Health officials in one of North Carolina’s most populous counties abruptly lifted an indoor mask mandate on Friday after members of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys showed up for a vote on the matter, just days after vowing to “ramp up pressure” on authorities there.
The group—whose members identified themselves as the “Cape Fear Proud Boys”—showed up clad in their trademark black-and-yellow outfits for a contentious Friday morning vote by the New Hanover County Health and Human Services board on a local mask mandate. Local health officials had been bracing for potential unrest as they considered whether or not to extend the indoor mask mandate through at least the end of the year into January.
But rather than voting on an extension, the mandate was repealed effective immediately at Friday’s meeting, where officials voted 8-4 to overturn it. Julia Olson-Boseman, the chairwoman for the board of commissioners and health board member who proposed a vote on striking down the rule, said in a statement that it “was time” to roll back the measure even as she admitted that the “pandemic is not over.”
According to the Wilmington-area news site Port City Daily, at least 10 Proud Boys members were among a throng of attendees who turned out to protest the public health measure ahead of the vote.
One member of the group who identified himself as Johnny Ringo, urged the board to end mask requirements for kids, insisting that masks were “child abuse.”
“These masks contain nasal discharge, germs, lunch, whatever they touched in school and whatever unfortunate incident happened in the bathroom,” he said Friday. “It is child abuse.”
He then called on the crowd to chant the Pledge of Allegiance, according to a video of the meeting released by the county.
“I’m sorry you’re not proud of this country,” he said, addressing the board. “Because we are.”
In comments to Port City Daily earlier this week, local Proud Boys warned that it was time to “ramp up pressure” on officials to drop the mask mandate.
On Friday, the group applauded community members who railed against masks during the meeting’s public comment section, and footage appeared to capture deputies escorting at least four audience members out of the boisterous meeting, CBS17 reported.
One of the audience members removed from the meeting can be heard shouting: “We don’t need you. We don’t need you to take care of us. We can do that ourselves.”
Mask opponents in the audience at one point called the county’s public health director David Howard a “liar.”
Deputies from the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office had closely monitored the meeting in light of angry outbursts that have caused security concerns in recent months as the board mulled masking and pandemic-related health measures.
Friday’s meeting wasn’t the first time members of the white nationalist group made a show of force at a county-level meeting. Earlier this week, at least five members of the group dropped in on a school board meeting that had gathered for its monthly vote to decide whether to require masking in schools.
At that meeting, Proud Boys in attendance were similarly decked out in black and yellow shirts and neck gaiters with the group’s initials, Port City Daily reported, noting that at least one member was also wearing a tactical vest to the meeting.
Explaining the group’s presence in black and yellow costume earlier this week, one member told the outlet: “If our presence escalates that pressure and makes it to the point where we become a distraction to conducting business and they just change the mask mandate so we go away, that’s a win.”
School board members that night opted to delay a decision ahead of the health board’s Friday meeting.
According to Port City Daily, the Proud Boys in attendance stood and clapped following the vote that rescinded the mask requirement, which had been in place since August.
The vote comes as reported cases of coronavirus appear to have slowed— at least temporarily.
In weighing their decision, county officials said that the county’s percent positivity rate was “below threshold” standing at 2.7 percent over a two-week period, with a total of 203 cases reported during that period.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that “unvaccinated people in New Hanover County, North Carolina should wear a mask in public, indoor settings,” according to its website, noting a vaccination rate of the county’s eligible population that hits just below 64 percent.
CDC data also shows that statewide transmission was “substantial” over a seven-day period concluding on Friday, that reflects a percentage positivity rate between 5 and 7.9 percent in North Carolina.
Some local health officials have been wary about lifting mask requirements prematurely even as larger spikes that hit the state in August and September appear to have diminished. Those officials fear overwhelming hospitals in case of a future surge.
“When we had our first surge, our health care system was overburdened,” said board member Virginia Adams, who voted against rescinding the mandate. “So my fear would be if we start to lift the mask mandate at this time we are setting ourselves up for that kind of surge.”
She was joined by board chair LeShonda Wallace and board members Kara Duffy and Frankie Roberts in voting against the motion to overturn the mandate.
Olson-Boseman, who joined virtually, had proposed that the mandate be “lifted immediately,” which garnered the 8-4 vote, knocking down the requirement.
“It was time to lift the mandate, while still encouraging the community to make good decisions on when and where to wear a mask,” Olson-Boseman said in a statement, announcing the change and cautioning that the “pandemic is not over.”