As the delta variant fuels a surge in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations throughout North Carolina, mask mandates are returning in many parts of the state. Following counties like Orange and Durham, the City of Raleigh reinstated a mask mandate for indoor public spaces last week. A mask mandate for Charlotte and the unincorporated parts of Mecklenburg County goes into effect 5 p.m. Wednesday.

These mandates are a step in the right direction. But the step doesn’t quite meet the moment, and it lacks the assertiveness we need from local governments right now. COVID continues to surge in North Carolina, and as kids head back to school and temperatures turn colder, it’s likely that it will continue to worsen.

City and county officials, however, don’t seem to have a clear plan to ensure that everyone masks up. Instead, they’ll rely primarily on voluntary compliance and expect individual businesses to enforce the mandate among customers. That’s a politically sensible move — few people want police patrolling for mask scofflaws — but it also places an undue burden on businesses and their employees. Cities and counties need to be ready to support businesses by enforcing consequences with civil or criminal penalties such as trespassing for noncompliance.

Enforced or not, mask mandates can work to some degree because they help signal the seriousness of the situation. They helped slow the spread in 2020, but the delta variant is far more infectious, and masks may no longer be the best tool beyond vaccines that we have to fight the virus.

Some U.S. cities, including New York City and New Orleans, have taken a new step by requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining, entertainment and fitness. City inspectors will monitor regularly for compliance. Hefty fines or misdemeanor charges will be imposed on those who don’t follow orders. Businesses and institutions, too, are stepping up and being aggressive about vaccine mandates. A significant number of hospitals and other health care providers will require the vaccine for all employees. Many entertainment venues, including PNC Music Pavilion in Charlotte, will require proof of vaccination or a negative test result for performers, fans and employees beginning this fall. And just this week, the Las Vegas Raiders announced they will require fans to provide proof of vaccination at home games, the first such policy in the NFL.

We’d like to see more of this, especially among school districts and public universities — most N.C. school districts currently don’t even require employees to be vaccinated. But so far, there hasn’t been any discussion about implementing a similar requirement in Charlotte, county officials said at a tense press conference Monday.

“If we need to get to that point, we’ll certainly consider it. We’re going to try a mask mandate to see if we can get our numbers under control,” county manager Dena Diorio said.

Masks are an important part of slowing the spread, but a mandate may not be enough. Things are getting worse, not better, and vaccination rates remain far below the level that’s needed to get the virus under control.

At the very least, vaccine requirements for entry need to be part of the discussion — not only in Mecklenburg County, but in cities and counties across North Carolina. Full FDA approval of the vaccine is likely to come in a matter of weeks. That could be a game changer, giving businesses and public bodies the support they need to require vaccinations. Public officials need to start thinking about next steps, keeping in mind that vaccinations might be the only way we can truly move forward.

Businesses, including hospitals, are already beginning to realize this. It’s time for local governments to consider stepping up and meeting the moment — before the moment gets worse.

Today’s editorial is from The Charlotte Observer. The views are not necessarily those of this newspaper.