Lena Griffin went into reconnaissance mode as she cruised the Tractor Supply parking lot Thursday afternoon.

Five masks lay on the seat beside her, in assorted colors and patterns. She glanced at the pile, then at the people heading inside, and wondered: should I mask up?

“I watch the percentages of who is going in with a mask. If everybody is doing it, then I’ll do it. I don’t want to make other people uncomfortable,” Griffin said.

But she doesn’t want to be the only one wearing a mask, either.

“It has created this crazy consciousness where you feel like you can’t do the right thing no matter what,” Griffin said.

The guessing game is over now with a statewide mandate requiring masks in public settings when within six feet of another person. The rule went into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

“At least it takes the pressure off of not knowing what to do,” Griffin said.

The mask mandate was welcome news to Mike Bruijn.

“Everybody better do their part. Not everybody has done their part and that’s why we are in the situation we are in,” said Bruijn, an early adopter of masks since March.

Others aren’t so fond of the rule, however.

“They can’t make a law like that. That’s against the Constitution,” said Willie Brown. “I don’t have a mask and ain’t nobody sent me one. They can put me in jail, I don’t care.”

That won’t happen, however. The state order requiring masks explicitly says local law enforcement aren’t authorized to ticket individuals not wearing masks.

Instead, the onus falls on places of business to enforce it. Those that don’t can be cited. If a customer without a mask refuses to leave when asked, law enforcement can step in by charging them with trespassing.

Get on board the mask train

The mask mandate is aimed at stemming an exponential spike in coronavirus cases. Eager to see life return to normal, public vigilance of social distancing has waned as the economy has reopened, creating a recipe for some of the highest new case counts yet.

To Patrick Johnson, Haywood County public health director, the mask mandate is common sense.

“We all have to start thinking about this like a team. Be part of the team. Just put the dang mask on,” Johnson said. “It’s not making a big sacrifice. There should not be this melodrama around wearing masks.”

For those on the fence about mask wearing, Johnson offered this as an incentive: fall football and school.

“Everyone wants school to start and everyone wants football to start,” Johnson said. “Both of those things are really important to a lot of people.”

Johnson hopes the public will keep their eye on the prize and mask up.

“I think people will start wearing masks to tamp this down,” Johnson said.

Finding masks

The quest for masks is now in full-swing around the county, but knowing where to find them often comes down to word of mouth.

Haywood Pharmacy had been selling blue masks by the box, $40 for a 50 count. After the mask mandate was announced, however, General Manager Andrew Ferguson anticipated demand would spike for single mask sales.

“I went and bought ziplock bags and parted them out for individual sale so people can just buy one — for $1,” Ferguson said.

Sherri Ferguson heard she could get masks at Zoolie’s Natural Food Store in downtown Waynesville and jetted in just before closing time Thursday afternoon to get some for her employees at Gene Ferguson’s Moving Co.

They’ve been wearing them all along, since they go into people’s homes, but given the mandate, she wanted to make sure they had enough on hand in case her movers misplaced theirs.

“I want to comply. I don’t want you to take something home, and I don’t want to take anything home,” she said.

Sherri Ferguson said she has turned down moving jobs for people coming from out-of-state as a precaution to protect her local customers.

“People are really scared,” Ferguson said. “One elderly couple we’re helping has been locked in their house since March. Neighbors bring them groceries and leave them on their porch.”

The mask mandate should ease the fear for those who have been leery of going out in public.

The mask requirement even applies to diners at restaurants when entering the establishment or getting up to go to the bathroom.

“Anytime they are not positioned at their seat, they should be wearing it,” said Toni Raymond, owner of Frog’s Leap Public House in downtown Waynesville.

Even though the rule didn’t go into effect until Friday, Raymond called everyone on the reservation list for a Thursday night wine dinner and told them a mask would be required.

“We don’t want to have to shut down again,” said Raymond, who hopes mask wearing can reverse the state’s spike in cases.

Pro-mask camp

A few doors down, Carol and Jim Caskowski were masking up before heading into the Chef’s Table for dinner.

“They should have been mandatory all along,” said Jim Caskowski. “It is not a political issue. It is a health issue.”

Earlier in the week, Waynesville Alderman Jon Feichter had lamented how lax mask wearing was around town.

“If you go downtown, mask wearing is nominal,” Feichter said. “That’s the thing that frustrates me most. It is the one thing that is absolutely guaranteed to slow down transmission of the virus and get us back to something close to normal.”

Feichter said he has occasionally felt self-conscious wearing a mask and wanted the town to make a stand to help normalize the practice. He appealed to fellow board members at a town meeting Tuesday to formally endorse mask wearing in some way.

“I am not saying we mandate mask wearing,” Feichter said. “But I would like us to do something that says ‘In the town of Waynesville, we strongly encourage wearing masks.’”

Kate Kasun, co-manager of Zoolie’s, said the political polarization over mask wearing has caused unnecessary suffering.

“Our leaders should have shown some leadership, and it would have probably diminished a long time ago,” Kasun said.

Kasun said society is perfectly OK with “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”

“But when it comes to a mask, people raise their arms and say ‘You are taking away my rights,’” Kasun said.

Zoolie’s has been selling colorful cloth masks handmade by Kasun’s sisters and mother — Peggy Jones and Patty and Erin Boyd, owners of Hidden Hollow Designs — in exchange for a $10 donation to Mountain Projects. The masks have raised nearly $3,000 for Mountain Projects so far.

Anti-mask camp

Despite studies showing masks reduce airborne particles being released into the air, Ed Roley thinks the jury is still out.

“There is so much conflicting information about which ones to wear, whether they are effective or not,” he said. Roley believes the mask mandate is government overreach, and Gov. Roy Cooper is abusing state of emergency powers intended for finite periods of time like hurricanes and tornadoes.

“For it to go on like this, it is too long. I think the governor has been out of line for a while,” said Roley, who was part of the driving protest of stay-at-home order in April.

David Almquist agreed.

“I don’t see any conclusive proof that masks are effective,” Almquist said.

Almquist sees masks as nothing more than a placebo effect.

“It is something to ease people’s minds, something they can do to feel like it helps,” Almquist said.

As for the mandate?

“It won’t affect me one way or another. I’m not going to wear a mask,” he said.

Others, however, are willing to go along with the mask mandate even if they don’t believe in it personally.

“If it makes people feel better, then I’ll wear it,” said Wilma Dupro. But despite being well into the at-risk category at the age of 87, she’s not kowtowing to the fear.

“I’m not afraid of it,” Dupro said of the coronavirus.

To Griffin, the flip-flopping of what rules to follow feels like one giant social experiment.

“One week they say ‘We are doing it this way.’ And the next week, they turn it around and say we are going to do it this entirely other way,” Griffin said. “It’s too overwhelming. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and I am going to do everything I can to keep on smiling until it does.”

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