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Boone council approves mask mandate for public; restriction takes effect June 20

BOONE — Beginning Saturday, June 20, face coverings are 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.

The council reconsidered a mask mandate upon the request of Councilperson Sam Furgiuele, who first made a motion to require face coverings to be worn by the public at a May 26 meeting of the council. The motion failed at that time by a vote of 2-3, with Councilperson Loretta Clawson joining Furgiuele in favor but Councilpersons Dustin Hicks, Nancy LaPlaca and Connie Ulmer voting against the motion.

Furgiuele asked the council to reconsider the restriction because COVID-19 case numbers have continued to increase locally and across the state, and because he has observed many people who are not wearing masks in public, even in establishments where signage asks or directs customers to wear masks.

“There are very few people who are wearing masks and many who are ignoring social distancing,” Furgiuele stated in meeting materials. “Masks have been shown to be effective in reducing the transmission of the virus, and we should take this small step to try to protect the employees in Boone businesses, Boone residents and our visitors.”

The amendment to the town’s state of emergency declaration states that in any commercial business or town office, in an area that is open to the general public, all customers, employees and any other occupants or users of such area shall wear a face covering. While wearing a face covering, social distancing (six feet) shall still be maintained so far as possible.

The amendment makes exceptions for: people who cannot wear a face covering due to a medical or behavioral health condition; children under 11; customers at restaurants who are seated at their tables; law enforcement officers or emergency responders who reasonably deem it necessary to remove a face covering in the course of his or her duties; a person complying with directions issued by a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop or criminal investigation; and a person who reasonably deems it necessary to remove his or her face covering for safety reasons or in order to carry out his or her job duties.

Violation of the restriction would be punishable by a class 2 misdemeanor, but police would be directed to first educate upon the first offense, and then give a warning before citing someone with a violation.

The restriction was slated to take effect at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 20, with enforcement of any penalties to be delayed by an additional three weeks.

“In my 20-plus years (on the council), I believe this is the most important vote I have ever cast,” Clawson said. “This vote is about saving lives.”

Hicks, LaPlaca and Ulmer expressed varying concerns about how the restriction would be enforced by police. Hicks suggested that the council spend more time discussing the responsibilities of officers and their methods for enforcing the restriction, but Furgiuele pressed the council to move forward.

“Every day that we delay we are putting more lives at risk unnecessarily,” Furgiuele said.

LaPlaca said she could not “support anything that criminalizes behavior by so many unknowing people who come into our town.” She added that she took issue with comments that she felt suggested that supporters of the mandate cared about people while those who were opposed “want people dead.”

Ulmer recalled recent assertions that businesses want to do the right thing with regard to the virus.

“My question is why aren’t they mandating in their restaurants that (people) wear masks?” she said, similar to “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policies. Ulmer ultimately voiced support for the restriction as a temporary measure and joined Furgiuele and Clawson in voting for the motion, with Hicks and LaPlaca against.

The council heard from a number of people on both sides of the mask issue during the June 16 meeting’s public comment period. Tom McLaughlin said he wants to see businesses open back up, which is why he supports mandated mask usage.

“I don’t think we can rely on voluntary good behavior,” McLaughlin said.

Karen Sabo also spoke in support in a statement she submitted to the council, saying, “Those who go without (masks) are selfishly putting their own comfort over the health of the community.”

Other commenters questioned the efficacy of masks and characterized the mandate as authoritarian.

“My health is my concern and not to be dictated by a government body,” said Erik Lanier in a statement.

Boone joins the cities of Raleigh, Asheville, Durham and the counties of Orange, Durham and Buncombe in requiring face coverings in certain public areas. On June 18, Gov. Roy Cooper said state leaders were contemplating a statewide mask mandate, with an announcement to come next week.

“New research shows that this is an incredibly effective tool,” Cooper said, referencing a recent study led by Texas A&M University that found that face coverings “significantly reduces the number of infections.” The study estimated that the use of face coverings alone reduced the number of infections by over 78,000 in Italy from April 6 to May 9 and over 66,000 in New York City from April 17 to May 9.

Asked if mask wearing should be a matter of personal responsibility, Cooper said, “I think public health is a priority, and there are laws in place that allow protections for the public health.”

In other action at the June regular monthly council meetings, the council voted to approve the 2020-21 town budget, with $16.5 million in General Fund expenditures and total spending of $28.2 million.

Boone veteran highlighted for service in Italy during COVID-19 outbreak

In 2017, High Country resident Scott Powell was on St. Maarten, an island in the Caribbean, assisting the Boone-based Christian nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma as the storm continued up the Florida coast, headed toward his then-home in Atlanta, Ga., and his wife, Laura.

Powell said on June 17 that his experience of being “deployed as the homeland was suffering from a similar disaster” was not unlike his more recent return home from Cremona, Italy, where he was deployed to help with COVID-19 response efforts in Samaritan’s Purse’s emergency field hospital.

Powell is the senior global technical advisor for water, sanitation and hygiene at Samaritan’s Purse and has been a full-time employee with the organization since July 2018. He is also a member of the Boone chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars, which launched a foundation-wide #StillServing campaign in May to highlight veterans who continue to serve their communities outside of the Armed Forces.

Upon his return to the High Country from Italy on April 14, Powell says that he completed his 14-day self-quarantine before returning to work at the Samaritan’s Purse International Headquarters in Boone.

“Going into the epicenter (of COVID-19) helped me to understand how great the suffering can be and it helped me to exercise and advocate for stronger precautions back home. It was somewhat surreal returning home to an environment under a similar lockdown as we experienced in Cremona,” Powell said.

Samaritan’s Purse teams were first deployed to Italy on March 17 due to an overwhelming amount of COVID-19 cases at Cremona Hospital, which left medical personnel to choose which patients had the highest rate of survival.

“As I understood, the local hospital was terribly overwhelmed and having to perform triage reminiscent of World War II,” Powell said. “The staff of the Cremona Hospital were having to make difficult decisions about which patients were most likely to survive as they rationed precious few medical supplies and equipment, such as ventilators. Their beds were full, a number of their staff were sick, and the rest were nearing exhaustion. When Samaritan’s Purse opened the emergency field hospital, our intensive care unit was full within 24 hours and we were able to immediately take some of the patient load off of Cremona Hospital medical staff.”

Powell’s responsibilities in Italy included maintaining the hospital’s water supply lines and “changing out the chlorine disinfection solution,” which means that he often saw the coming and going of Samaritan’s Purse nurses and doctors who were closely interacting with COVID-19 patients.

While the “air was heavy with the occasional passing of patients in intensive care, there were still opportunities to lighten the atmosphere with the love of God,” Powell says, noting that since “family members were not allowed to visit patients, we had to create a family atmosphere of our own.”

“We built into our design something of a central ‘piazza’ where patients could sit in the sun, outside their tents, while we talked and sang songs with them over six feet of double fencing to maintain a safe distance. The Italian people were extremely welcoming of us, and we felt privileged to walk alongside them during this very difficult time in their history,” he said.

During Samaritan’s Purse’s time in Italy, Powell said that the number of COVID-19 cases fell from 6,600 cases per day, at its peak, to 1,400 cases per day as of May 7 when the last patient was discharged from the field hospital.

Powell submitted his story to the VFW #StillServing campaign because, after his service in the military — with the 10th Mountain Division in Bosnia — he felt “uniquely called” to use the God-given engineering skills he had developed to “serve wherever the need is greatest.”

“Returning to Italy was especially impactful for me, knowing the storied history of the 10th Mountain’s service there in World War II. When the epicenter of this pandemic shifted to Central Park, New York, the lessons we learned in establishing and operating a respiratory care unit in Italy helped Samaritan’s Purse to replicate a similar facility there,” Powell said. “We would not have been as prepared to serve at home had we not ‘run to the fire’ and deployed to the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe first.”

View and submit #StillServing campaign stories on the VFW website at https://todaysvfw.org.

Find more information about Samaritan’s Purse COVID-19 relief efforts in Cremona, Italy, and New York City, along with its other ongoing efforts, at www.samaritanspurse.org.

Boone PD shares info on policies, outreach; Town schedules July 22 forum, creates committee to study police issues
Read the full release: Boone Community Policing

BOONE — The Boone Police Department issued a statement prepared by interim Police Chief Andy Le Beau on June 18 about its policies and outreach efforts in response to questions received after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the two subsequent protests in Boone.

The questions include topics such as minority sensitivity training, how the department promotes and hires personnel, use of force, body camera usage and current ways the department protects people of color.

“We hold the philosophy that if we police ourselves and hold ourselves to a high standard, then our community will have a police department that everyone can be proud to call their own,” Boone Police stated. “We have truly exceptional men and women who serve at Boone PD and we are striving together to be a model police department in all aspects. We strive to impartially enforce the law and treat all members of our community with dignity and respect. With all of this said, we understand that trust must be earned and we will continue to develop and grow relationships with all community groups to best serve Boone.”

Organizers of the May 31 and June 7 protests in Boone have recently met with staff of the police department, Boone Police stated. These meetings have included members of the Appalachian State University Black Student Association, and one meeting was joined by App State Police Chief Andy Stephenson. Boone Police stated that it was grateful for the help of Cornerstone Summit Church Pastor Reggie Hunt, App State Deputy General Counsel Toussaint Romain, U.S. Buildings owner Tommy Sofield and Boone Town Manager John Ward to help facilitate these meetings.

“We have begun meaningful dialogue and making plans with these young leaders to continue to develop our relationships and increase our understanding,” stated Boone Police.

The department explained that it began mandatory training in 2016 on state-mandated topics such as minority sensitivity, equality in policing, implicit bias and other community policing topics. In 2019, the Boone Police leaders determined that these classes were insufficient and sought out expert instructors to teach the topic of implicit bias. Appalachian State University Professor Chuck Claxton and Hickory Police Department Lt. Steve Hunt (ret.) taught a daylong class on “community policing before the crisis and implicit bias.”

The department stated that its command staff met with a prominent civil rights leader in January this year to arrange further implicit bias training.

Four years ago, the department began inviting members of the community — including minority communities — to sit on promotional process boards to help assess candidates for promotion. According to the department, four ethnic groups were represented on a lieutenant process during its last promotional process in 2019.

“This gives community leaders direct input into who we promote,” the department stated. “In our hiring practices, we have collaborated with ASU’s internship program and recently with their Basic Law Enforcement Training program, which has led to increased diversity within our department.”

A June 4 meeting conducted by Black in Boone — a black-led advocacy group — led to a discussion of the group’s hope to start a civilian oversight board for community accountability of local police. According to Black in Boone, the group would have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary actions and dictate police policies, priorities and budgets.

“The board shall not include police representation, and will have primary representation from ethnic minorities, those most impacted by policing and incarceration,” said Mary Lyons, a group organizer, during the June 4 meeting. “We trust that they actually want to improve and have been taking steps to improve. We want to make sure we can do it in a more sustainable, community-led way.”

Boone Town Council Member Nancy LaPlaca said she supports a community oversight board, but said she thinks the power of the board should be carefully considered by the community, town council, police department and town manager. She felt that there should be police representation on a community board. Council Member Dustin Hicks also would be open to the idea of the oversight board if community members who are engaged with Black in Boone brought the idea to town council.

“I think that’s one of the best things we can do within the frameworks that we have to get police to be beholden to who they need to be beholden to as much as possible — which is community members,” Hicks said. “I think that would be a wonderful thing for us to do, and I think it’s very possible for us to do it.”

The conversation comes as some around the nation have made calls to “defund” the police. CNN reported that to some, defunding the police means reallocating some — but not all — funds away from police departments to other agencies such as social services. The news network explained that others want to see a reform of policing entirely by disbanding police and following a model of community-led public safety.

“I personally think that in the long run … we need to be thinking about alternative institutions that can do the work of public safety but not necessarily do it under the institution of the police,” Hicks said. “We need to be creating institutions, and I don’t think that will happen overnight.”

Hicks suggested that the police structure could be temporarily maintained while work begins to defund certain practices of the police that might be better suited for others in the community.

LaPlaca said she thinks the police budget should be reviewed and that the town should look at whether monies should go to other organizations that directly serve the public.

The department addressed community questions regarding the 8 Can’t Wait campaign — a project by Campaign Zero. The campaign includes eight suggestions for policies on the use of force: banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation, requiring a warning before shooting, requiring exhausting all alternatives before shooting, a duty to intervene, banning shooting at moving vehicles, requiring the use of a force continuum and requiring comprehensive reporting. Boone Police stated that a “vast majority” of the suggestions were already included within its Use of Force Policy.

“In fact, our use of force policy has far more protections than the 8 Can’t Wait recommendations,” Boone Police stated. “However, because of the 8 Can’t Wait suggestions, we have strengthened the language regarding the duty to intervene and emphasized further the mandate that de-escalation techniques be employed whenever possible. All of our officers receive Crisis Intervention Training that teaches de-escalation techniques and education about dealing with individuals with mental illnesses.”

Boone Police stated that its Use of Force Policy is 15 pages long and includes a detailed use of force continuum, state law language and specific instructions for post-arrest monitoring and care of prisoners to avoid in-custody deaths or injury, according to police.

If a citizen were to file a complaint of excessive force — which police stated would involve a criminal violation — the chief of police would request the State Bureau of Investigations to conduct an independent review. Their findings would be submitted to the district attorney of the 24th District (including Watauga, Avery, Madison, Mitchell, and Yancey counties) to determine if the use of force was lawful or if criminal charges would be appropriate. The officer(s) under investigation would be placed on administrative leave during the investigative process.

Boone Police would also conduct an administrative investigation to focus on policy violations. The department explained that during a criminal investigation an officer is afforded all of the constitutional rights that any citizen would be entitled to who is under investigation. In an administrative investigation, the officer is compelled to answer all questions and to answer them truthfully. Failure to answer all questions truthfully will result in a recommendation for termination regardless of any criminal proceedings.

“The command staff at the Boone Police Department conduct an internal review of all use of force incidents whether a complaint is filed or not,” the department stated. “The supervisor reviews body camera footage for each incident as part of the review. All officers are required to complete a comprehensive report for all use of force actions. If an officer’s actions were discovered by our agency that appeared to be a criminal violation, we would also refer the case to the SBI for investigation.”

Boone Police explained that the department implemented body cameras in 2013, and the department’s policy requires officers to use the body cameras when interacting with citizens. The system automatically downloads the video without any input from the officers. Officers can only view the video, but cannot delete or alter the video, as the system does not allow any type of manipulation of the video, according to Boone Police. While digital storage is expensive, the department has decided during the past several years to keep all videos indefinitely.

“Our officers have embraced the body cameras and all agree that they would not want to work without the cameras as this technology protects them from false accusations,” stated Boone Police. “Importantly for citizens, body cameras provide accountability for the officers’ actions.”

The department said it has been proactive in protecting people of color. Around 2016, the department began meeting with members of the local Latino community through a group that is now the Immigrant Justice Coalition to ensure that Latino community members are knowledgeable about how they can access Boone Police services and how the department can assist them. Boone Police have also attended both of the previous Faith Action ID drives in Boone, which provided identification for any resident in the community who may not be able to obtain a government-issued ID.

“This was a huge success to develop the level of trust for such a large group of Latino community members to show up knowing that law enforcement was going to be present,” Boone Police stated.

In 2014, the department began meeting with the Watauga Chapter of the NAACP to discuss topics such as use of force and body cameras, and the department said it still meets with members of the group on a monthly basis.

Additionally, the department has joined the Boone Mennonite Brethren Church — a local historic black church — for a community fish fry for the past two years. Boone Police stated that Rev. Mike Mathes has been a “great community leader” that has worked with Boone Police Sgt. Dennis O’Neal, who is assigned to that district to enhance the community relations between the Junaluska community and the police department.

The department mentioned its Community Contact program that began in 2013, in which officers visit businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups and any other types of community groups. Last year, Boone Police conducted a seven-month-long “Coffee with a Cop” series focused on topics such as forensic evidence, body cameras and its canine program. Several officers have also adopted classes at Hardin Park and participate in the Lunch Buddies program.

“We have the opportunity to have positive interactions with all children, including children of color, on a regular basis,” Boone Police stated.

Beginning in 2018, the department has held an annual police forum open to the public with a presentation about different aspects of the department. The forum was proposed by Boone Town Councilperson Sam Furgiuele, who said he requested the forum so that citizens could learn about police practices in Boone as well as directly engage with the police concerning issues.

At its meeting on June 18, the council voted to schedule a web-based police forum at 6 p.m. on July 22, with citizen questions due to the town clerk no later than July 8. The council also approved Furgiuele’s proposal to create a committee of the mayor, the five council members and six other members recruited by the council to discuss police issues and make recommendations if warranted, starting with consideration of the 8 Can’t Wait proposals.

“I have great confidence in the Boone Police and the department’s leadership,” Furgiuele said. “They have diversified their workforce and have focused training on de-escalation and the avoidance of deadly force. They have been active in community outreach. I nevertheless believe it is important that we continue our conversation and the increased transparency which discussion facilitates. Such a conversation is the starting point for any change which might be needed and beneficial.”

To view the full Boone Police question-and-answer document, visit wataugademocrat.com.