County considers mandatory face covering rule

CAREY JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer

LOUISBURG -- Franklin County could soon come under a mandatory face covering edict.

Roughly every two weeks, Health Director Scott LaVigne appears before county commissioners, giving them COVID-19 updates and, during those briefings, the county has experienced jumps of 21 more new cases, 35 more new cases and, during the board's June 15 meeting, LaVigne reported 72 more new cases.

All of this while the state experienced on June 6 a new, single-day high of 1,768 new COVID-19 cases.

As restrictions on movement and gatherings have lessened, and there is no vaccine on the market, LaVigne said the county needs to take a proactive step to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

"... In order to decrease community transmission of the virus ... the health department is strongly recommending the mandatory use of face coverings when inside all public spaces and in all gatherings of individuals who do not normally live within the same home," LaVigne said.

So far, Orange and Durham counties had enacted face covering orders as a way to combat COVID-19. Penalties for not complying were not clear, but the orders appear to be strong recommendations, rather than ordinances that could carry penalties.

According to news accounts, Wake County is also considering a proposal and Gov. Roy Cooper has said such a requirement is not off the table in North Carolina.

LaVigne said he'd research Orange and Durham counties plans to craft a recommendation for Franklin County.

"... These numbers are going up and they are significantly concerning," LaVigne said of positive COVID-19 cases in the county.

"[A face-covering requirement] is probably the best thing that most of us can do, especially with asymptomatic transmission.

Commissioner Harry Foy asked when such a decision would be made.

When the global pandemic hit, the board, like most government boards across the state, adopted emergency orders that gave their board chairs the authority to act independently in the name of public safety -- so a full board decision would not be required if the manager, county attorney and chairman agreed that a face covering requirement was necessary.

LaVigne did not give a specific date that his crafted recommendation would go to the county manager and county attorney and, ultimately, to Commission Chair Sidney Dunston for approval, but if it does, it would more than likely take place before the board's next meeting -- July 6.

"The 'when' is going to be up to you folks," LaVigne said. "There is only so much that the health director can do.

"I can recommend it," he said, noting that the county's board of health does not meet again until July 14.

"I think that's too far out."

"... If you look at the growth [in new cases] over the life of this thing, it is growing exponentially over the last three to four weeks," he said. "That's not going to be arrested by doing what we're doing now.

"So, [a mandatory face requirement policy] is the best thing I can recommend."

Foy also asked if there was any evidence that any of the actions taken by Orange and Durham counties had been fruitful.

Those policies are each about a week old.

"It's still too early to show you, concretely, because of the two week incubation period. As the state is quick to point out, any change that we make today, we're not going to see the results until two weeks down the road. that's kind of the incubation period," LaVigne said.

"So, we would anticipate that with more people wearing face coverings, we would either see a slight decrease or leveling off, or that the percentage of our increase would be lower than the percentage of the overall state increase, and that's another way of looking at it."

While the impact might not yet be quantifiable with numbers, LaVigne said the science supports the move.

"... I do know, and it is a fact, that when people wear a face covering -- and it doesn't have to be a mask, any face covering, a bandana, a scarf, a t-shirt over the nose and mouth -- if I'm wearing one and I'm asymptomatic, the likelihood of me transmitting the virus through my face covering to someone else, who is also covered, is the lowest that it could possibly be.

"... The number of people that are wearing masks in public has precipitously decreased since we moved to Phase 2," he said. "It's correlative. I can't say that's what caused it, but it's certainly correlative.

"So putting this out there, having two people six feet apart, both wearing masks, is the safest possible way you can be out in public, given the nature of the way this virus is transmitted.

"So, that much I do know."

Commissioner Michael Schriver said he'd appreciate if LaVigne could provide numbers that support the science of using face coverings.

"I'm a numbers guy, so when you say it greatly reduces [the transmission rate], is that 30 percent" Is it 80 percent? What is it?" Schriver said. "Can you put some numbers with what you just shared with us, if possible?

"As I communicate that [to constituents], having those numbers becomes a lot bigger than just our words."

LaVigne didn't have those numbers on Monday, but he agreed.

"... I will get you numbers, for sure, but there is no question that if you look at the way the virus gets transmitted, there is no question that two people wearing face coverings six feet apart, have a less likelihood of transmitting active virus than one person with a mask and the other person without, or both people clearly without masks and too close together."

Commissioner Cedric Jones wondered if the county would take it upon itself to provide face masks to people if the requirement was adopted.

"What's the process there?" he said.

LaVigne reiterated that it's not a mask requirement. People would be able to use a bandana, a scarf, a t-shirt or whatever was practical to cover their nose and mouth in public.

If the requirement gets adopted, Foy said he didn't want to be blindsided by the decision.

He referenced the institution of the curfew, which most commissioners said they didn't find out about until after it was enacted.

"Mr. chairman, if you decide on this, if you could please share it with all board members so we don't get caught off guard and beat up by constituents of the change in the policy in this county, I'd appreciate it," Foy said.

LaVigne also noted that the matter had been communicated to town leaders via e-mail that goes out with his report that he provides each week to the county's Emergency Operations Center.

Each town manager is a member of the EOC.

"... When it becomes time for an order to go into place, [town leaders] won't be caught flatfooted because we will be getting them this information," LaVigne said. "[That communication] has already started."

Dunston defended his decision on the curfew and said he would continue to take actions to protect the public.

"The decision that was made before as it related to the curfew was an emergency situation that I have been given authority to make and that's exactly what I did, and I'll do that again.

"I will notify you if [consider action on the face covering requirement]," Dunston said.

"... The fact of the matter is COVID-19 is a deadly virus ... and there no vaccine.

"... Right now, we are at 114,000 people [dead from COVID-19] and the only weapon we have against it is a mask, a face covering, social distancing and washing your hands.

"That's just a matter of fact.

"We'll make decisions on that, but you will be notified of that."

Schriver said he was happy that any action was being taken to slow the transmission of the virus.

He referenced the swine flu in 2008, when such protective measures were not taken and the virus killed about 127,000 people.

"That was dangerous as well, so I'm glad we're taking some steps to try and preserve, which is great," he said. "Hopefully, we learned from that that we should do more in the beginning instead of sitting back and waiting."