“Personal responsibility is going to have to take place at this point and time.” That was the explanation of Beaufort Commissioner Sharon Harker Monday evening as the town council voted unanimously, rescinding a town ordinance that required the wearing of face masks in all public buildings, to include private businesses that cater to the public. We applaud this decision but at the same time wonder if government is testing the waters to see just how far it can go in controlling the public before there is pushback.
In late August the Beaufort commissioners, concerned with the increased numbers of Covid-19 cases reported by the county’s health department, unanimously passed the mask ordinance without seeking public input or surveying local businesses.
Ms. Harker, a licensed respiratory therapist, expressed support for the ordinance on the apparent understanding that it is the board’s prerogative to determine the actions of private businesses and individuals. “We do have some things in our toolbox that we can use to mitigate the spread (of the virus) and I think it’s responsible for us to look at this. Wearing a mask is one of them, vaccine is another,” she stated in that August meeting.
Ms. Harker and her fellow commissioners failed to consider that the public needs to be on board when it comes to decisions and directives that fall to personal responsibility, such as what to wear or eat. But the implication that enforced vaccination can be dictated by the town commissioners is alarming.
The failed mask policy was compounded not only by a lack of sales effort to bring business owners and the public on board, but also by a lack of conformity within the county. The town board’s unilateral decision was not considered by any other municipality in the county, leaving Beaufort the only town with public restrictions. Considering the discomfort that some shoppers have with face masks, let alone the dictates of government about personal decisions, this ordinance may have turned some shoppers away, hurting both business and town revenues and also creating a negative image for the town.
The heavy handed restrictions caused one visitor to write a letter to the editor explaining that when she and her husband recently visited the town they chose not to enter a retail establishment because of a sign noting “Town Ordinance- Mask Required.”
The fact that other Carteret County towns did not restrict visitation by public ordinance meant that visitors and shoppers had shopping alternatives. Those businesses in the other towns may have requested that shoppers wear masks as is their prerogative, but it is not by government dictate, which is the crux of the problem.
Accusing the town board of “overreaching into my freedom”, the letter writer offered an alternative, noting that she and her husband would have been less threatened by this overreach if the town had required a warning be posted outside of businesses about the impacts of the virus and encouraged mask wearing inside of buildings. “A warning is acceptable- again I am an adult and fully able to make a decision,” the writer explained.
She and her husband did make an adult decision. They chose not to shop in Beaufort but decided on visiting similar stores in other towns in the county.
Now that town businesses and the public have apparently ignored the board’s questionable mask dictate, the five commissioners have likewise made an adult decision and voted unanimously to rescind the ordinance.
Unlike the county school board, which is responsible for and is in control of the facilities attended by public school students and therefore can dictate certain actions such as mask wearing, government agencies are severely limited over what they can dictate to the public on private property. If local governments want to create controls, they are ultimately dependent on the buy-in by those governed for those controls to work.
During the town’s board meeting Commissioner Ann Carter observed that the town was “not getting a great deal of cooperation.” The result, as News-Times reporter Jackie Starkey writes, was a unanimous decision to leave the choice to individuals, where it always belonged.
It’s unfortunate that the board took over a month to understand that their authority and public control is limited. More importantly, they established a scenario that resulted in a dismissal of an ordinance in an off-handed or contemptuous fashion; business owners and the public just ignored the ordinance.
The failed dictates of the mask ordinance undermined the public’s confidence and faith in the board. But it also raises the specter that this board and other governing boards may take it upon themselves to dictate personal decision making in the future. The fact that a board member proposes that vaccination is in a government’s “toolbox” to be used at the discretion of the governing body is ominous. Those are decisions that should be made by the individual, not government.