More than 100 people attended the North Carolina Department of Labor’s two public hearings on Tuesday to consider re-implementing masking and social distancing requirements for businesses.

Left-leaning groups filed petitions earlier this month asking the department to implement a string of measures that would “prevent the spread of airborne infectious diseases” in the workplace during any declared public health emergency. Under North Carolina general statute 150B-20, any member of the public can petition a state agency to adopt a permanent rule, and the Labor Department accepted the petition for consideration. 

North Carolinians spoke at the hearings virtually and in person, with the vast majority of public testimony condemning the ‘egregious overreach of government’ that would be ‘detrimental to businesses.’ 

The morning hearing focused on the first request, which seeks to enact health regulations on agricultural employers and migrant housing operators. Just 13 people spoke and the testimony was nearly split for and against the petitioned migrant housing rules.

The afternoon testimony focused on business mandates, which exceeded the two-hour time allotted to the meeting by nearly 30 minutes. Of the 53 people who gave public comments, 47 spoke against the petitioned occupational safety and health rules, while six spoke in favor of health regulations.

The second petition would require businesses in North Carolina to adhere to specific health requirements if the governor, general assembly, or federal health agencies declare a health emergency. The proposed rules include masking and social distancing, creating an exposure control plan, training employees on infectious diseases, temporarily removing infected employees from the workplace, maintaining a log of positive cases, and reporting fatalities and hospitalizations. 

Many called the possible rules ‘unscientific’ and noted data and studies to back their arguments.

“If there’s one thing we learned during COVID it’s that government intrusion has negative consequences on the private industry,” commented Rep. Jon Hardister, R-59. “If enacted, these mandates would do harm to our status as a business-friendly state, resulting in less job creation and higher costs on the consumer. We must work to uphold personal freedom and oppose intrusive mandates on the private sector. For these reasons and more, I urge the labor commissioner to reject this petition.”

Many speakers who openly objected to government health regulations are in the healthcare industry, including registered nurses, physicians, a dentist, an epidemiologist, and a professor at NC State. 

“The idea that masks are a major way to prevent infection has more holes in it than a cloth mask,” testified Kim Rumsey, a registered nurse of 17 years who worked at the bedside at a major local teaching hospital throughout the pandemic. “We are sovereign, autonomous individuals who can make and assess our own risk and benefit of masking or not. This should not be mandated at the oversight of an employer.”

Several speakers mentioned Dr. Fauci’s recent acknowledgment that social distancing had no scientific support. As the former director of the National Institute of Health and Infectious Diseases, Fauci testified during a recent House Select Subcommittee hearing that the six feet-distancing recommendation ‘sort of just appeared.’

“These proposed rules are scientifically bankrupt and reflect poorly on the CDC and WHO, or whoever else wants to enforce them,” commented Dr. Tracey Taylor. She explained that mask mandates in the workplace are very unlikely to slow the spread of respiratory viruses, both at work and across the community. 

Proponent testimony dismissed arguments that masks are ineffective and keyed on minority groups. One proponent in favor of the health mandates said that the burden is placed on individual workers when public health precautions are not put in place. Emily Price, a resident of Durham County, compared masking to washing one’s hands in the workplace or masking during a surgical procedure. 

“I’d really like to advocate in favor of implementation of effective measures,” said Price. “When everyone wears a mask, and when everyone wears a high-quality mask, masking works. It is true that surgical masks are not effective. But when everyone wears an N95 – and it’s required – infections go down dramatically.”

As many outraged speakers took to the stand, Jill Cramer, the general counsel for the Labor Department, clarified that the petitions “were submitted by public advocacy groups. They are not a product of the North Carolina Department of Labor or the Commissioner of Labor.”

Cramer explained that after the public comment period closes on March 4, the agency may take one of three steps:

  1. Accept the rule or rules in their current state; prepare a fiscal note for the rule(s); and continue with the rulemaking process.
  2. Revise the rules; prepare a fiscal note; reissue a Notice of Text; and hold another public hearing; and accept public comments.
  3. Take no action on the rules.