Cooper: Gaston County’s order creates ‘confusion’ during public health emergency

Cooper: Gaston County's order creates 'confusion' during public health emergency

GASTONIA, N.C. — Gaston County has issued a “clarification” of its so-called back-to-work order stating that Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide stay-at-home order remains in effect.

On Wednesday morning, County Commission Chair Tracy Philbeck said the county was ending its own stay-at-home order. Restaurants and other businesses thought they’d be able to open on Thursday, but the Gaston County Police Department is still enforcing the state’s stay-at-home order.

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The governor’s office issued its own statement, calling Gaston County’s action “dangerous” and that it creates “confusion during a public health emergency.”

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“This order’s only effect is to create confusion during a public health emergency, which is dangerous,” according to a statement from the governor’s office. “The Gaston County order itself says that the statewide Stay At Home order remains in effect, and state leaders urge people to continue following it.”

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GASTON COUNTY CLARIFIES STANCE ON EXECUTIVE ORDER

Gov. Cooper’s staff has rightly pointed out today that in response to Gaston County’s new order, taking effect at 5 p.m. today, it acknowledges that the state order supersedes our own.

From paragraph 2 of today’s signed order:

“WHILE CLARIFYING THAT GASTON COUNTY RESIDENTS AND BUSINESSES ARE STILL SUBJECT AND RESTRICTED BY ANY AND ALL OF THE GOVERNOR'S EXECUTIVE ORDERS UNLESS AND UNTIL THEY EXPIRE OR ARE OTHERWISE REPLACED, RESCINDED, OR ELIMINATED.”

From a function standpoint, Gaston County Government will continue to follow all state laws, including Gov. Cooper’s executive order. At no point would county leadership ask its staff or county residents to break the law.

In all of this, Gaston County’s Board of Commissioners want to make clear its support for the residents of our county to get back to work.

“In spite of the Governor’s order, we support and will stand with those that want to open their businesses and go to work,” Chairman Tracy Philbeck said.

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The manager at the Azteca in Gastonia was planning to reopen the dining room but changed course after a call from the health department.

“We (were) very confused,” Alfredo Culebro said. “We heard in the morning, you can reopen at 5 p.m., so I was waiting to open until tomorrow and was getting my staff ready.”

Gaston County leaders backtracked from statements made by Philbeck that his order to be signed and to take effect Wednesday would allow some Gaston County businesses to re-open.

Mayors in Gaston County issued a joint statement, which said everyone needs to follow the governor’s order.

The statewide stay-at-home order issued by Cooper remains enforceable across the state, including Gaston County, said state and county officials.

Philbeck said Wednesday morning he would sign an order that will put Gaston County businesses back to work starting at 5 p.m.

“We’re letting our folks know, we support them going back to work,” Philbeck announced at a 10 a.m. news conference.

County leaders, which included Commissioner Tom Keigher, County Manager Kim Eagle and health department director Chris Dobbins, said they knew their order defied Cooper’s stay-at-home order, which has been extended to May 8. Cooper’s stay-home order will be followed by a multi-phased plan to ease restrictions on businesses.

Philbeck said Gaston County would support businesses that can open while still practicing social distancing.

Mecklenburg County to rescind stay-at-home order, will align with state

“We’re going to put our people to work and we’re going to do it in a health-minded way,” Philbeck said. “We have learned that social distancing works. We’ve learned that with strict sanitation, strict hygiene, it works. We believe in Gaston County we can do both. We can protect the health of our citizens while at the same time putting our citizens back to work.”

Channel 9′s Ken Lemon spoke to one local business owner who did try to open Thursday in defiance of the order.

“I don’t know what else to do. I’m here. I’m open," said owner Alice Sisk.

Sisk fears she will lose it all if she is forced to wait until the governor’s order ends next week.

“I have been here 13 years and I don’t want to have to close the doors," Sisk said.

She said she voluntarily closed after police asked her to, but doesn’t regret opening.

Sisk said she will continue to sell items via Facebook and said she made about $150 in business during the 3 1/2 hours she was open. Not a lot, but she said it was worth it.

Philbeck called the governor’s order “extreme” and that if the county continued they are now, “we will not have anything to come back to.”

“We believe a continued stay-at-home order in Gaston County will have disastrous results,” Philbeck said. “I would be derelict in my duty and continue to support something that the data ... doesn’t lend itself to. We can protect the health of our citizens while at the same time putting our citizens back to work."

Gaston County leadership planned to lift the stay-at-home order at 5 p.m.

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“Today, I plan to sign an order ... where Gaston County leadership supports lifting a stay-at-home order,” Philbeck said. “This ... does contradict the governor’s order.”

Philbeck said COVID-19 numbers will fluctuate when they re-open and said their concern is what number will require hospitalization. He does not believe hospital capacity will be compromised.

Shortly after 3 p.m., though, Gaston County Manager Kim Eagle sent an email to county employees walking back Philbeck’s comments.

“We would never ask our employees to break the law," Eagle said in the email. "That includes defying an executive order issued by the governor.”

During Wednesday afternoon’s NC Coronavirus Task Force news conference, Channel 9 reporter Joe Bruno asked NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen about Gaston County deciding to reopen. She said confusion is damaging in a crisis. She reiterated the governor’s stay-at-home order is still in effect.

Below is Cohen’s full response:

“I think confusion during a crisis is really unfortunate and I think folks should know the stay-at-home order is still in place across our state. I appreciate all the people staying at home and obeying those orders. What I would say is that we know this is more than just the governor making a decision about opening or closing. We need to make sure consumers feel safe as they go back to businesses. I was just on a call with business leaders this morning, talking about just that. How do we think about shopping safer and using that not to just say we’re open, but in a way that folks feel like they can go back, that virus spread is low, that they aren’t putting their families or communities at risk. That’s what we’ve been working through with our business community, not only the answer about open/close but how do you open in the most appropriate way to protect workers and the community?"

“The statewide order is still in effect. I think even Gaston acknowledges that in their own order, that the statewide order is in effect. That will be the thing that is governing folks going forward. Again, I just thank all North Carolinians who have done a good job of keeping our viral spread really low in the state. We should be very proud that our state has been doing as great as it has. So stick with this plan, let us go through a phase reopening. We’re only talking about next week when we start to ease some of these restrictions. We want to do it in the smartest way possible. So that people can feel they have confidence when they go back to shop, they’re doing it in a smart way.”

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County Commission Chairman defiant during virtual town hall meeting

At 4 p.m. Wednesday, Tracy Philbeck hosted a virtual town hall meeting on Facebook, where he spoke to Gaston County residents.

“Legally, the law expects us to follow the stay-at-home order," he said. “We are going to stand with businesses that want to reopen. If you have a business and you open up, I will gladly come.”

Philbeck said barbershops and nail salons are governed by state boards, and he recommends they seek guidance before opening.

“If you open up your nail salon, my wife will probably come. If you open up a restaurant, I will come and eat,” Philbeck said. “This is not something we are doing for political reasons. I am willing to take a stand to defy the governor’s order because I think it is unconstitutional.”

Philbeck said he hasn’t heard from Cooper but he saw a tweet from the governor’s communications team saying the state’s order supersedes Gaston County’s. Philbeck said that’s where the disagreement is.

“The Gaston County Commission, we have our gloves on, we are going to take that fight up," he said.

Philbeck said he would be arrested with any business owners that defy the governor’s order and open up. He said the position of the Gaston County Commission is: “people you are smarter than us.”

He said people can self-police.

“Whether you are a flea market or barbershop, you should be able to go to work,” Philbeck said.

“Law enforcement is going to enforce the law,” Philbeck said, adding it is possible that is someone opens their business “the governor could send his people to shut it down.” He said if that happens, he will stand with the business owners.

Philbeck also said he is not worried about Mecklenburg County residents flooding into Gaston County to visit businesses that are open. He added that churches can have services as long as they practice social distancing and have strict hygiene guidelines.

Philbeck said Gaston County is looking at ways to sue Cooper.

“You’re going to see a lot of people backtrack. That’s their prerogative," Philbeck said. "Anyone who knows me knows that’s not who I am.”

Below is the full release sent out Wednesday morning by Gaston County:

The Gaston County Board of Commissioners is making clear a key point on the day Gov. Cooper’s original Stay at Home order was set to expire: Gaston County is ready to get its people back to work.

Chairman Tracy Philbeck presented that case in a press conference Wednesday morning, stating that the one-size-fits-all approach Gov. Cooper continues to use for the COVID-19 crisis is now providing more harm than benefit for Gaston County.

“Our goal was to make sure our hospital system was not overwhelmed,” Philbeck said. “We’ve done that. Why punish us for being successful in flattening the curve when a strict Stay at Home order no longer makes sense for our county?”

Gaston County has been a leader in proactive measures in regard to COVID-19 – restricting the size of gatherings to a stronger degree than Mecklenburg County did originally and moving into its own Stay at Home order three days before Gov. Cooper made the same decision for the entire state.

Gaston County wants the ability to take those same proactive steps now, starting the process of re-opening the economy while continuing to enforce strict social distancing and sanitization guidelines.

To that end, the Commission has a one-page document entitled the “Gaston Promise.” It is the Board’s commitment to its residents, while also asking for a promise in return – that Gaston County citizens will continue the wise decision-making and adherence to social distancing practices that have helped prevent an unmanageable spike in COVID-19.

“We want to protect our citizens’ rights – to be able to work and not be left destitute by this crisis, and to worship freely together,” Philbeck said. “We know what’s ahead is a new normal, but it’s time to start working in that direction instead of huddling in fear.”

The “Gaston Promise” -- Putting the People First

The Gaston County Board of Commissioners supports the reopening of businesses and houses of worship throughout Gaston County as long as they adhere to strict social distancing practices, follow all cleaning and disinfection requirements, and abide by all maximum capacity restrictions required by local and state authorities.

Capacity, as used here, is defined as the number of individuals below the local fire code threshold that can fit inside the establishment while still practicing strict social distancing. That is, as long as you do not violate local fire code thresholds and you ensure that individuals inside the establishment adhere to strict social distancing practices, you are in compliance as it relates to capacity.

We understand that what the Board supports is not in lock step with the Governor’s executive order, but we support putting our citizens back to work and allowing them to worship corporately, both of which are their constitutional rights. In fact, we are reminded by Article I, Section 13 of our North Carolina Constitution, that “all persons have a natural and inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and no human authority shall, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.” Worship – whether by oneself or corporately – is an inalienable right of the people.

Furthermore, it is no coincidence that our State’s founders listed the following atop all the rights guaranteed to North Carolinians in our Constitution’s Declaration of Rights: “We hold it to be self-evident that all persons are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor, and the pursuit of happiness.” Work – whether at home or at one’s business – is also an inalienable right of the people.

The Board makes this promise to its people and expects a promise in return – that the citizens of Gaston County exercise their rights responsibly and that they use common sense as it relates to their own health and safety. The Board also reminds citizens throughout Gaston County that large gatherings, banquets, and concerts continue to be restricted. The restrictions on long term care facilities and nursing homes are also very much in place. Businesses governed by licensing boards at the state level are encouraged to consult with their respective boards.

Gaston County officials are continuously monitoring COVID-19 data applicable to our community and communities across the State and will continue to make data-driven decisions for its citizens. Individuals or business owners inquiring whether the State deems them essential or non-essential and whether it is the State’s position that they may operate should contact Secretary Ronald Penny of the North Carolina Department of Revenue at ronald.penny@ncdor.gov or by phone at 919-814-1006.