Wake County to end COVID-19 mask mandate Friday, Feb. 25

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Wake County will end its indoor mask mandate starting Feb. 25.

The City of Raleigh and the towns of Garner, Knightdale, Rolesville and Zebulon are also doing away with the mask mandate effective 5 p.m. on Feb. 25, a Friday.

Wake County Public Health officials said that they felt comfortable with county and municipal leaders rescinding the mask mandates next Friday, a timeline that will give businesses and schools an opportunity to adjust to the change.

"Some employers may need additional time to set new policies for their staff or remove masking signage, and we want to respect that," said Chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners Sig Hutchinson after speaking to municipal mayors. "We initially put this mandate in place to weather the worst of the COVID-19 storm, which we hope is now behind us."

The death rate and the number of hospitalizations in Wake County are down, and the vaccination rate is high, officials said.

There are 190 people with COVID-19 hospitalized in Wake County. That's a nearly 54% decrease from Jan. 30 when the Omicron surge peaked in the county. Vaccination rates are also up. Of Wake County residents 12 and older, 89% have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

"The recent trends are all pointing in the right direction for the mandate to be removed," said Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. "Removing the mask requirement gives room for personal choice and responsibility. For those that are health compromised or feel more comfortable wearing a mask, they should feel empowered to do so."

Some rooms within Wake County Government buildings, such as public health clinics, homeless shelters, detention facilities or courtrooms, may still require employees and visitors to wear masks.

Morrisville officials are discussing an end to their mandate but no decision has been reached. The towns of Apex, Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Wake Forest and Wendell no longer had mask mandates in place.

In early February, Baldwin said COVID-19 metrics were too high to safely end the mask mandate. She met with Wake County leaders at the time and all agreed to keep the mask rules in place.

She said at the time she hoped to lift masking requirements soon but would first need to see the COVID-19 metrics improve.

"If we have to wait two more weeks to get there, let's be smart and get us to the finish line as opposed to jumping the gun," she said two weeks ago.

On Friday, Baldwin told ABC11 that she wanted to lift the mandate earlier but had to wait until the metrics were trending in the right direction. She also said it helped to have the governor issue new guidance

"We have been following the guidelines, also working with Wake County public health officials and when they said yesterday it's time, I jumped on board," Baldwin said. "We're going to be facing for a long time but people can't live forever wearing masks and what we're trying to do right now is give people a personal choice."

The mayor said it's been about finding balance.

"I think people are ready for some return to normalcy and I will tell you there are times when I still will wear a mask," Baldwin said. "We just wanted everyone to be on the same page and have this be coordinated and have it be clear and have this be coordinated."

For O2 Fitness President Doug Warf, this is welcome news.

Warf said that 11 of their clubs are in regions that don't have mask mandates and their numbers show they haven't had issues from those clubs.

"We've been able to watch our 21 clubs, our 11 that are unmasked and see there are no issues. So I'm confident we can do this successfully," Warf said.

He said it will be a lot easier when his staff doesn't have to enforce the mandate.

"It's exciting and refreshing to enjoy one of the governor's press conferences, but it is a sign that people know how to live in this pandemic," Warf added.

At a Raleigh clothing store, there is also optimism.

"I do believe things are in a better place, especially at this point in the pandemic," said Imani Danieli of Nashona. "I think at the beginning, people were scared to shop, scared to come out and now we have more customers, people are less scared so it's great."

Danieli's mother owns the shop, which expanded to downtown Raleigh in late November. Their first store is in Goldsboro.

They take a portion of their proceeds to support an orphanage in Tanzania.

"My mother is the owner, she's from Tanzania and we wanted to find a way to bring our culture to the United States," Danieli said. "Being in Raleigh has been excellent for our business. We have more exposure, more customers so we really enjoy being here."

The easing of face-covering requirements will be better for business, Danielli said.

"I think it will affect our business positively and also personally and most of the employees here, we'll continue to wear our masks because we just want to stay protected," she said.

State calls for end to mask mandates

All of this comes a day after Gov. Roy Cooper and state health leaders said COVID-19 metrics were improving enough to end mandating mask-wearing.

"As a result of all of these factors, I encourage schools and local governments to end their mask mandates," Cooper said Thursday.

The North Carolina Medical Society issued a statement supporting the governor's recommendations. The society, whose members represent physicians and physician assistants said it's now time to use what we know to "critically and judiciously" plan the transition into an endemic.

The North Carolina Association of Local Health Directors also supported the end to mask requirements. Like many other health professionals, the group said masks were still effective tools but no longer needed to be required for every single person.

"We are not stating that masks are bad or ineffective, but that everyone's situation is unique, and some may feel comfortable continuing to wear a mask in public. They should have every right to do so."
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