Facial coverings are now mandatory in Highlands’ business district, both inside businesses and outside along streets and sidewalks, following a motion by the Highlands Board of Commissioners during their meeting on Thursday.
Old Edwards Hospitality Group president and managing director Richard Delaney asked the town to make masks mandatory everywhere in town and thus expand on North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order that made masks mandatory inside businesses and “places where social distancing is not possible.”
“In the first week after the governor’s order, people were complying, maybe somewhere in the 80-90 percent range,” Delaney said. “Now you walk down Main Street or 4th Street and it’s maybe 50 percent at best. The governor’s order is so vague and unenforceable that it gives people any number of reasons to not wear a mask.”
Delaney added that his concerns go beyond the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus itself, and extend into the impacts that Cooper’s “phase two” executive order is having on the economy.
“If people do not comply with the mask requirement, and we don’t get control of this virus, we are going to be stuck in phase two forever and it’s killing our businesses,” Delaney said. “We just started our second restart of phase two, which mandates that restaurants can only operate at 50 percent capacity. At 50 percent, restaurants can’t survive. All over town restaurants are bleeding money, we are bleeding money in our restaurants, and if we don’t get past phase two soon a number of businesses simply won’t survive.”
Upon Delaney’s request, the board immediately took up the mask mandate in B-1 zoned areas and ultimately decided to make face coverings mandatory in the “business district” of Highlands. The board however did not define what the “business district” is or where the boundaries are.
“I don’t think people who are visiting Highlands are going to have any idea what parts of town are zoned B-1 versus B-2 or B-3, so doing it by zoning isn’t going to work,” commissioner John ‘Buz’ Dotson said.
Delaney agreed and noted that he is seeing the non-compliance problem in regards to the state’s mask requirement primarily on Main Street between 3rd Street and 5th Street.
The board decided to exempt the Highlands Rec Park and Kelsey-Hutchinson Founder’s Park from the new rule due to social distancing being possible in those large open areas, which are primarily used for exercising.
Mayor Patrick Taylor noted that the town had placed large signs at the entrances to town and along Main Street that stated masks were mandatory at the beginning of Cooper’s order.
The town was told to remove the signs because the municipality did not have a law on the books regarding wearing masks.
“We were told from powers above to take those signs down because they were not in line with the state executive order,” Taylor said. “By making masks mandatory in Highlands, we can put the signs back in place and let people know that the town itself is requiring masks in the business district.”
Taylor asked Highlands Police Chief Andrea Holland if a mask mandate from the town would be enforceable. Under Cooper’s executive order, it’s up to individual businesses to enforce the mask policy. If a customer does not comply they can be asked to leave. If that customer refuses to wear a mask and refuses to leave they can be cited for trespassing.
Highlands new mask mandate will allow police officers to write citations to people not wearing masks in the “business district.” The board made no mention of what those citations would look like, or the potential fine amount.
“I don’t think we want to have police officers walking up and down Main Street arresting people or handing out tickets,” commissioner Brian Steihler said. “What we want is to be able to put our signs back up and let people know that masks are mandatory in the Town of Highlands.”
Holland told the board that her department has received several calls about people not wearing masks in public places, but under the state’s executive order there were no outlets for enforcement. While the town’s executive order may be more enforceable, the department simply does not have the man power to spend time handing out mask citations.
“There are times when we have two officers on duty, and those officers have to be patrolling the town as a whole, not just Main Street or the business district,” Holland said. “Most of the time we have four or five officers on, so we can patrol the business district, but our officers have other matters that they have to attend to. We can put the signs back out, educate people as to what our requirements are as a town, and then handle calls on a case-by-case basis.”
The motion to approve a change to the town’s state of emergency order, making masks required in the business district, passed unanimously.