said a lot of people would go back to their car and get something to retaliate.

Speaking with as much trepidation for how people would respond to a bad ordinance as other speakers had had for the virus itself, Pressley warned there could be fatalities. He said people were “mentally drained” and “ill.” They were losing their life savings and their cars, and their kids were going hungry. He said he has been wondering if he’ll be able to stay open in the new normal, and putting his employees in danger was going to move him that much closer to closing.

Pressley and Penland suggested the “no shoes, no shirt, no service” laws could be applied as-is to require masks in restaurants, but other commissioners felt that would expose citizens to too much risk. Then, calling attention to how Commissioner Amanda Edwards had just removed her mask in order to be able to talk while making her case for mandating face coverings in public, Pressley said people were not going to wear masks while dining.

Commissioner Joe Belcher said he would wear a mask if all it did was make those around him more comfortable. However, he said masks frighten a lot of children. To that, Public Health Emergency Preparedness Director Fletcher Tove staff was working on helping to remove stigmas associated with masks and rebrand them as signs of protection.

The county’s interim health director, Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, was passionate in her response. Hearing the same arguments she routinely hears about mandatory immunization infringing liberty, she said, “I get the whole, like, ‘freedom’ – but I look at it as freedom from disease. That’s my public health frame.”

She next argued that not wearing masks was disproportionately harming people of color. “It comes kind of from a point of privilege to be able to not have to wear a mask, when we’re telling our essential workers who often are, you know, people of color, or come from lower-income, like you need to wear a mask and then anybody walking in the store –” The virus, she said, was the enemy that people of all colors should unite to fight.

With even more passion, she continued, “What we knew in January? That life we lived in 2019? That’s not coming back right now. Like for a while…. This is a whole new world, and we have to understand that this is going to take sacrifice, right? We are gonna have to give up a little bit of what we once knew, and I’m not happy about it. We’re going through the stages of grief, right?”

With Belcher, Penland, and Pressley opposed, a majority of commissioners approved directing staff to prepare local orders mandating the use of facemasks outside the home with seven enumerated exemptions, the seventh being a catchall. Masks need not be worn if doing so would exacerbate a medical condition or conflict with a religious belief. Persons working in private offices or areas of businesses with no public interaction are exempt. People dining in restaurants also do not need to wear a mask, and persons ordered by law enforcement to remove their masks must do so.
In addition, face coverings are not required, “during any worship, religious, and spiritual gatherings, funeral ceremonies, wedding ceremonies, and other activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Ninth Amendment reads, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

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