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With COVID cases rising, Albemarle brings back indoor mask mandate for city employees, visitors

The city of Albemarle reinstated a mask mandate for all employees and visitors inside public buildings or if they cannot adequately maintain six feet of distance.

The decision, which was announced by City Manager Michael Ferris during Monday’s council meeting and goes into effect Tuesday, comes as many city employees, including 10 firefighters, have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks and growing concerns from the CDC regarding the Delta variant.

Weekly COVID cases have been rapidly increasing in Stanly County over the past month. Just last week, there were 124 cases, a 588 percent increase compared to the first full week of July, when there were 18 cases. There are currently 14 people hospitalized, the highest total since the early spring.

The surge in cases also comes as only 33 percent of Stanly residents are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the state.

“That is something, given this outbreak, that is probably the easiest thing to do,” Ferris said about requiring employees to wear masks.

With all of the many critical services the city provides to residents, “we can’t afford to have outbreaks,” Ferris added.

The council also explored the possibility of looking into whether employees have already been vaccinated. Mayor Pro Tem Martha Sue Hall, who asked for the topic to be put on the agenda, said knowing a person’s vaccination status “may play into effect who needs to be wearing a mask and on what grounds.”

Hall wanted to bring the topic before council after hearing Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement last week that the state government would begin verifying vaccination status of its workers.

Assistant City Manager Nyki Hardy clarified under normal circumstances, HIPPA would prevent employers from asking about their employees’ health information, but there are “some nuances” in public health law, like a medical professional being required to report to the state whenever patients test positive for COVID-19.

Hardy told council that if any kind of vaccination policy was put in place, the City should expect pushback, with employees likely to take legal action.

“The biggest challenge will also be managing this with a workforce in a county with a strong philosophical opposition to getting vaccinated against COVID-19,” Hardy emailed to Hall late last week.

Hardy said the best and most sensible option would be to just stick with the plan to require all employees to wear masks, because it would protect everyone equally — whether they’re vaccinated or not.

Councilwoman Shirley Lowder mentioned bringing in public health officials to educate staff about the benefits of getting vaccinated. The council supported the idea.

While the option of verifying vaccination status of employees is off the table for now, Hardy said the topic could come up again if the metrics continue to worsen.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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