Judge grants temporary restraining order against NC stock car speedway

ALTAMAHAW, N.C. — A judge has granted a temporary restraining order against a North Carolina stock car speedway Thursday after a request from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Officials said there will be no races at the Ace Speedway in Alamance County until they have another hearing, which will be held a week from Friday at 9:30 a.m.

Ace Speedway said private track rentals can be scheduled by appointment to help maintain 25 people or less.

Gov. Roy Cooper ordered Ace Speedway to close immediately Tuesday, saying it is “an imminent hazard for the spread of COVID-19.”

This comes after Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson said he would not cite ACE Speedway for violating the state’s prohibition against mass gatherings.

Cooper’s executive order caps most outdoor meetings to 25 people and local media outlets have reported crowds at the speedway exceeding 2,000, including Saturday when a race dubbed itself a “protest."

Johnson said he has reservations about the order’s legality.

Cooper and North Carolina DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said in an abatement order issued to the speedway on Tuesday that the racetrack could reopen if it presents a plan showing it will follow state guidelines.

In addition, the plan must be approved by the NCDHHS for the speedway to reopen.

The new order follows a letter sent last week by Cooper’s office alerting ACE Speedway that their actions were in “open defiance” of Executive Order No. 141, which limits mass gatherings. It was reported the Speedway admitted more than 2,500 -- and possibly as many as 4,000 -- spectators to attend races held at the track on May 23, May 30 and June 6.

The next race is scheduled for Friday, June 19.

Health officials urged anyone who attended a mass event, such as a race at the ACE Speedway, to get tested for coronavirus.

“Across the state, North Carolinians are making huge sacrifices to protect their families and neighbors. This virus is highly contagious and very dangerous. Bad actors who flagrantly violate public health orders put all of our families and loved ones at risk,” said Cohen.

On Tuesday, the sheriff responded, saying he asked for clarification when the executive order mentioned certain activities being exempt, and the governor’s office did not respond.

“It puts me in a heck of a position as a sheriff, and any sheriff in this state, to try to write a citation to enforce the governor’s order when in fact it’s a constitutional violation in my opinion and the other sheriffs in this state,” Johnson said. “The governor stepped up and issued an order of abatement of imminent hazard, which he could have done in the very beginning, and none of this would have been going on.”

Johnson said his original concern with being asked to issue ACE Speedway a citation was that it violated the first amendment of the Constitution.

“In his orders, he talked about the following are exempt: churches, weddings…and he stated other activities, which is covered under the first amendment,” Johnson said. “Paying to go see a race and be with your family is certainly a first amendment right. And with that order, I had a problem going and serving those citations.”

Johnson said a chief deputy and a major were sent to the speedway on Saturday and saw crowds with signs calling for unity.

“That puts it in a different light, too. They have a right to protest. Some people say, ‘Well, they paid money. Nobody else had to pay money.’ You have a right if you want to pay money and go in,” Johnson said.

He said he wants to work with Cooper but he needs to be convinced that officials aren’t violating the rights of North Carolinians.

“I am concerned about the coronavirus and my citizens, but our Constitution was developed by our forefathers to govern the way law enforcement and everything else works in our society, and I hold that dear to my heart…let’s be level across the board,” Johnson said.