Isle of Wight mask mandate to begin Aug. 23

Published 7:00 pm Friday, August 20, 2021

Starting Aug. 23, Isle of Wight County employees and visitors who enter government buildings will be required to wear face masks when indoors — even if they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The new policy, which Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors approved by consensus Aug. 19, aligns with guidance the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued in late July in light of a resurgence of the disease fueled by the more contagious delta variant.

The CDC guidance applies to Americans living in places with “substantial” or “high” transmission rates, which includes Isle of Wight. The county is currently in the “high” category, reserved for localities reporting 100 or more cases per 100,000 residents or a positivity rate of 10% or higher.

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“We regret having to do that but since we’re in a high transmission rate we feel it would be imprudent to go against the CDC and also go against what we see happening in the community,” said County Administrator Randy Keaton.

Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees. Anyone who remains unvaccinated will be required to undergo weekly testing. Northam encouraged localities to enact similar mandates for their employees.

Six Hampton Roads cities, including Suffolk, have done so, Keaton said. Some department heads and constitutional officers in Isle of Wight County also expressed support for such a mandate at what Keaton termed a “very robust discussion” the day before the Board meeting. But when he proposed the idea to the Board of Supervisors, he met resistance.

“I do not support mandatory vaccinations or the use of testing as a method or a tool of persuasion,” said Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree.

Newport District Supervisor William McCarty compared the idea to mandating what employees may eat based on their body mass index or forcing diabetic employees to undergo blood sugar checks.

“At what point will mandates stop?” McCarty asked. “At what point do we stop reaching into anybody’s ability to make choices rather than strong-arming things?”

Supervisors Rudolph Jefferson of the Hardy District and Don Rosie of the Carrsville District, however, didn’t see a problem with giving employees the choice of a vaccine or weekly testing.

“We’re not trying to mandate anything that’s going to try to take somebody’s rights away,” Jefferson said. “What we’re trying to do is protect the county workforce, protect the citizens, protect me, protect you, protect everybody that might come into contact with you.”

“We do have a pandemic going on,” Rosie acknowledged. “At the same time, I support personal decisions, personal rights, but I also think we need to consider the welfare of one another over ourselves at times.”

He acknowledged that while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines, it has not yet issued formal approval, though some media outlets are reporting full approval of the Pfizer shot could come as early as Aug. 23.

“Right now, we know that statistically, those that are not vaccinated are more subject to get [COVID-19] and more severely,” Rosie said. “Taking these things into consideration, I don’t support mandated vaccination … but at the same time I would want to support the testing to protect others.”

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice said he opposed “at this particular time” any employee of the county who isn’t vaccinated having to pay the $160 per test Isle of Wight was recently quoted by Velocity Urgent Care, but said he would support the idea if the county could get a lower price. He also suggested that once the vaccines receive full FDA approval, he would support the county passing along at least some of the cost to employees who choose to remain unvaccinated.

The Board plans to revisit the issue at a future meeting and has directed county staff to spell out that, for now, the testing ultimatum for the unvaccinated will be at the county’s expense and, if a positive test later turns out to be false, that the employee does not lose his or her paid sick days or vacation time for the days he or she had to quarantine.