PRINCETON — The Mercer County Board of Health on Wednesday approved a mask mandate for all indoor public buildings in the county as well as at outdoor gatherings and events where social distancing cannot be maintained.
Health Department Administrator Roger Topping asked the board to consider the mask mandate at its meeting because of the growing COVID cases in the county and the associated deaths.
The board passed the motion 4-1, with board Chair Dr. Randy Maxwell opposing, to require masks be worn inside public buildings, including restaurants, schools and businesses. Greenbrier County made the same move last week.
“We need to do something in this county to slow this thing down,” Topping told board members, explaining that the county has been averaging 56 new cases a day and has seen 17 COVID-related deaths already in September, with 924 new cases in August and 1,186 in September.
County Health Officer Dr. Rick Sabol said he is for the mask mandate “100 percent.”
“We have to go back to masking and social distancing,” he said.
The mandate also requires masking outside where social distancing cannot be maintained.
Board member Stacey Hicks, who is also President and CEO of Princeton Rescue Squad, said he agrees with the mandate.
“We have got to do something,” he said. “Wearing masks is inconvenient, but it beats dying.”
Robb Williams, also a board member, said the health department must do “all we can to keep as many people as safe as possible. As a health board we have to do what we think is right.”
“We are in a crisis,” he said.
Maxwell said he is “not a fan” of masks or mandates but he does think the masks help and he, as well as the others, also emphasized again how crucial it is to get vaccinated to stop the pandemic.
The mandate will be revisited on Oct. 27 after a public forum is held. A date for the forum has not yet been set.
Members of the County Commission were all at the meeting as well. They will have to approve of the action within 30 days.
Commissioner Greg Puckett said there has to be a mask mandate “throughout the entire county,” pointing out the Delta variant is 17 times more contagious than the original coronavirus.
Commissioner Bill Archer said the mandate is “difficult to enforce,” but most people will comply.
“I applaud the health department for taking this stand,” he said.
Hicks said he also thinks most people will comply.
“The majority of people will do what is right,” he said.
Board member Dr. Daniel Wells said he thinks the mask mandate “makes sense at this point.”
He also questioned whether people would comply, adding that education is the “biggest issue,” especially related to the vaccine.
Board members agreed that steps should be taken to provide accurate information about the vaccine, how safe and effective it is.
“To get rid of this, we are going to have to vaccinate,” Sabol said, “or else we will end up with mutant variants … that may by totally immune to these vaccines. That is what viruses do the longer they are around.”
Sabol said a lot of false information is around.
“Vaccines are not going to hurt anybody,” he said.
Hicks said the virus was “beaten back” last spring when masking and social distancing requirements were in place.
“We did away with masks and social distancing,” he said, and a new surge erupted.
Stacy said most board members now know someone who has died form COVID.
Sabol said anyone who questions the importance of vaccines should “walk in a COVID ward” and that will “wake people up.”
He also said kids are already required to get several vaccines (for things like measles and mumps) before they can enter school.
“Why can’t we add on this vaccination?” he said.
— Contact Charles Boothe at email@example.com.