The following headlines were among the most talked-about and impactful news events of 2020 in Watauga County.
2020 economy forecasted to continue in upswing
Jan. 17: Local economist Harry Davis predicted that the nation is in its 11th year of economic expansion and there is “not a recession in sight” during the fourth annual High Country Economic Kickoff Breakfast on Jan. 16.
“I’m very positive about this year for the state and nation in terms of economic growth,” said Davis, who is also an Appalachian State University professor.
While a nation-wide recession was not in his prediction, Davis said the manufacturing sector may experience a “mini recession.” According to Davis, business investment is low as it remained negative throughout 2019. The housing market and the net worth of Americans were both trending positively.
Test results negative for possible coronavirus in NC
Jan. 27: The North Carolina Division of Public Health reported on Jan. 27 that a patient who was being tested for the novel (new) 2019 coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was not infected with the virus. Negative results were received that evening from testing performed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Coronavirus infections initially were diagnosed in Wuhan City, China, and had since been reported in travelers from this city to other locations in China and other countries including the United States. No cases had been identified in North Carolina at that time.
AppHealthCare said in a Jan. 31 statement that it was closely monitoring the spread of the virus. The risk of Western North Carolinians contracting the 2019 novel coronavirus is said to be low at the time.
Commissioners vote to demolish Turner House
January-December: The fate of the Turner Law Office building, also known as the Oscar and Suma Hardin House, is one that has been in question since early 2019 after the county purchased the property in late 2018. The Boone Town Council stated during in Jan. 14 meeting this year that it hoped to meet with the Watauga County Board of Commissioners to discuss saving the house.
The two governing bodies met for their first joint meeting in six years on Feb. 24, and discussed the possibility of a cooperative effort to build a parking deck on the town-owned Queen Street lot. The Watauga County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday, Dec. 15 to bring an end to the Turner House property. Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque said the parking project, where the Turner House currently sits, would take between 18 and 20 months.
Boone Town Council members voiced during their Dec. 17 meeting that they were unsure what county’s decision meant as far as a Queen Street parking deck. The town released a press release on Dec. 28 stating, “unfortunately the county commission has decided that the best use for the site is to remove the historic structure and build another parking lot.”
COVID-19 virus takes state, local agencies by storm
March: The first presumptive positive COVID-19 case in North Carolina was confirmed in a March 3 press conference by Gov. Roy Cooper. AppHealthCare, Watauga County Schools, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, Appalachian State University, Watauga County Emergency Management were taking steps to minimize the potential effects of the 2019 novel coronavirus.
On March 3, there were more than 60 confirmed cases in more than 14 different states, including North Carolina, Florida and Georgia. There were six confirmed deaths in the U.S. at the time, all in Washington state. Five more people in Wake County had tested presumptively positive for COVID-19 by March 9.
Appalachian State University faculty were asked to prepare to potentially take classes online and other health care centers were on alert following Cooper’s state of emergency declaration on March 10. The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a pandemic on March 11, which is the worldwide spread of a new disease. Cooper stated at a March 12 press event that he advised postponing or canceling all events with 100 or more people across the state, starting March 13.
The first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in Watauga County was announced on March 15 by AppHealthCare. Watauga County Schools announced on March 15 that the governor had mandated closure of schools beginning March 16, and lasting at least two weeks; WCS began remote instruction.
Restaurants either made the decisions themselves or were forced to close when Cooper issued an executive order that was effective at 5 p.m. on March 17 for establishments to close dine-in options. AppHealthCare Health Director Jen Greene said on March 17 that COVID-19 response would be a “marathon.” A second Watauga resident tested positive March 18.
In a little less than 48 hours between March 17-19, the N.C. Division of Employment Security had received 17,874 claims of unemployment as a result of COVID-19. Appalachian State University extended its spring break an additional week until March 23, and then the university transitioned to online-only classes. Cooper announced March 23 that the state was extending the closure of K-12 schools for in-person instruction until May 15.
North Carolina was placed under a Stay at Home order on March 27. Cooper advised that North Carolinians “Stay at home unless you need to leave for a job, food, medicine, outdoor exercise or to help someone.” Watauga had reached six COVID-19 cases by March 31.
Watauga Community Recreation Center opening delayed
April-December: County Manager Deron Geouque said in April that the county had halted the previously planned opening date for the project due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the county had planned to have the facility’s grand opening a few weeks before May 25.
Three months after the Watauga Community Recreation Center was supposed to have a grand opening, the facility was still rendered unable to due to COVID-19 restrictions. New state COVID-19 restrictions allowed gyms to operate at 30 percent capacity starting Sept. 4, but Geouque said the 30 percent capacity wasn’t feasible to open the facility. County officials had not opened the rec center as of late December, despite a push to do so from the Watauga High School swim team.
Cooper announces NC will move ahead with Phase 1 of reopening
May 5: Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order on May 5 to move North Carolina into Phase 1 of easing COVID-19-related restrictions beginning May 8. Under Phase 1, most businesses were able to open, retail stores could open at 50 percent capacity, parks and trails were encouraged to reopen. Close-contact businesses (such as gyms, salons and movie theaters) were to remain closed; restaurants continued to be open for takeout and delivery only. Gatherings were still limited to 10 people, but gathering outdoors with friends was allowed.
Watauga County had stated the same day that county officials had 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 Cooper.
Cooper announced on May 20 that North Carolina would move into Phase 2 of the statewide reopening plan at 5 p.m. on May 22 with the approval of Executive Order 141. Phase 2 allowed restaurants to open with capacity limitations in place and social distancing measures required.
Boone Council approves isolation restriction, other measures
May 21: Under restrictions adopted by the Boone Town Council on May 21, anyone (except work commuters) arriving in the town of Boone who previously overnighted outside Watauga County was not be permitted to enter establishments open to the public, other than medical facilities, until they have stayed overnight in Watauga County uninterrupted for at least 14 days.
The restrictions, effective immediately, were passed the day before Watauga County’s 14-day self-quarantine order was to be lifted. The amended town of Boone State of Emergency declaration at that time stated that violations were punishable by a class 2 misdemeanor and that law enforcement officers are authorized to first issue warning citations.
Following a restraining order and two meetings on the matter, the Boone Town Council voted 4-1 on May 26 to strike the 14-day self-isolation requirement from the COVID-19 state of emergency amendments it passed on May 21.
Protest of racial injustice, inequality draws 1,000 in Boone
June 7: For the second straight Sunday, hundreds of people gathered near the App State library and marched to the Watauga County Courthouse as part of a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7. The crowd of about 1,000 people — nearly all who were wearing masks as a precaution against COVID-19 — filled the street in front of the courthouse.
Hundreds gathered the Sunday before (May 31) for Black Lives Matter in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. For weeks, crowds demonstrated in cities across the nation and world to protest racism, injustice and police brutality after Floyd’s death.
Boone council, state approves mask mandate for public
June: Beginning Saturday, June 20, face coverings were required to be worn by all persons in indoor commercial businesses and town offices in the town of Boone, with some exceptions, after a 3-2 vote of the Boone Town Council on June 16.
Cooper announced June 24 that due to North Carolina’s increasing COVID-19 numbers, the state would remain in Phase 2 of the statewide reopening plan for three more weeks, and face coverings would now be required to be worn in public. According to Cooper, people were required to wear face coverings when in public places, indoors or outdoors, where physical distancing of six feet from other people who aren’t in the same household or residence isn’t possible.
Tweetsie Railroad ‘ordered’ to close by NCDHHS
July 27: On July 27, Tweetsie Railroad President Chris Robbins announced that the park had been “ordered to cease operations” by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, following two weekends of limited operations at the park.
“Tweetsie Railroad has received notification from the NCDHHS that we are not permitted to run the train. Thus, we have no choice but to close the park and cancel upcoming special events, including K-9s in Flight, Railroad Heritage Weekend and Ghost Train. When parks like ours are cleared to open in North Carolina, we will re-evaluate the possibility of welcoming guests back to Tweetsie Railroad and hosting Tweetsie Christmas,” Robbins said at the time.
While open, Tweetsie Railroad offered guests rides on its open-air train cars at 50 percent capacity and allowed guests to shop in its stores on Main Street. Other attractions at the park, including amusement rides and the zoo, remained closed.
Tweetsie later reopened, but only for the Tweetsie Christmas event on select dates between Nov. 13 and Dec. 31.
Black at App demands change, marches against injustice
July-August: At Appalachian State University, a group of “concerned Black Mountaineers” confronted the institution about policies and decision making.
Black at App State is a group of students and alumni who pressed the university on their work towards social change, diversity and other issues affecting students of color.
In July, they wrote a letter to university leadership out of “deep concern and exasperation” with a list of 23 demands — such as mandatory bias training for all faculty or staff — they seek to be fully implemented within the next three years Four days later, the university responded with a promise to create an accountability group and said it “welcomes the opportunity to work collaboratively” with the organization of students and university alumni.
Differences over the process for a July 21 meeting between Black students at Appalachian State and university administrators left the students feeling “silenced in a manner we have never seen before,” the Black at App State collective said in a statement. Black at App State members said the meeting was held on terms the group did not agree to, with an antagonizing atmosphere and a suppression of their voices.
In response, Appalachian leaders acknowledged that there were “different expectations” for the meeting, but said they have since followed up with the collective and remain focused “on the work the university administration is going to do to make Appalachian a more diverse, welcoming and inclusive community.”
On Aug. 31, a march organized by the collective to stand in solidarity against racism and oppression ended with at least 200 participants occupying the university’s B.B. Dougherty Administration Building chanting “no justice, no peace.” Students occupied each level of the administration building. The event continued outside with a few more speeches and then wrapped up, according to the collective.
GOP tries, fails to stop Student Union voting spot
August-September: Voting 3-2 along party lines, the N.C. State Board of Elections approved the Appalachian State University Plemmons Student Union as an early-voting site on Aug. 31.
The board’s decision to submit plans for the student union as a voting site clashed with university officials, who stated that the space would not be available due to class use. The university offered other sites — such as the convocation center and the McKinney Alumni Center — to use as a polling site instead of the student union.
App State’s Faculty Senate voted on Aug. 17 to approve a resolution that stated the Blue Ridge Ballroom is a “critical” polling site for university students, faculty, staff and community members. With 36 votes in favor, one opposed and four abstentions, the resolution was passed.
Eleven days later, two members of the Watauga County Board of Elections filed a lawsuit against the N.C. State Board of Elections in Wake County Superior Court seeking to halt the state-approved majority plan to have a polling site at the Appalachian State University Plemmons Student Union.
The plaintiffs were Eric Eller and Nancy Owen, the two Republican members of the county board and the two dissenting votes in the Aug. 31 decision. The complaint requested a motion for a temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunctions and a motion for an expedited hearing.
Superior Court Judge Rebecca Holt filed the order denying the restraining order request on Sept. 30 after a Sept. 29 virtual hearing.
App State reaches enrollment goal
Aug. 28: Appalachian State University welcomed 20,023 students, a landmark enrollment for the university, it announced on Aug. 28.
The university announced in September 2019 its goal to reach a student enrollment goal of 20,000 students by fall 2020 in order to increase financial stability as well as its standing within the University of North Carolina system. At that time, Chancellor Sheri Everts said this goal would increase tuition revenue “for classroom resources, for salaries and additional personnel, for innovative and creative teaching and research endeavors.”
Appalachian had enrolled 5,992 rural students — more than 300 students above the University of North Carolina System strategic plan benchmark for this year — and 6,100 first-generation undergraduate students, which was 34 percent of the total undergraduate population. Undergraduate enrollment had increased by 543, or three percent, for a total of 18,061. Graduate student enrollment was up 11 percent for a total of 1,962. App State Online enrollment (undergraduate and graduate) had increased by more than 18 percent for a total of 1,513. New online graduate students had increased by nearly 30 percent from last year.
Funeral home vice president dies in fatal crash
Sept. 5: The operator of the Can-Am, Gregory Harold Hampton, 61, of Boone and vice president of Hampton’s Funeral Home, died following a collision on Sept. 5 at the intersection of U.S. 321 and Aho Road, according to Master Trooper Jeffrey S. Swagger of the N.C. State Highway Patrol. Hampton had succumbed to his injuries at the scene, according to Swagger.
After more than 40 years in Boone, Hospitality Mints plant to close
September: Citing significant impacts to its industry due to pandemic restrictions, Hospitality Mints announced to about 75 employees in September that it would be closing its Boone plant.
Founded in 1976, Hospitality Mints had been in business for more than 40 years, manufacturing soft and hard mints for restaurants and hotels as well as candies sold at retailers across the country. It was the largest supplier of custom mints in the U.S. In 2018, the Boone-based company was acquired by Mount Franklin Foods, based in El Paso, Texas.
With sales down 80 percent as a result of COVID-19 impacts on the hospitality industry, the company began considering its options about two months ago, Chief Financial Officer Walter Kaudelka said in September. The Hospitality Mints company and brand will be retained, but its operations will be absorbed by other facilities, he said. The exact closing date was not certain, but at the time it was anticipated to be June 2021.
AppHealthCare said in a Jan. 31 statement that it was closely monitoring the spread of the virus.
Appalachian State student dies with COVID-19
Sept. 28: Chad Dorrill, a 19-year-old Appalachian State University sophomore exercise science major, died Sept. 28 due to COVID-19-related complications, at Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem. Chancellor Sheri Everts confirmed the death of Dorrill in an email to campus the following day.
“It is with the deepest sadness that I share with you that one of our students, Chad Dorrill, has died,” Everts wrote. “The hearts of the entire Appalachian community are with Chad’s family and loved ones during this profoundly difficult and painful time. Tributes shared by friends and loved ones show the positive impact Chad had on the communities he loved and called home, which included App State and Boone.”
In the email, Everts said the family shared that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this month and suffered from later complications.
“When he began feeling unwell earlier this month, his mother encouraged him to come home, quarantine, and be tested for COVID-19,” Everts wrote. “After testing positive for COVID-19 in his home county, he followed isolation procedures and was cleared by his doctor to return to Boone.”
After his return to Boone, Everts wrote that he had additional complications and was picked up by his family and hospitalized.
“His family’s wishes are for the university to share a common call to action so our entire campus community recognizes the importance of following COVID-19 safety protocols and guidelines,” Everts wrote. “In condolences to his family, many have shared their memories of Chad and said, ‘I wear my mask for Chad.’ Please let us all honor Chad and his contributions by taking care of ourselves and our community.”
Boone skate park receives $72K grant
Sept. 18: Organizers with the Boone Greenway Skatepark learned Sept. 18 that they were one of 16 applicants across the state awarded funding in order to launch construction of a local skate park.
J.P. Pardy, owner of Recess Skate and Snow, said the group received $72,500 as a matching grant from the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority. Organizers with the proposed skate park partnered with the town of Boone to submit the grant application in early June. Pardy said in September that the grant would “make this project fully happen.”
The next step in the process was to create a project schedule with skate park contractors with the hopes of beginning construction of the park in spring 2021.
Watauga schools welcome back all grades on hybrid schedule
Oct. 19: Months of planning led up to Watauga County Schools allowing students in all grade levels to return to in-person learning on Oct. 19. Students in K-3 had returned on Oct. 5, and grades 4-12 joined roughly two weeks later.
Approximately 1,823 students in K-12 returned to school in cohort A, attending school on Mondays and Tuesdays. Cohort B had approximately 1,845 students in school on Thursdays and Fridays. This was in addition to the approximate 140 pre-K and exceptional children students attending in-person classes four days a week.
While not all WCS students returned to school on Oct. 19, it was the first time that all grade levels were being served in person since March 13, when the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic rendered schools unable to operate in buildings. As students returned on Oct. 19, there was a sense of anxiety and concern about all the safety procedures and how well students would adapt to different circumstances, according to WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott.
Elliott said Oct. 19 was one of the most positive days of school that he could recall.
Boone council endorses community-led police committee
Oct. 15: A community-led committee was endorsed by the Boone Town Council on Oct. 15 with goals of building transparency and relationship between local law enforcement and minority communities while building their own understanding of the policing process.
Cornerstone Summit Church Pastor Reggie Hunt spoke with Boone Town Council members during the board’s Oct. 15 meeting about the committee proposal. He explained that the committee would be a community board made up of community members, Appalachian State University students and Boone Town Council members. At the time, Boone Police Chief Andy Le Beau said he wasn’t sure what role the department would take with the committee, as it was still in the process of forming. He thought the department would be involved in discussions and in educating the group on current policies and procedures.
The committee plans to operate on a six-month timeframe to identify goals and objectives. The group plans to learn about police education and training to understand law enforcement agency policies and how decisions are made. Hunt said the community committee plans to provide feedback to the Boone Police Department and to Boone Town Council members on how the department operates.
The Boone Town Council voted unanimously to endorse the committee, and to appoint council members Connie Ulmer and Dustin Hicks to serve as committee liaisons. The committee had been discussed among community members, the Boone Town Council and the Boone Police Department since June.
Watauga sees highest presidential election turnout in years
November: Following a statewide trend, Watauga County saw its highest presidential election turnout in years this November, with 71.62 percent of the county’s 45,164 registered voters casting a ballot.
At 71.62 percent, Watauga County’s 2020 turnout was higher than in 2016, at 65.33 percent; 2012, at 62 percent; and 2008, at 68 percent, according to previous Watauga Democrat reports. By comparison, North Carolina turnout in those years was 75 percent in 2020, 69 percent in 2016, 68 percent in 2012 and 70 percent in 2008, according to the State Board of Elections.
The election saw Carrington Pertalion, Charlie Wallin and John Welch win or keep Watauga County Commission seats, making it five Democrats on the board. Steve Combs, Jason Cornett and Marshall Ashcraft won their races to serve on the Watauga County School Board.
Ray Pickett, a Blowing Rock businessman and Republican who served on the Blowing Rock Town Council for four years, defeated N.C. House District 93 incumbent Ray Russell, thanks in large part to a landslide victory in Ashe County.
Local agencies notified of incoming COVID-19 vaccine shipments
December: At the end of what AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene calls a long year, some are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel as local agencies received word of incoming shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine.
AppHealthCare stated on Dec. 18 that it had been notified that the agency will likely receive the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine early the following week. This came true on Dec. 22 when the agency receive its first allotment of the Moderna vaccine for each of the counties it serves
Appalachian Regional Healthcare System’s first COVID-19 vaccines were administered on Dec. 22 at Watauga Medical Center, and the hospital system had administered 600 vaccinations to staff members as of Dec. 29.