BOONE — Watauga County has developed a plan with input from local leaders on a phased approach for the reopening of businesses and short-term rentals and easing of other restrictions that would follow similar guidelines from Gov. Roy Cooper.
The governor’s executive orders allow for local government restrictions that go beyond the statewide mandates. Watauga County and the county’s four municipalities have 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.
County Manager Deron Geouque presented the Watauga County Board of Commissioners with three options for reopening plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic during the group’s May 5 virtual meeting. Geouque said plans were made in consultation with local municipal leaders, the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce and officials of surrounding counties.
Option 1 — which the commissioners unanimously approved — will mirror the same timeframe that Cooper will implement. Cooper’s plan involves three phases, and the county plan will not lift local restrictions until phase 2. According to Geouque, Watauga officials will wait two weeks after the beginning of the state’s phase 2 to implement a partial lifting of some restrictions.
Geouque said the decision was made to ease restrictions two weeks into phase 2 as restaurants and more businesses will be allowed to open during that phase. County officials would like to use the two-week span to monitor impacts.
If metrics are met and local health officials deem it appropriate, then option 1 allows the county to authorize short-term rentals with a reduction in occupancy — facilities with more than a six-person occupancy shall be limited to 50 percent of occupancy capacity or 50 percent of available rental units — whichever is less — during the second week of phase 2. At the same time, the county would discontinue the 14-day self-quarantine restriction.
AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene said that with more testing on the horizon and the easing of restrictions, Watauga will experience more COVID-19 cases. She said the county is hoping for more of a consistent “storm” rather than a “flash flood of cases.”
In order to perform more testing, Greene said AppHealthCare must ensure in tandem that it has the capability of widespread contact tracing in place. The agency is trying to time its testing expansion in concert with gaining more help with contact tracing as officials “can’t do one without the other.”
Greene has participated in a state team that’s working to expand contact tracing via the Carolina Contact Tracing Collaborative monitored by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. NCDHHS has selected a contractor — Community Care of NC — who will be hiring a workforce to deploy across the state, according to Greene.
David Jackson, the president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports the two-week wait into phase 2 to allow businesses time to ramp back up. In order for the community to get back to a level that visitors can be welcomed, businesses need time, he said.
“A bit of rationale behind the two weeks was to give our local infrastructure time to catch up to make sure that cleaning policies they may be implementing are indeed working and that they’re able to staff properly,” Jackson said. “So that they’re not forced into thinking they need to open at 100 percent when they might not financially be able to do so at this point in time.”
The commissioners approved option 1 with an addition suggested by Watauga Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Wright Tilley. Tilley advised that the county include language about families being able to stay together in one rental unit. Tilley said the TDA had consistently heard from rental management companies throughout the county that it would be difficult to open without allowing a single family currently living together to occupy one dwelling.
During phase 3 of the state plan, the county would have a total lifting of the occupancy reduction to allow establishments to operate at full capacity. Watauga will then follow the lead of the National Park Service on how it will open campgrounds — such as Price Park — to determine the approach to opening local campgrounds.
The county’s option 2 would have removed all county restrictions with the implementation of Cooper’s phase I. Option 3 proposed to end all county restrictions with the implementation of the state’s phase 2.
Boone Town Manager John Ward, Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox and Seven Devils Town Manager Debbie Powers were all included in the May 5 call and each voiced their support for option 1.
Geouque said he’d had conversations with officials in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery and Wilkes counties to see what other leaders may be implementing. He said that he believed that the Ashe County Board of Commissioners did not take action on the matter at its May 4 board meeting on Monday and planned to allow short-term rental restrictions to expire May 8 if Cooper’s phase 1 is implemented.
According to Geouque, Avery County planned to lift the 14-day self quarantine in phase 1 while also using a 50 percent short-term rental occupancy restriction, similar to Watauga. He added that to his knowledge, Wilkes County was leaving decisions about short-term rentals up to its individual municipalities. Geouque said Watauga wanted to share a unified message about restrictions rather than municipalities offering different directives.
The commissioners received seven letters for public comment — all gave remarks about restrictions and when they should be lifted. All but one called for the county to lift restrictions earlier; the one that agreed with option 1 to lift restrictions was Blowing Rock Town Council Member David Harwood.
A letter from Blowing Rock Civic Association President Tim Gupton said the association encouraged the commissioners to lift the quarantine order at the beginning of Phase 1 as outlined in Cooper’s plan. He said the group also believed that returning homeowners were a lower risk to the community than tourists.
“Returning homeowners are traveling from one stay-at-home community to another and those restrictions are adequate to allow for an orderly return to Blowing Rock,” said Gupton in his letter. “If homeowners wait until the county lifts the quarantine order at the same time as they lift the rental restriction order then both homeowners and tourists could descend on our town at once. So, we believe a phased approach makes more sense.”
A joint statement was sent from Hound Ears Club President Ann Lovern and COO/General Manager Russ Curtis. The officials listed changes to the club’s operations it had made so far and other precautions taken to keep club members safe. Lovern and Curtis stated that while Hound Ears strives for a safe environment, the club also needs to provide part-time residents, members and seasonal renters the “opportunity to safely enjoy the High Country.” The two urged the county to support option 2.
Debbie Miller and Richard Miller are both part-time residents in Beech Mountain and wrote separate statements. Debbie Miller said she has owned a home in Beech Mountain for 20 years, and also resides in Florida.
“I am very concerned for our country if states don’t begin to open up immediately,” said Debbie Miller in her comments. “Please do not delay and consider the permanent, extensive, economical damage that could occur.”