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Newton board reinstates mask mandate inside county government buildings
Dr. Little at BOC meeting
Piedmont Newton Chief Medical Officer Dr. Norris Little talks in January 2021 about the Covington hospital's recent experience with COVID-19 with the Newton County Board of Commissioners at the Historic Courthouse in Covington. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton commissioners have reimposed an ordinance that requires masks or face coverings in all county government buildings and parks amid a surge in new cases of COVID-19.

The Newton County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Aug. 3, voted 4-1 to reimpose the ordinance through Dec. 31, 2021.

The board first approved the ordinance in August 2020 but allowed it to expire in recent months as vaccinations began and numbers of new cases dropped earlier this year.

However, new cases in Newton County have risen dramatically in recent weeks — from a seven-day average of three new cases on June 29 to 24 new cases on July 31.

At only a 37% vaccination rate — well below the statewide 46% rate — Newton County appears to be squarely in the path of the Delta variant of the disease which reportedly is more contagious and spreads more rapidly than the original form of COVID-19. Most new COVID cases are among the unvaccinated, officials have said.

County Manager Lloyd Kerr said infection rates are going up in Newton County.

"For the time being, we thought it best to go back to the mask requirement and also to encourage social distancing in all of our buildings that we had in place up until about a couple of months ago,” he said. 

Kerr said commissioners could rescind their action if the numbers of infected Newton Countians go down before Dec. 31.

The ordinance requires the county's 600 or so employees to wear masks when in the public areas of county-owned facilities where they would interact with the public; as well as other county property controlled by the board of commissioners, such as parks.

It also applies to county-owned facilities inside the cities — such as the county administration building and Historic Courthouse — and in unincorporated Newton County. 

It requires anyone age 9 and up to wear masks and face coverings when in the public spaces of any county facilities unless it is a polling place or the Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Judicial Building that is controlled by the Alcovy Judicial Circuit.

County Attorney Megan Martin said the ordinance is the same as the one approved in 2020.

She said the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently gave employers nationwide “guidance” that they can legally mandate their employees to receive vaccinations against COVID.

“We certainly can say you have to wear a mask,” Martin said.

County Chairman Marcello Banes said he believed reimposing the ordinance was "the right thing to do."

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson has pushed for more county government action to educate the public about the need for vaccinations, mask wearing and other safeguards against the disease,

He said he had heard people say they refused to get vaccinated for such reasons as the government using it to “track them.”

“I said, ‘If you’ve got a Social Security number they’re already tracking you,’” he said. “Don’t worry about being tracked. Worry about saving your mother's life, your brothers, your cousins — people that we know and love — from COVID,“ Henderson said.

The ordinance continues to allow exemptions for those who object on the basis of health, ethical reasons or religious beliefs.

Other exemptions include a person who is practicing social distancing of at least six feet from anyone not in the same household, those riding in personal vehicles; if a medical provider has advised against the use of a face covering due to an underlying medical issue; when consuming food or beverages; for identification purposes; providing identity to law enforcement, for purchase of alcohol, tobacco, or prescription drugs; and more.