WILMINGTON, N.C. — The scene outside the New Hanover County public health department Tuesday morning got tense as at least 50 protesters tried to get into the building without masks. The sheriff and his deputies stood at the door, refusing to allow anyone in who wasn’t wearing a mask. The protesters shouted and questioned health department employees.

Inside, the county public health board was getting ready to vote on a new rule to require face masks countywide. At least another 50 members of the public were inside, on both sides of the mask debate.

What You Need To Know

  • New Hanover joined several other North Carolina counties to approve a public health rule requiring masks

  • Sheriff's deputies removed several people from the meeting for being disruptive or not wearing masks

  • Mecklenburg County's public health order begins Tuesday

  • The county rules will be reviewed regularly, but most set a target of 5% positive tests. Statewide, 14.5% of coronavirus tests are positive as of Tuesday

Some of the protesters donned masks to get in the building to speak during the public hearing. The meeting was rambunctious. Protesters cheered those who spoke against the mandate and shouted at people speaking in favor.

When one man kept his mask down during part of the meeting, the chair of the board had deputies force him from the room. Deputies removed several other people from the room after they shouted during the meeting.

“The masks don’t stop transmission and neither do the vaccines,” one anti-mask speaker said, but researchers have proven that both work to slow the spread of the virus. 

On the other side of the debate, another speaker in favor of the mask rule thanked the board for considering the mandate.

“It takes courage to make decisions that aren’t popular,” she said. 

Several anti-mask speakers both inside the meeting room and outside shared conspiracy theories that have come to characterize some factions in the culture war over masks.

But in the end, after deputies cleared the room for a recess and then let some people back in, the county public health board voted to approve the rule.

“When we look at the COVID-19 data in our county, case counts have increased 10 times from June to August – with 217 new cases in June to 2,285 new cases in August,” HHS Board Chair Dr. LeShonda Wallace said. “That alone is significant, but there are a lot of other factors to also consider. Hospitalizations went from single digits at the start of the summer to now having more than 120 people in our local hospital.”

The county, which includes Wilmington and surrounding communities, already had a mask mandate. The county’s public health director signed a Public Health Order of Abatement Aug. 20, but that was meant as a temporary measure while the county waited the required 10 days to give the public chance to comment on the formal Public Health Rule.

The board approved the rule Tuesday, despite the protests. New Hanover joins Mecklenburg County and others to issue a public health rule requiring masks in indoor public spaces.

The new county rules come a month after Gov. Roy Cooper dropped the statewide mask mandate and as coronaviruses again spike in North Carolina. Fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, public health officials say hospitals are again filling up with COVID-19 patients.

For weeks, daily case numbers reported by the Department of Health and Human Services have numbered in the thousands, reminiscent of the last major spike over the holidays last year. Tuesday, DHHS reported more than 4,500 new cases and more than 3,500 people in the hospital. Statewide, the number of tests coming back positive is 14.5%, according to DHHS.

The public health rules in Mecklenburg and Guilford counties set a target of 5% positive tests for several weeks before they consider doing away with the mask mandates. Guilford County could also do away with its mask rule when the vaccination rate for the county hits 70%.

The mask rules all have exceptions, including for children under 2, anyone with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask, and while actively eating and drinking. The new county public health rules also have exceptions for religious or spiritual services like attending church or a wedding ceremony.