BLOWING ROCK — Depending on the outcome of a May 19 discussion on local COVID-19 restrictions by the Watauga County Commissioners, the Blowing Rock Town Council could potentially take separate action on the status of the 14-day quarantine order and ban on short-term rentals.
The council met Tuesday, May 12, for its regularly monthly meeting via a remote video conference. Mayor Charlie Sellers read aloud three separate statements submitted for the public comment period — all urging the council to diverge from the current countywide plan to maintain local emergency restrictions through the first two weeks of Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan.
The governor’s executive orders enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19 have allowed for local government restrictions that go beyond the statewide mandates. Since a state of emergency was declared by Watauga County on March 15, Watauga County and the county’s four municipalities, in consultation with the regional health department, have jointly amended their declarations of emergency to enact restrictions banning overnight lodging and short-term rentals, closing all public playgrounds, recreational courts and shelters and requiring 14-day quarantines for those arriving from an overnight stay outside of the county.
On May 5, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners approved a plan, developed with input from local leaders, to maintain local restrictions until two weeks after the statewide Phase 2 begins (Phase 2 could begin as early as May 22). At that time, the county plans to discontinue the 14-day self-quarantine restriction and resume lodging and short-term rentals, with facilities having more than a six-person occupancy limited to 50 percent occupancy.
But according to Sellers, the commissioners plan to revisit the plan at their second regular meeting of the month on May 19. The Blowing Rock Town Council scheduled a special meeting for 3 p.m. Thursday, May 21, to consider possible action on COVID-19 restrictions.
“Weeks ago, we agreed to follow Watauga County’s instructions in an effort to protect our citizens and our visitors, and ultimately to flatten the curve,” Sellers said. “I know everybody has their concerns. I feel like moving forward ... we’ll look at what the county does at their May 19 meeting, we’ll listen to additional comments and recommendations, then at such time, if the council so chooses, revisit this.”
“We believe that the town should follow the governor’s data-driven plan and timeline and not add additional restrictions that are at a minimum very confusing to the public and citizens,” wrote Tim Gupton, president of the Blowing Rock Civic Association, in a letter to the council. “Homeowners returning to their homes in Blowing Rock are a lower-risk group who are traveling from one stay-at-home location to another. We should use this window to allow for an orderly return before the short-term rental tourists return and respectfully welcome our homeowners as citizens, not as higher-risk tourists.”
A letter from owners of gated communities, lodging facilities, restaurants and other businesses in Blowing Rock asked the council to allow the 14-day quarantine order to expire, noting that visitors would head to the area regardless as the state continues to reopen, and that the town would need the occupancy tax and sales tax revenue from visitors to avoid raising property taxes for citizens.
Council members offered a few initial thoughts and observations.
“I think the path that we’re on right now is the best one for us, and until we see data that changes that opinion, I think we need to follow through,” said Councilperson David Harwood.
Councilperson Sue Sweeting noted that she observed few people around town wearing masks or practicing social distancing last weekend. Councilperson Doug Matheson said he looks to the governor, and “I tend to follow what the governor and what his health people are saying.”
Councilperson Virginia Powell said the county and town managers and health department “have done a beautiful job” and to “stay focused on that.”
“We are fighting a virus, we’re not fighting each other,” she said. Powell also noted that businesses such as caterers have been significantly impacted by restrictions on gatherings, and she encouraged other council members to keep an open mind about ways the town could allow businesses to try new things — such as food trucks — to help them stay open.
In anticipation of increased visitors due to the Blue Ridge Parkway’s reopening of sections near Blowing Rock on May 15, the council discussed what to do about town restrooms that have been shuttered since March.
Sellers said he spoke with Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent J.D. Lee, who informed him that portable toilets and hand-washing stations would be placed at Bass Lake until staff can reopen restrooms there, which could take a week or two.
Council members briefly discussed whether to place portable toilets downtown rather than reopen town restrooms, but ultimately reached consensus that town restrooms would be better because they have running water and can be cleaned several times a day. Town Manager Shane Fox said the plan is to reopen the Memorial Park restrooms this weekend with limited hours, seven days a week. The public restrooms at the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum and Davant Field will remain closed until further notice.
In other action, the council voted to approve an amendment to the conditional use permit for The Speckled Trout Restaurant and Bottle Shop, located at the intersection of U.S. 221 and Main Street, to renovate and expand its covered deck and outdoor seating area.
The amendment allows the restaurant to expand the front deck by 44 inches and to construct a gabled roof over the deck, replacing the existing fabric awning.