Could Pittsboro be heading toward a mask mandate? Town commissioners discuss.

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PITTSBORO — Pittsboro could soon have a town-wide mask mandate should Mayor Jim Nass — or, in his absence, Mayor Pro Tem Pamela Baldwin — exert authority empowered by North Carolina’s ongoing state of emergency.

In Monday’s regular meeting of Pittsboro’s board of commissioners, Baldwin advocated for instituting an indoor mask mandate in response to accelerating proliferation of COVID-19’s aggressive delta variant.

“We are definitely concerned about the spreading of this Delta virus variant,” she said. “... And I do actually support a mask mandate for (indoors). What we’re trying to do is not to trample on anyone’s rights, but ensure that there is safety for our children as well as the general public. Through the protection of the mask, we could possibly curb this continuous, contagious virus.”

The assertion introduced a new question for the board: can the mayor institute a mask mandate under his or her own authority?

According to Paul Messick, Pittsboro’s town attorney, the answer is yes.

“There already is an ordinance that authorizes the mayor to do it as part of the state of emergency,” Messick told commissioners. “He needs to set forth in a proclamation what the terms of the mandate are, so there needs to be some degree of specificity in that. But the mayor has the authority to do it now and presumably the mayor pro tem may have that authority as well in his absence.”

Nass was not present in Monday’s meeting following a medical issue the day before, Town Manager Chris Kennedy said. Town staff and the board of commissioners did not disclose how long Nass may be indisposed. Baldwin will preside over board activity in the interim, but said her interest in a mask mandate reflects what Nass told her previously.

“Mayor Nass also was in favor of a mask mandate and he wanted me to let you all know that,” she said.

Though neither Nass nor Baldwin would need board support to require masks, Baldwin asked for commissioner feedback.

Opinions were split.

“I’m not in favor of this,” Commissioner Jay Farrell said. “I think the citizens of Pittsboro can make their own decisions. If they want to wear a mask, that’s fine. If they don’t, if they’re vaccinated or not vaccinated, I feel like that’s putting too much pressure or too much mandate on our citizens. That’s pretty much all I have to say about that, but I’m not in favor of it.”

Commissioner Kyle Shipp objected to a mandate citing difficulties in effective enforcement.

“People will still do as they wish in regard to this in particular,” he said, “and I don’t think we’re going to change that behavior with a mandate.”

Commissioner Michael Fiocco likewise “stop(ped) short of supporting a mandate.”

“But I would like to encourage everyone to do the right thing for yourself and for your fellow Pittsborian,” he said.

Besides Baldwin, Commissioner John Bonitz offered the only other fervent support of a mask mandate.

“I also favor the idea of a rule for requiring masks indoors at retail establishments in Pittsboro,” he said. “... It is clear that the Delta variant is more contagious or virulent and the evidence for that is pretty clear.”

Many of Chatham’s surrounding communities have already enacted similar mandates. Orange and Durham counties were the first to require masks early last month, with Wake County soon following suit. Several cities and municipalities have added their own mask mandates, including Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, Cary, Garner and Zebulon.

The Chatham County Public Health Dept. is also urging residents to mask again and get vaccinated.

“The data can be overwhelming, but what is important to understand is that there are nearly as many cases of COVID-19 today as there have been at any point in the pandemic,” CCPHD Director Mike Zelek said in a press release last month. “Hospitals are filling up, mainly with those who are not vaccinated. Cases are not contained to any setting or neighborhood, but 90% are among the unvaccinated. The answer to this problem is clear: Vax up and mask up.”

As of Tuesday, 55% of Chatham County’s population is at least partially vaccinated and 51% are fully vaccinated.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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