Charlotte mask rule change for worship, religious exemption | Charlotte Observer

Coronavirus

Here’s what local religious leaders say about new Mecklenburg mask mandate

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. County officials previously said it would take longer for changes to the mask mandate to go in effect. On Friday, officials said the changes will take effect on Sept. 22.

Worshipers in religious settings across Charlotte might soon need to don mask indoors — if they aren’t already.

Mecklenburg County’s recently reinstated mask mandate already applied to most indoor spaces, including private businesses and schools.

The mandate, adopted to slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, went into effect Aug. 31 with few exceptions but included a religious exemption.

That exemption is on the verge of being scrapped, following a contentious vote Wednesday night from Mecklenburg County commissioners. How institutions will respond to the new mandate will vary.

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At the Islamic Center of Charlotte, the mandate has little technical impact, said spokesman Jibril Hough. Since the start of the pandemic, the center has followed coronavirus recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including encouraging masks and social distancing.

Still, Hough said, this latest local regulation “doesn’t sit well even though we’re sensible people.”

“Personally, I’m uncomfortable with government mandating how we should address our religious rituals, how we should dress and and how we should mask ourselves,” Hough told the Observer Thursday.

“That part should be left with us,” Hough added. “We’ve been doing a pretty good job policing ourselves. I don’t believe this is going to make any of us safer.”

The Islamic Center of Charlotte will respect the mandate, but Hough said he wished he understood the motivation behind it. Hough said he was not consulted by Mecklenburg officials before or after the vote.

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Latest mask rules

County commissioners on Wednesday intended to clarify confusion over whether private schools were subject to the mandate. But then other changes were made.

County Commissioner Leigh Altman proposed an amendment to remove the religious exemption, which previously allowed churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship to not require masks.

In a 5-4 vote, the commissioners approved Altman’s change. Commissioners Altman, Mark Jerrell, Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, Laura Meier and Ella Scarborough voted yes, while Vilma Leake, Elaine Powell, Pat Cotham and George Dunlap voted no.

Mecklenburg Public Health Director Gibbie Harris has said the current mask mandate in effect applies to schools, including private and religious education institutions.

An updated proclamation — with the school clarification and the nixing of the religious exemption — will be published on Sunday and will go into effect Sept. 22, according to the health department.

Based on the trajectory of coronavirus cases, plus a possible post-Labor Day spike, Mecklenburg’s mask mandate could be in effect for months. Health officials say masking rules can be loosened once the COVID-19 positivity rate drops to 5% for 30 days.

‘Need to be good citizens’

James Howell, the senior pastor at Myers Park United Methodist Church, said his church switched from two services with mandatory masks and two services with optional mask-wearing to a complete mandate when the delta variant picked up steam and started causing a spike in cases in North Carolina.

The church makes its policies based on the advice of seven doctors who work on COVID-19 issues in the area, he said.

We’re a church but we’re part of a society, and we need to be good citizens in that society,” Howell said. “We’re not smarter than anyone else out there, and we’re not immune to disease more than other people out there.”

On the subject of religious freedom, Howell pointed out that religious people must “abide by all kinds of laws on their way to church” and on their way home, and that requiring masks for reasons of public safety seemed no more unusual.

Without an exception for religious institutions, the county’s mask mandate will have few remaining exemptions. Some that will remain are children under the age of 5, people who are communicating with someone who is hearing impaired, and people who are giving a speech or performance while maintaining a distance of at least 20 feet from the audience.

Other areas have already required masks at religious institutions by not including an exemption for worship services. Orange County reinstated its mask mandate last month and did not include a religious exemption.

Todd McGee, a spokesperson for the county government, said there has been no legal pushback since the rule went into effect.

‘Preservation of life’

Synagogues in Charlotte already this week navigated a slew of coronavirus precautions to keep congregants safe for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

Masks have long offered an important layer of protection at Beth El, the largest synagogue in the Carolinas.

But Rabbi Asher Knight said social distancing and vaccine attestations among eligible congregants are also critical throughout the High Holy Days, which includes Yom Kippur next week. Beth El operated at 25% capacity for in-person Rosh Hashanah services, with thousands of people opting to attend virtually.

”In Judaism, everything is about the preservation of life,” Knight said. “Our intention has always been to craft a plan where everyone who’s attending in person can be as safe as possible. Everything that we have done is about supporting our members in the spiritual season.”

Knight and other Beth El clergy were tested for COVID-19 multiple times before and during Rosh Hashanah.

Some choir performances were pre-recorded as a safety precaution. And even the shofar — a ram’s horn blown to celebrate the new year — wore a mask, made out of coffee filters and rubber bands.

Even without Mecklenburg’s latest mask mandate, Knight said, he’s seen the majority of Charlotte faith institutions take the pandemic seriously.

“There’s a really challenging tension that exists for all houses of worship,” Knight said. “We’re built on a desire to be together, to worship and create community and have that be in a proximate relationship.”

This story was originally published September 10, 2021 6:00 AM.

Will Wright covers politics in Charlotte and North Carolina. He previously covered eastern Kentucky for the Lexington Herald-Leader, and worked as a reporting fellow at The New York Times.
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