Even if things are still tense after the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils during Coach K’s final home game this weekend, the counties where UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University respectively reside can come together on one thing: The need for indoor masking is officially over. 

As of Monday, March 7, two of the state’s most left-leaning and COVID-cautious counties — Durham and Orange — no longer require masks in indoor environments. For school students, Orange County schools go mask optional in Tuesday, March 8, while Durham County Schools say they will continue requiring students to be masked.

In a Feb. 28 statement, Durham city and county officials announced they would be removing the indoor mandates. The move followed Durham Public Health director Rod Jenkins’ announcement earlier that night at Durham County Commissioners’ Board meeting.

“This continues to be a fluid situation,” Jenkins said, “We will continue to monitor the data on case counts after the mandate is dropped. Also, if a new variant arises, it may be possible that we’ll need to take more aggressive action, including reinstating the mask mandate.”

The statement quoted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that showed Durham “continuing to trend downward, falling within the CDC’s newly issued guideline of fewer than 200 in-patient hospital beds.”

The latest numbers from the state health department show positive cases falling below 4%.

Commission Chair Brenda Howerton said, “It was important for the city and the county to continue to follow the science and rely on our experts to make the appropriate recommendation for the public’s safety.” 

Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal asked people to show “kindness during this time of transition,” as not everyone will be prepared to drop the masks.

Orange County — home of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough — also became mask-optional Monday. Their statement, which came only two days after the announcement from their neighbor to the east, said, “Orange County will no longer require masks in public, indoor spaces if key COVID-19 metrics continue to reach medium and low community levels.”

Like Durham, the statement went into the latest CDC data and said if those numbers change, they “reserve the right to amend the mask mandate to again require masks in public, indoor spaces.”

“I appreciate everything community members and businesses have done to lower the spread of COVID-19 in Orange County. These efforts have saved lives,” said Renée Price, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. “We ask everyone to respect the decisions made by individuals who continue to wear masks, as well as the rules instituted at businesses, health care facilities and service providers.”

Local businesses reacted by either announcing they would follow the county in making masks optional within their establishments or by maintaining their current mask requirements. 

Orange County Sportsplex, a large athletic and fitness club off Interstate 40, chose to go mask-optional, saying, “In alignment with the amendment to the Orange County mask mandate, the Orange County Sportsplex will no longer require masks to be worn effective Monday, March 7th, 2022. Wearing masks while at the Sportsplex and while participating in Sportsplex activities will be optional.”

A couple miles away, a “nonviolent martial arts” dojo called Open Sky Aikikai said it would continue to keep the mask mandates until the CDC data reached a level they felt safer with, adding that this “will therefore last longer than Orange County requirements.”

Open Sky represents the more progressive side of Orange County’s population — with policies such as imposing a sliding scale in their membership dues based on race and gender, having both bathrooms open to all genders, and banning the unvaccinated and those who don’t agree with their pro-Black Lives Matter stance. The Sportsplex serves a wider population, including the more conservative elements in rural northern Orange County, many of whom are more than ready to unmask during their next workout.