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Cooper announces easing of restrictions in Phase 2.5; gyms can open at 30 percent capacity

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper on Sept. 1 announced that North Carolina will move into “Safer at Home Phase 2.5,” easing COVID-19 restrictions on more types of businesses and increasing the limits for gatherings.

“Because of our stable numbers, today we are ready to take a careful step forward,” Cooper said during a press briefing in Raleigh. “I want to be clear — we can do this safely only if we keep doing what we know works — wearing masks and social distancing. Moving to Phase 2.5 means we can safely do a few more things while still fighting the virus as vigorously as ever.”

The new phase begins at 5 p.m. this Friday, Sept. 4, and expires at 5 p.m. on Oct. 2 unless extended or modified. Limits on mass gatherings will increase to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors, Cooper said. Gyms and other indoor exercise facilities — such as yoga studios, martial arts and rock climbing, as well as skating rinks, bowling alleys, indoor basketball and volleyball— can open at 30 percent capacity.

Playgrounds will be allowed to open, and museums and aquariums can open at 50 percent capacity. The age requirement for mask wearing will include children down to age 5.

In addition, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen issued a secretarial order allowing for outdoor visitation at nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities. To participate, nursing homes must meet several requirements, including, but not limited, not having a current outbreak, having a testing plan and updated written Infection Control or Preparedness plan for COVID-19, and having adequate personal protective equipment.

The secretarial order is effective at 5 p.m. Sept. 4 and remains in effect through Sept. 22.

Capacity limits at restaurants and personal care businesses like hair and nail salons will stay the same, Cooper said, but with additional safety measures required. The governor announced on Aug. 31 that the curfew prohibiting restaurants from selling alcohol after 11 p.m. would be extended through Oct. 2.

Businesses that will remain closed under Phase 2.5 include bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, indoor entertainment venues and amusement parks. Large venues will still be subject to the mass gathering limits.

“We know big gatherings are among the most dangerous settings for transmission of this deadly virus,” Cooper said.

Cohen reported that overall, the state’s key COVID-19 metrics show stability. Patients presenting with COVID-19-like symptoms have been on the decline for over a month. The numbers of new cases reported each day peaked in mid-July, then declined, then saw another increase in mid-August as colleges reopened, Cohen said. She noted that cases have been stabilizing over the past 14 days, but new cases remain at a level that is still too high.

The percentage of tests that are positive has remained stable, Cohen said, but she would like to see the percentage at 5 percent or less. The number of people hospitalized with the virus statewide has been declining since peaking in late July, and the state has “sufficient” hospital capacity, she said.

“After a summer of hard work, we’ve seen North Carolina’s key indicators for COVID-19 remain stable, or even decrease in some instances,” Cooper said. “Our pause in Phase 2 was necessary as students returned to school and college campuses.”

App State reaches enrollment goal: University welcomes 20,023 students for fall 2020 semester

In August 2020, 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.”

According to the university, numbers from the fall 2020 census data and the Office of Admissions as of Aug. 28 also show significant increases in first-year underrepresented students.

Appalachian enrolls 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 is 34 percent of the total undergraduate population.

A record 18 percent of the total population is racially/ethnically diverse. Appalachian has increased its total underrepresented student population by 56 percent since 2014, it said. The university has also seen a 97 percent increase in first-year underrepresented students since 2014, nearly doubling that enrollment in six years, the university stated.

Undergraduate enrollment has increased by 543, or 3 percent, for a total of 18,061. Graduate student enrollment is up 11 percent for a total of 1,962. App State Online enrollment (undergraduate and graduate) has increased by more than 18 percent for a total of 1,513. New online graduate students have increased by nearly 30 percent from last year.

“These accomplishments speak directly to the tremendous efforts of our faculty and staff, as they continue to deliver top-quality educational experiences for our students, even amid a global pandemic unlike anything our university has encountered,” Chancellor Sheri Everts said in a statement. “Appalachian continues to attract and retain high-caliber students who graduate and embody the promise of higher education as they make positive contributions to communities across North Carolina and beyond.”

Another key performance indicator for universities across the nation is the first- to second-year retention rate. Appalachian’s overall 2020 first- to second-year retention rate is 86.5 percent, more than 12 points above the national average, it said. Among underrepresented students, that rate is 83.5 percent, outperforming the overall national average for all students by 9 points.

“Our strong retention rate is a testament to our rigorous academic programs and comprehensive student support services. We want our students to successfully matriculate and experience all Appalachian has to offer,” Everts said.

The university opened two new residence halls for the fall 2020 semester — Thunder Hill and Raven Rocks — that provide a combined 912 beds and 240,550 square feet. A third is under construction. Justice Hall is being demolished to make way for the construction of a fourth residence hall.

The 20,000 enrollment goal has been criticized by some faculty and Boone community members. During a November 2019 Faculty Senate meeting, faculty expressed concerns about the potential of negatively impacting the university’s academic quality as well as resources and space for the increase in students.

These concerns were exacerbated when the state started to shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the university stated a month later that it was still charging toward the 20,000 enrollment goal. Through the spring and summer, university employees and community members have expressed concerns about bringing students back to the area.

As of Aug. 25, App State was one of the largest University of North Carolina universities still holding in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, East Carolina and UNC-Charlotte have each made the transition to hosting all undergraduate classes online amid rising COVID-19 infection rates.

Since students moved to campus on Aug. 10, App State has seen an uptick in case numbers. On Sept. 1, the active case count included 46 students and one employee. Since March 27, the university has confirmed a total 188 cases in students, 25 in employees and 41 in subcontractors.

Kayla Lasure and Anna Oakes contributed reporting to this article.

Watauga ordered to issue Rainbow Trail asphalt plant permit, county to appeal
Rainbow Trail battle continues

BOONE — The Watauga County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted on Sept. 1 to appeal to the N.C. Court of Appeals once again in a five-year battle against a proposed asphalt plant on Rainbow Trail in Boone.

County attorney Anthony di Santi provided the commissioners with an update on the case during the board’s Sept. 1 meeting. During the open session, di Santi explained that the county was waiting on action from the Watauga Superior Court on the the matter that was “expected at any time.” di Santi and the board then learned during closed session that Watauga Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus issued an order for Watauga County to issue a high-impact land use permit to Appalachian Materials.

The board came back into open session to approve an appeal to go before the N.C. Court of Appeals. A motion to appeal will be filed once Gavenus’ order is filed with the Superior Court of Watauga County, di Santi said. He gave the board an overview of the case earlier in the meeting, which he said had been “pending for a substantial amount of time.”

Appalachian Materials — a subsidiary of Radford Quarries — leased property on a site on Rainbow Trail in November 2013 to construct and operate an asphalt plant. In June 2015, Appalachian Materials applied to the county for a high-impact land use permit for the asphalt plant. The same month, the ordinance administrator — Watauga Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman — denied the permit because the application was “deficient on numerous issues,” di Santi said.

The proposed plant was to be placed within 1,500 feet of the Margaret E. Gragg Education Center (located at 175 Pioneer Trail). The HILU ordinance specifically banned a HILU use within 1,500 feet of an “education facility” as defined by the ordinance, according to di Santi. In July 2015, Appalachian Materials appealed the denial of the permit to the Watauga Board of Adjustment. After a three-day hearing in October 2015, the board of adjustment affirmed Furman’s decision as the proposed site was within 1,500 feet of the Margaret E. Gragg Education Center, which was classified as an education facility.

Appalachian Materials appealed the decision to the Watauga County Superior Court, and in September 2017 Superior Court Judge Greg Horne affirmed the decision of the board of adjustment by ruling that the proposed asphalt plant site was within 1,500 feet of an education facility, di Santi said. This decision was then appealed in November 2018 to the N.C. Court of Appeals, which reversed the decision of the Superior Court stating that the Margaret E. Gragg Education Center was not an education facility as defined by the HILU ordinance. The case was then remanded to the Superior Court for “proceedings not inconsistent with its decision,” di Santi said.

In December 2018, Watauga County petitioned the N.C. Supreme Court for discretionary review of the decision of the Court of Appeals, but the court in March 2019 declined to hear the county’s appeal.

After waiting for more than a year for Appalachian Materials to schedule a hearing before the Superior Court of Watauga County regarding the remand from the Court of Appeals, di Santi said Watauga filed a motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute a claim — heard in the Superior Court on July 1 of this year. In response to the motion to dismiss, Appalachian Materials filed a motion requesting that the Superior Court issue an order to the Watauga County Board of Adjustment and to Furman to issue the HILU permit for the asphalt plant, according to di Santi.

The county’s motion was denied by Gavenus. Since then, the county had been waiting for Gavenus’ decision on the request to order the board of adjustment and Furman to issue the HILU permit. di Santi said the county’s argument affirmed by the decision by Furman and the board of adjustment in stating that the application for issuance of the permit was deficient on the basis of its location relative to the education center.

“We’re arguing to the court that there’s not been sufficient information submitted to the ordinance administrator or the board of adjustment to qualify to have the permit issued,” di Santi said.

Meanwhile, a separate local asphalt plant case is still pending — Randall and Carolyn Henion vs. Watauga County, J.W. Hampton Co. and Maymead. Also in a multi-year struggle, the Henions appealed in fall 2018 to the N.C. Supreme Court in opposition of a proposed Maymead asphalt plant along U.S. 421 in Deep Gap. According to Jamie Whitlock of Davis and Whitlock — an environmental law firm in Asheville — the Supreme Court has still not made a decision in the matter as of Sept. 1.

Ashe commissioner Larry Dix charged with crimes against children

ASHE COUNTY — A member of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners has been arrested on accusations of committing crimes against children, according to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.

Larry C. Dix, 69, of Grassy Creek, was arrested Thursday, Aug. 27, and charged with four counts of indecent liberties with a minor. According to the warrants for his arrest, Dix “unlawfully, willfully and feloniously did take and attempt to take immoral, improper and indecent liberties” with a victim under the age of 16.

On July 3, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation began an investigation at the request of District Attorney Tom Horner, according to a release from the N.C. SBI. The SBI said the alleged offenses occurred between July 1, 2019, and June 19, 2020, adding that the investigation is still ongoing.

Dix was elected to the Ashe County Board of Commissioners in November 2018. His term is set to expire in 2022. Ashe County Manager Adam Stumb said the county and his office had no comment on the situation at this time, but added, “I know we’re all trying to process this right now and are awaiting additional details regarding the charges.”

In 2009, Dix was awarded with one of the highest honors in the state, the Order of the Longleaf Pine, which is “for persons who have made significant contributions to the state and their communities through their exemplary service and exceptional accomplishments” according to the award’s website.

Dix also served as the head coach of the boys and girls tennis teams for Ashe County High School from 2011 until this past summer, when he resigned, according to Superintendent Eisa Cox. Cox said the school system found out about Dix’s arrest and charges at the same time as everyone else, and has been informed by the SBI that the investigation is outside of the school system.

As of presstime, Dix was being held at the Alleghany County Detention Center under a $200,000 secured bond. According to Ashe County Sheriff B. Phil Howell, Dix was moved to Alleghany due to his position on the Ashe County Board of Commissioners.

Dix has a date set in Ashe County District Court for Thursday, Sept. 3.