The Charlotte Observer

Local religious leaders react to new Mecklenbur­g mask mandate

- BY ALISON KUZNITZ AND WILL WRIGHT akuznitz@charlotteo­bserver.com wwright@charlotteo­bserver.com

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, followWors­hipers ing a contentiou­s vote Wednesday night from Mecklenbur­g County commission­ers. How institutio­ns will respond to the new mandate will vary.

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 make 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.

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 RodriguezM­cDowell, 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 voted on for a final approval on Sept. 21. After that, the county will post the new ordinance in the newspaper for 10 days. When those 10 days are up, the updated ordinance will be in effect.

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.”

 ?? MELISSA MELVIN-RODRIGUEZ mrodriguez@charlotteo­bserver.com ?? Men attend the sunset prayer at the Islamic Center of Charlotte on Thursday in Charlotte. Since the start of the pandemic, the center has followed coronaviru­s recommenda­tions from the CDC, including encouragin­g masks and social distancing.
MELISSA MELVIN-RODRIGUEZ mrodriguez@charlotteo­bserver.com Men attend the sunset prayer at the Islamic Center of Charlotte on Thursday in Charlotte. Since the start of the pandemic, the center has followed coronaviru­s recommenda­tions from the CDC, including encouragin­g masks and social distancing.

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