BOONE — Eyes and ears are focused on Tuesday and Thursday, May 19 and 21, when the Watauga County Board of Commissioners and Boone Town Council will each deliberate over how to move forward with local COVID-19 restrictions.
The commissioners will revisit the plan they adopted at their May 5 meeting to maintain local emergency restrictions through the first two weeks of Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan — meaning if Phase 2 begins May 22, local restrictions such as the 14-day quarantine order and ban on short-term rentals would not be eased until June 5. 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 the materials for the May 19 commission meeting, “after the board adopted the above option, the governor modified the recommendations of his Phase 1 and several of the surrounding counties removed or partially lifted their restrictions. The county has received many comments regarding the 14-day self-quarantine and the issues related with its continued enforcement.”
Thus far, leaders of the county and its four municipalities have acted in unison to amend declarations of emergency to enact restrictions that go beyond the governor’s executive orders. The amendments bar overnight lodging and short-term rentals; have closed all public playgrounds, recreational courts and shelters; and require 14-day quarantines for those arriving from an overnight stay outside of the county.
But at least two municipalities — Boone and Blowing Rock — have indicated the potential to diverge from the unified plan.
The Boone Town Council will consider a proposal by Councilperson Sam Furgiuele to enact a number of measures to remain in effect until modified or until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, including an order for people arriving in Boone from other areas to self-quarantine for 14 days. Other measures include: requiring employees interacting with the public to wear a face mask; requiring establishments open to the public to provide hand sanitizers for use as people enter and leave, to the extent that such products are available; requiring businesses to screen employees for symptoms; and requiring disposable menus at restaurants.
Furgiuele expressed concerns that reopening plans are moving too quickly and that the town has a responsibility to protect its citizens. The council on May 7 voted 4-1, with Councilperson Nancy LaPlaca against, to direct the town attorney to draft language incorporating the proposals for consideration at the regular May council meeting.
The proposal has drawn concerns and criticism from the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce and the High Country Association of Realtors.
“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,” the chamber stated in a May 8 statement indicated it “strongly disagrees” with the proposal.
The HCAR released a statement on May 12 addressing the council’s proposal.
“Your recent action to break away from the High Country’s unified response to the COVID-19 crisis is detrimental to both businesses and its citizens,” it said. “This decision adds to the confusion of who can come to Boone, where can they stay, for how long and if they are “essential” or not. This will have a direct effect on the real estate industry in Boone, which will trickle down to our small town businesses (inspectors, attorneys, mortgage lenders, insurance carriers, movers, contractors, etc.) and even further to shopping, dining and attractions.”
The Blowing Rock Town Council on May 12 heard concerns from representatives of local businesses and homeowners about the county’s plan, urging the town to instead lift the local restrictions with the beginning of the statewide Phase 2.
The Blowing Rock council scheduled a special meeting for 3 p.m. Thursday, May 21, to consider possible action on COVID-19 restrictions following the commission’s reconsideration of its plan.
At a virtual town hall meeting hosted by the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce on May 13, AppHealthCare Director Jennifer Greene said that health officials want to have enough time to implement plans for expanded testing and to train additional contact tracers before lifting all restrictions.
“Our intention was never to have (restrictions) be ongoing forever and ever, but to use the data to drive the decisions,” Greene said.
Melissa Bracey, spokesperson for AppHealthCare (the public health department for Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties), said on May 14 that the department did not yet know how many of the 250 contact tracers being hired statewide would be working with AppHealthCare.
“As we meet the need to expand testing, we want to make sure we have the capacity to perform contact tracing so we can quickly isolate positive cases and quarantine close contacts,” Bracey said. “To that end, we have shifted some staff to be ready to support the additional projected need contact tracing efforts in the interim. Our public health nurses routinely do contact tracing, in addition to initial case investigation routinely, and to date, have continued that effort for every positive case identified.”
N.C. Rep. Ray Russell (D-Boone), who participated in the chamber town hall, encouraged government leaders to legislate based on science, saying that otherwise, leaders risk breeding mistrust or rebellion.
“(Don’t) make rules to make rules,” Russell said.
David Jackson, president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber, said during the May 13 town hall that it would be important for area businesses to gain customer trust by “doing the right thing,” such as wearing masks, posting signage and adhering to social distancing recommendations. Margaret Roy, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express in Boone, said that the hotel has already had to turn away business due to restrictions that are more stringent than the state, which drives customers to other communities.
“The longer that we send them to those places, the less chance that we have to get them back,” Roy said.
The county commissioners meet virtually at 5:30 p.m. May 19. Public comments can be submitted by email to email@example.com.
The Boone Town Council will consider draft restrictions at the May 21 virtual meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. To provide public comment for the Boone Town Council, email Town Manager John Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or call in at 828-268-6205 and you will be provided with an invite to the meeting. All registrations must be completed by 5:45 p.m. on the day of the meeting.