Editor's note: As we went to press on the Aug. 20 edition, New Hanover County officials announced a mandatory indoor masking policy. Several of the interviews below took place before the rule was announced, so this version has been updated to reflect that.
By any measure, Southeastern North Carolina is seeing a significant impact from COVID-19’s delta variant.
Since early July, numbers of new cases, new hospitalizations and completed COVID tests have been rising for Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties, as they have for the state as a whole.
The vaccine rollout and initial rush for vaccinations led many businesses to ease their masking requirements. Recent increases in cases and hospitalizations, however, have been causing them to rethink their own rules, even before mask mandates were renewed in some areas.
“We are hearing from some members and businesses that they are again encouraging mask-wearing indoors,” Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said earlier this month ahead of a county-wide mandate on indoor face coverings. “We consider the situation to be very fluid. Like last year, I am encouraging my staff to take the appropriate precautions that will keep them and their families safe. We have signature events scheduled through the end of the year, and in recent discussions with my team, we decided to require masks at indoor events beginning on Monday, Aug.16. We plan to consider other limitations … as local, state and federal governments may require.”
An order issued by New Hanover County in effect as of 5 p.m. Aug. 20 requires anyone 2 and older to wear masks while in indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status. The mandate includes “offices and workplaces, business establishments, public transportation facilities and vehicles, and any place the public is invited or allowed to assemble.”
Live Nation, operator of Wilmington’s Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park, recently announced that as of Oct. 4, artists and fans at Live Nation venues must show their vaccination cards or negative COVID-19 tests to attend performances.
Such measures seemed to be ramping up as of press time, as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations remained on the rise.
“Over the past four to five weeks we’ve had rather a dramatic increase in our COVID hospitalizations both in the critical care unit and on the floor with regular patients. That not only includes New Hanover Regional Medical Center, but Novant Health in Brunswick also has seen the same rapid rise of COVID-19 infections,” said West Paul, senior vice president and chief clinical officer for Novant Health Coastal market, on Aug. 12.
At Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, elective surgeries were once again placed on pause – as many hospitals did in the early months of the pandemic – and post-anesthesia care units were instead being used for COVID patients.
In another example of precautions at a private setting, personnel screening company CastleBranch made the requirement ahead of the county rule requireing all employees to wear masks on-site. The company has developed these and other protocols to promote the health, safety and well-being of its workforce, according to officials at the Wilmington-based company.
“We look at all possible ways to achieve that, whether it’s masks and social distancing, providing on-site or remote work opportunities or utilizing tools we’ve created right here to mitigate the threat of infectious disease,” company officials stated.
Their statement also referenced a proof-of-vaccination card the company has developed.
“Every CastleBranch team member is a card-carrying member of our digital and physical RealVaccinationID.com COVID-19 vaccine or waiver card, and we use our COVID-19 Compliance toolset to monitor temperature, symptoms and exposure. All of our tools are designed to keep our people safe, provide visibility and protect personal information.”
Changing guidelines can pose difficulties for small businesses that depend on in-person customer traffic.
Several national and regional companies have imposed masking mandates for their employees. Earlier this month, Wells Fargo Bank officials postponed its “Return to Office” date to Oct. 4 from an earlier target of Sept. 7. And the bank continues to require its in-person employees to wear face coverings.
“Our focus remains on keeping our employees and customers safe,” said spokesman Josh Dunn. “We continue to follow CDC guidance and have returned to the face-covering policy we had in place for most of the pandemic: All U.S. employees currently working in the office must wear face coverings at all Wells Fargo U.S. facilities, regardless of their vaccination status.”
Home improvement chains Lowe’s and Home Depot now require their employees to mask and encourage customers to do so. Target has similar rules for employees, and it “strongly recommends” face coverings for all customers in areas with significant or high levels of transmission. Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties all are categorized as counties with “high transmission,” defined as more than 100 cases per 100,000 during the previous seven-day period.
Brunswick and Pender county governments as of press time did not require regular testing or vaccinations of county employees, but both local governments encourage employees and county residents to get inoculated.
“There is not a mandatory mask requirement for county buildings and facilities at this time unless [the buildings] are a clinical setting,” said Brunswick County spokeswoman Meagan Kascsak.
“The CDC does encourage individuals to wear face coverings in indoor settings where there is significant spread regardless of vaccination status,” she said. “The county encourages all its employees to get vaccinated if they have not done so already and any county employees that have not been fully vaccinated should continue to wear a mask.”
Kascsak said the county offers regularly scheduled vaccination events and continues to monitor the state of the disease in its communities and to review its pandemic response plan.
New Hanover County, however, implemented a policy earlier this month requiring county employees to verify their vaccination status by Sept. 1 but stopped short of requiring vaccinations. Unvaccinated employees, however, will have to be tested weekly for the virus. And vaccinations will be required for all the county’s new hires.
New Hanover also reinstated a mandatory face-covering policy for all county employees and customers, regardless of vaccination status, inside county facilities.
“From a Public Health perspective, we will continue to advise and share the guidance we receive from [the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services], the CDC and other trusted health partners to help determine what actions and measures are needed in our community,” said Carla Turner, New Hanover’s assistant health director.
She added, “Our hope is that we will have an increase in vaccinations that will help prevent COVID-19 from spreading so rapidly and forming new mutations, and that we can begin controlling the virus better than we are now. The way we can get there is through vaccinations, with additional protections like masks, good hand washing and distancing from others. Our recommendations and guidance will continue to evolve as the virus evolves – but the ultimate goal, no matter what, is to keep our community safe and healthy.”
An Aug. 12 communication from University of North Carolina Wilmington Chancellor Jose Sartarelli to students, staff members and faculty members set out protocols for them to follow. All in-person students, as well as anyone who works on campus, will be required to be vaccinated or submit to weekly surveillance testing. All will need to report their vaccination status to the university early in the semester.
UNCW is likewise requiring that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a face covering inside all campus facilities, except in individual offices or residence hall rooms.
“Face coverings were an effective part of our COVID-19 management strategy last year,” Sartarelli wrote. “We put this extra safety precaution back in place as part of our efforts to preserve as traditional a fall semester as possible for everyone.”