UPDATE: County amends State of Emergency proclamation

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New provisions establish a curfew and place restrictions on lodging, travel and mass gatherings beginning at 5 p.m. Sunday, April 5

  • State of Emergency
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BAKERSVILLE – The Mitchell County Board of Commissioners met in special session Thursday, April 2, to amend the State of Emergency proclamation initially adopted Monday, March 16, to include more restrictions on lodging, travel and mass gatherings as well as establish a countywide curfew in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, of which there are now two confirmed cases in Mitchell County.

The lodging amendment calls for all lodging facilities that are not COVID-19 essential businesses to close by 6 p.m. Monday, April 5, except for “minimum basic operations” as allowed by Gov. Cooper’s state of emergency proclamation.

Lodging facilities included in the amended proclamation include, but are not limited to, hotels, motels, resorts, inns, guest houses, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, RV parks, vacation cabins, all rentals by Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and other rental programs and all lodging or home rentals less than one month in duration.

The lodging amendment does allow for Toe River Health District Director Diane Creek to authorize a facility’s reopening if it is needed as an emergency facility to assist with COVID-19 response.

“This ordinance, in some ways, modifies, actually, it increases the effect of Gov. Cooper’s proclamation,” said Lloyd Hise, Mitchell County attorney. “After talking with the county's health director, she felt lodging restrictions are needed to keep people from having a reason to travel. If you don’t have any place to stay, you don’t have much reason to travel.

There have been some suggestions to limit people from coming in the county from out of county or out of state, but Hise said there is a problem with implementing such a measure.

"There's an amendment to the Constitution called the 14th Amendment about due process and all citizens having rights in every state,” Hise said. “I sort of felt like, since we all swore to defend our Constitution, we ought not deliberately violate it.”

Hise said to treat everyone the same, the best thing to do is shut down all lodging facilities.

“That way, no one can claim they got discriminated against, but they all may say they got treated badly,” Hise said. “We have some discretion on essential businesses, and this ordinance determines lodging is not essential in Mitchell County. We don't have much of it, and it is certainly not one of our big revenue producers.”

Travel restrictions implemented as a result of the amendments include all county residents and non-residents arriving in the county for an overnight stay after being out of the county for more than 48 hours are asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. If the person arriving in the county is showing any symptoms of COVID-19, he or she is asked to report to the Mitchell County Health Department or healthcare provider his or her place of residence, the date of arrival and location of out-of-county stay, and the nature and duration of his or her symptoms. Failure to report the presence of symptoms is a violation of the county’s state of emergency proclamation and is punishable by a minimum fine of $50.

“I don’t think we can compel self-quarantine just because they showed up,” Hise said. “But we can recommend it.”

If a person reports symptoms and the health director deems it to be a concern, she can convert the voluntary self-quarantine to a mandatory quarantine.

“If you've come here, and you have symptoms, and you don't report it, you are in violation of this ordinance, and you can be cited for that,” Hise said.

The proclamation was also amended to limit mass gatherings to no more than five people in a single room or space at the same time, excluding operations of retail businesses classified as essential businesses, medical facilities, necessary government operations, emergency operations and public transportation vehicles.

“This is quite different from the state's approach because the state limits gatherings to 10 people and they are describing gatherings inside confinement,” Hise said. “Our problem is more public gatherings in parking lots and that sort of thing from what I understand. This ordinance limits any gathering in any place, open or closed, to no more than five people.”

Family gatherings by closely related relatives in the private dwelling of one of the attending family members are also exempt from the mass gatherings amendment. Funerals and church services are not regulated as mass gatherings in the amended proclamation. Still, the proclamation does ask all mass gatherings, including those called by public bodies, to observe the six-foot social distancing requirement even if limiting public attendance is necessary to do so.

“If a family wants to have Easter sunrise Service at home, we can’t do and won’t do anything about that,” Hise said. “But they have to be home and be in the dwelling not to be a mass gathering.”

The proclamation was also amended to include a stay-at-home or place-of-residence curfew between the hours of 10 p.m.-5:30 a.m. except by employees of essential businesses who are required to be at their places of employment during some or all hours of the curfew, travel to obtain emergency medical treatment for yourself or your passenger and while at the location of the medical provider, and all law enforcement and emergency response personnel, including firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

“People need to understand we are not telling them they can’t go to work at Baxter and drive home at midnight,” said Jacob Willis, chair of the board of commissioners. 

Outdoor mass gatherings during curfew hours are also a violation of the provisions in the amended state of emergency proclamation. An outdoor mass gathering during curfew hours of more than five people violates both the mass gatherings and curfew amendments to the proclamation.

“If it's 10:30 at night and more than five people are in a parking lot together, then they are violating both the mass gatherings and curfew provisions,” Hise said.

The county’s amended proclamation will be implemented in conjunction with the state of emergency proclaimed by Gov. Cooper, which applies to all of Mitchell County. 

Where the county’s amended proclamation imposes restrictions not imposed by the North Carolina State of Emergency, the restrictions imposed by the county will be enforced within Mitchell County. The county’s proclamation does not repeal or reduce restrictions, prohibitions or requirements imposed by the North Carolina state of emergency declaration.

Violating the provisions outlined in the county's amended state of emergency proclamation is a crime, and the county establishes a maximum fine for violation of the ordinance at $500, the most allowed by law. Hise said the amount of the fine is ultimately up to the judge, and money collected from fines goes to the school district by state law.

“The sheriff’s office can use common sense with determining whether someone is breaking curfew,” said Matthew “Vern” Grindstaff, vice chair of the board of commissioners. “They are the enforcers. None of us take any pleasure in doing this, but we have to do what we have to do. What we need is for parents to understand we are taking this very seriously because it is very serious. If this is enforced, parents are going to have to ante up and pay the fine.”

The amended county state of emergency is in effect until further notice.

“I spoke to a healthcare provider who said the county can’t take enough measures right now because of the seriousness of where this is headed,” Grindstaff said. “I personally take that seriously, and I think this is very important. The truth is, if someone is going to violate this, they are going to violate it. But, God forbid, if they get someone in their family sick, they are going to have to live with that.”

Commissioner Jeff Harding agreed with Grindstaff, adding no one prefers implementing such measures.

“I know the concern has been that people are going to be offended or they feel like the government is trying to tell them what to do,” Harding said. “At the end of the day, we are trying to warn them and get them to take this seriously. We don't want anyone to get sick, and we sure don't want anyone to die.”

The board of commissioners will meet briefly in regular session at 5:30 p.m. Monday, April 6, in the EDC room at the County Administration building in Bakersville.

Note: This meeting took place in the EDC boardroom at the County Administration building to allow for adherence to the recommended six-foot social distancing guidelines.