BOONE — The Boone Town Council will later this month consider a proposal to enact additional COVID-19-related restrictions, including an order for people arriving in Boone from other areas to self-quarantine. As proposed, the self-quarantine order would remain in effect after a similar countywide order has been lifted in the coming weeks.
The proposal presented by Councilperson Sam Furgiuele at a May 7 special council meeting, held virtually, is that the town would mandate via its emergency declaration that the following measures remain in effect until modified or until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed:
- People who come to Boone from other areas would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days, and anyone who is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms would be required to self-quarantine for the period of time recommended by public health officials;
- Town boards and committees would continue to conduct meetings electronically, with the possible exception of the board of adjustment;
- Social distancing would be required inside all commercial establishments and in all public areas except for people who live together in the same household;
- Establishments open to the public, including town offices, would be required to provide hand sanitizers for use as people enter and leave, to the extent that such products are available;
- People working for establishments, including town offices, who are directly interacting with the public would be required to wear masks and to sterilize hands after each interaction;
- Once restaurants are open, only disposable menus could be used;
- Every business would be required to create a protocol to screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms, and require employees with symptoms to stay home until they can be tested;
- Sanitation or hand-washing stations would be placed in locations throughout town; and
- The town should try to acquire a supply of masks that can be made available for free or at low cost to the public.
Furgiuele said he also planned to recommend that business occupancy be limited to 25 percent, instead of the 50 percent allowed under the state’s Phase 1 of reopening, but town attorney Allison Meade advised that the governor’s Executive Order 138 has barred local restrictions that set a different maximum occupancy standard for retail businesses.
The council voted 4-1 to direct staff to draft language for an amendment to the town’s emergency declaration to be considered at the council’s regular meeting later this month. Councilperson Nancy LaPlaca voted against the motion, expressing concerns that the measures were “drastic,” that they would cause complications and would cause confusion with different policies in other local counties and municipalities.
With the exception of the retail occupancy requirements, the governor’s executive orders 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 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.
On May 5, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners approved a plan, developed with input from local leaders, on a phased approach for the easing of local restrictions.
The plan will mirror the three-phase reopening plan announced by the state, with a partial lifting of local restrictions to begin two weeks after implementation of the statewide Phase 2. County Manager Deron Geouque said that as restaurants and more businesses will be allowed to open during Phase 2, county officials would like to use the two-week span to monitor impacts.
At that time, the county plans to discontinue the 14-day self-quarantine restriction and resume lodging and short-term rentals, with facilities with more than a six-person occupancy limited to 50 percent occupancy.
But Furgiuele expressed concerns that reopening plans are moving too quickly and that the town has a responsibility to protect its citizens.
“I believe that the governor’s plan is a concession to people who want to open things up too soon, and that we’re all going to suffer,” he said.
Watauga County Tourism Development Authority Director Wright Tilley and Boone Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Jackson spoke on the matter during the meeting’s public comment period.
Jackson said it was important for the county and all four towns to be united in their policies so that people who live, work and visit here understand what to do. He said that local businesses want to operate as safely as possible.
“I have not come across one single business owner that wants to get this wrong,” Jackson said.
Tilley said he was particularly concerned about the potential for the town to enact a 14-day self-quarantine order that remains in effect until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed.
“It would virtually cripple our tourism businesses in the town of Boone and in the county,” Tilley said, adding that thousands of jobs would be lost.
With neighboring communities opening, the Boone area will have visitors coming, and keeping businesses closed will not keep that risk away, Tilley said, adding that it is better to focus on cleaning, hand-washing and distancing measures.
“I just encourage you guys to stay the course and endorse the county-phased plan that’s in place now,” Tilley said.
Boone resident Pam Williamson spoke during the public comment period, asserting that measures such as wearing masks should be required and that the town cannot fix economic issues until health issues are addressed.
Meade and Boone Town Manager John Ward raised questions about the town’s ability to enforce the restrictions and how they would impact town staff, health care workers, Appalachian State University staff and students as well as others. Meade added that the potential amendment could carve out exceptions for health care workers, emergency responders and other groups.
Council members and staff recommended that the council accept public input before voting on whether to issue the new restrictions.
The council’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 19, at 6 p.m.
On Friday, May 8, the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce released the following statement in response to the proposal:
The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce strongly disagrees with the proposal to adopt additional emergency actions that impact the business owners and residents of the Town of Boone, as approved by a vote of the Boone Town Council Thursday night.
The language outlining a proposed indefinite lengthening of a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all visitors coming to the area, as well residents traveling from and back to the area, represents an unrealistic enforcement issue and poses negative impacts on our tourism economy, small business community, incoming college students, and a large percentage of our workforce, who may work in Boone, but live in counties other than Watauga.
While the proposed guidance regarding additional health-related measures such as masks for front-facing employees, hand sanitizing stations in public areas, and free masks for all residents have merit, we feel suggestions on how best to protect our citizens and visitors should come from AppHealthCare and the Public Health Director, who are not only trained health care professionals, but have a keen understanding for the testing and tracing trends that impact our area and should be factored into broader decisions. The AppHealthCare staff has been engaged in numerous discussions on local health and safety measures during this crisis, and their guidance has given citizens and businesses alike the chance to implement safe and responsible practices as the phased easing of restrictions continues statewide.
A discussion that goes this far and above current State and County guidelines should be made with ample time for community discussion and public input, and careful consideration should be given to how any of the above actions would be communicated, implemented, and enforced in our community. The suggestion of leaving these measures in place until a COVID-19 vaccine can be developed and distributed goes well beyond current State and CDC guidance, and would bring deeper economic strife to the region and risk further depletion of resources needed to fight the pandemic on a local level.
The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce looks forward to engaging our business community, residents, and tourism partners while working with Town of Boone staff and the Boone Town Council to come up with a more realistic approach to these issues. There is a way to implement safe and responsible health guidelines that also allows for the start of economic recovery for a community that has been rocked by the absence of its two major industries for more than two full months. This additional action, while perhaps well intentioned, play as an over-reaction in comparison to guidance from Governor Cooper, our State Health and Human Services Department, local healthcare professionals, and other municipalities in our own county and region.
The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce remains in support of the Watauga County Commissioners’ actions of Tuesday, May 5th, to reaffirm their support of Governor Roy Cooper’s three-phase plan to ease Stay-At-Home restrictions in North Carolina. We further support the adoption of their guidance on setting an appropriate time to remove the 14-day self-quarantine and short-term rental restrictions that were implemented as part of the Watauga County State of Emergency, built as our community’s response to COVID-19.
We are pleased to see the Watauga County Commissioners’ willingness to have further dialogue on these measures at their scheduled May 19th meeting, especially considering some of the guidance that went into their adopted plan quickly changed in Governor Cooper’s announcement of Phase One guidelines Tuesday evening. We are thankful that dialogue continues between Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque, Town Managers from Beech Mountain, Boone, Blowing Rock, and Seven Devils, the county Tourism Development Authorities, AppHealthCare, and the Boone and Blowing Rock Chambers of Commerce on recommending appropriate measures for the Watauga County Commissioners to consider as they balance the health, safety, and economic concerns of our entire community.
We hope similar dialogue can be established with the Boone Town Council and that appropriate considerations for a full understanding of the proposed ordinance and subsequent public comment can be achieved.