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NC strengthens mask mandate order. But CMPD will still cite people only as last resort

Hannah Smoot, Alison Kuznitz
·3 min read

Although Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday increased rules and penalties over the statewide mask mandate to combat coronavirus, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said it will continue its policy of issuing citations only as a last resort.

That means Charlotte residents likely will not see much of an immediate risk for a criminal citation over failure to wear a mask.

The new executive order from the governor will, for the first time, explicitly give law enforcement officers the ability to directly cite people who fail to wear masks. The order is a significant departure from previous COVID-19 regulations that favored education over punitive action.

But in a statement to the Observer, CMPD indicated it will maintain the status quo seen throughout the pandemic.

Cooper gave North Carolinians a “stark warning” Monday afternoon, announcing the new order that adds further mask-wearing requirements to existing state orders. The governor also lauded tough measures in Greensboro, which include a series of warnings for businesses that violate COVID-19 rules — followed by citations, temporary closures and hefty fines.

“We are in danger,” Cooper said in a news conference. “This is a pivotal moment in our fight against the coronavirus. Our actions now will determine the fate of many.”

The new state mask mandate will go into effect Wednesday at 5 p.m., ahead of Thanksgiving and Black Friday gatherings.

County officials have urged residents to stay home and avoid crowds ahead of the holidays, as Mecklenburg’s key coronavirus trends worsen. Officials worry large crowds over Thanksgiving and Black Friday could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases, even as Mecklenburg recorded its largest single-day increase of COVID-19 cases days before Thanksgiving.

CMPD spokesman Thomas Hildebrand said the department will continue to manage COVID-19 complaints on a case-by-case basis and will continue to focus first on education, rather than enforcement.

Charlotte CMPD Chief of Police Johnny Jennings speaks during a press conference in October. CMPD says it will only resort to issuing citations for mask mandate noncompliance as a “last-measure.”
Charlotte CMPD Chief of Police Johnny Jennings speaks during a press conference in October. CMPD says it will only resort to issuing citations for mask mandate noncompliance as a “last-measure.”

“Every complaint is vetted for an appropriate response,” Hildebrand stated. “The CMPD will continue to work to reach voluntary cooperation with each member of the community through education and conversations, only resorting to citations as a last measure.”

Still, CMPD has already cited a slew of businesses, particularly gambling arcades that reopened prematurely.

Other establishments have been cited for alcohol violations, with Mecklenburg County and the governor imposing late-night curfews to clamp down on risky behaviors that could lead to more coronavirus cases. In August, CMPD issued a nearly identical statement, advocating for voluntary compliance in the community and opting to use citations as a last measure.

Dory MacMillan, press secretary for the governor’s office, said Cooper appreciates “businesses and local law enforcement who are enforcing executive orders to keep people safe.”

“While action from state officials and local law enforcement is sometimes necessary, these measures are most effective when people work together to prevent the spread of this deadly virus,” MacMillan said in a statement to the Observer.

Changes to mask mandate

Cooper’s new mandate removes an exception to mask requirements for people who are “strenuously exercising.” People must wear a mask while exercising if they are indoors and not in their own home, or outdoors and within six feet of someone who does not live with them.

Cooper’s order also removes the rule asking North Carolinians to abide by the “honor system” in deciding whether mask-wearing exceptions apply to them.

The new rule also requires customers at restaurants to wear masks — even while seated at a table — unless they are actively drinking or eating. The previous mandate allowed guests at restaurants to remove masks while seated.

The order also explicitly outlines that all workers, teachers and children 5 and older must wear masks at schools, both indoors and within six feet of another person outdoors.

Violations of the new mask mandate can be punishable as a Class 2 misdemeanor, according to the executive order. The maximum penalty for a Class 2 misdemeanor is $1,000 and up to 30 or 60 days in jail, depending on prior convictions.