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Cooper announces NC will move ahead with Phase 1 of reopening

RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper has signed an executive order to move North Carolina into Phase 1 of easing COVID-19-related restrictions beginning this Friday, May 8.

Under Phase 1, most businesses can open, retail stores can open at 50 percent capacity, parks and trails are encouraged to reopen, close-contact businesses (such as gyms, salons and movie theaters) will remain closed, restaurants will continue to be open for takeout and delivery only, and gatherings are still limited to 10 people, but gathering outdoors with friends is allowed.

The order removes the distinction between essential and non-essential businesses. Retail businesses allowed to open at 50 percent capacity will be required to direct customers to stand six feet apart, perform frequent cleanings, provide hand sanitizer when available, screen workers for symptoms and more. The order allows people to leave their homes for commercial activity at any business that is open.

All workers at retail and other businesses are recommended to wear cloth face coverings, and the order encourages cloth face coverings to be worn when outside the home and in contact with others, according to the governor’s office. Teleworking is still encouraged for businesses that can practice it.

“Because the combination of our indicators tell us that our trends are mostly decreasing or leveling, I have signed an executive order to move North Carolina into Phase 1 of easing restrictions,” Cooper said at a press briefing on May 5. “I want to be clear — North Carolina’s stay-at-home order will remain in place. But it will be modified to allow for more reasons for people to leave home and to allow for more commercial activity.”

The order begins at 5 p.m. this Friday, May 8, and expires May 22. Cooper said that if North Carolina’s metrics were not improving by the time the order expires, the state will remain in Phase 1.

“COVID-19 is still a serious threat to our state, and Phase 1 is designed to be a limited easing of restrictions that can boost parts of our economy while keeping important safety rules in place,” Cooper said in a statement. “This is a careful and deliberate first step, guided by the data, and North Carolinians still must use caution while this virus is circulating.”

The governor and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen on April 23 announced the plan for a three-phased reopening of the state and lifting of restrictions put in place since March by the governor’s executive orders.

Cohen said state leaders were eyeing four key metrics as it made decisions about lifting restrictions: the trajectory of COVID-like illness reported over 14 days, the trajectory of new lab-confirmed cases over 14 days, the percentage of tests conducted that are positive and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. N.C. leaders also aimed to double the number of tests conducted per day, to double the number of contact tracers at local health departments to 500 statewide and to increase the availability of personal protective equipment to at least at 30-day supply.

Cohen described the trajectory of COVID-like illness and percentage of positive tests to be decreasing, hospitalizations to be level and new cases to be slightly increasing. Testing has doubled, contact tracers are being hired and PPE supply chains have improved with the exception of gowns, she said.

In her remarks at the May 5 press briefing, Cohen concluded that overall, North Carolina’s COVID-19 trends were “stable,” and that the state is not seeing significant downward trajectories in most metrics because the state was successful at preventing a peak.

“We’re not perfect, but we’re stable,” Cohen said.

“We still want you to stay home,” Cohen added. “If you’re sick you should definitely be staying home.”

She encouraged anyone leaving home to follow the three Ws: “Wear a face covering, wash your hands, and wait six feet apart.”

Cohen also mentioned a report released by NCDHHS on May 5 concluding that more than half (51.1 percent) of North Carolina adults are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 because they are 65 or older, have at least one underlying health condition or both.

In a statement responding to the announcement, Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger said, "Gov. Cooper’s announcement today is largely a continuation of the existing lockdown. We were told 'flattening the curve' to prevent overloading hospitals justified a lockdown. Hospitals are not overloaded, and in fact they’re laying people off.

"So what is the theory to support this plan — eliminate infections or just delay them?" Berger said. "Today in North Carolina, over half of our counties comprise less than 10 percent of confirmed cases. Why is a blanket, one-size-fits-all statewide order justified? I’m concerned that Gov. Cooper is ignoring more reasonable approaches and the experiences of the majority of states."

Image courtesy Gov. Roy Cooper's office 

A chart illustrates the modifications to statewide restrictions that will take place as part of Phase 1 of the North Carolina reopening.

WCS names 2020-21 Teachers of the Year

Watauga County Schools on May 4 announced its 2020-21 Teachers of the Year from each of its nine schools.

Chosen by their peers, the group was selected from more than 300 teachers district-wide at all grade levels. This year’s group includes Chelsie Eldreth from Bethel, Angela Watson from Blowing Rock, Leslie Hall from Cove Creek, Tara Watson from Green Valley, Elizabeth Hutelmyer from Hardin Park, Erin Ellington from Mabel, Sydney Sieviec from Parkway, Leslie Howser from Valle Crucis and Hunter Lloyd from Watauga High School.

Each of the winners were awarded by groups of peers, family members and staff who surprised the award winner with the recognition in their classrooms in the days preceding the statewide stay-at-home order that closed schools.

Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott offered his congratulations to the newly named Teachers of the Year, and thanked them for their dedication to their students.

“It is a high honor to be recognized by your peers as a Teacher of the Year,” Elliott said. “All nine of these outstanding teachers are highly respected leaders in their schools and within our school system. Watauga County Schools is fortunate to have so many skilled, professional and highly effective educators leading and teaching our children. Especially in this unprecedented year, I remain grateful for all the many ways our teachers contribute to the success of our students and the quality of our community.”

Each school’s Teacher of the Year will receive an award of $350 from the school system and is automatically a candidate for Watauga County Schools Teacher of the Year. The person chosen as WCS Teacher of the Year will receive an additional $350 from the school system. Local businesses are able to donate gift certificates or other prizes to help recognize Teachers of the Year.

Businesses or individuals interested in making a donation this year are encouraged to contact Human Resources Director Stephen Martin or Public Information Director Garrett Price at (828) 264-7190.

The businesses that supported Teachers of the Year with donations in the past include Chetola Resort, Chick-fil-A, Stick Boy Bread Company, Panera Bread, AFLAC, Bandana’s Bar-B-Q and Grill, Dos Amigos, Friendship Honda of Boone, Hardee’s, Makoto’s, Subway, Cornerstone Bookstore, BeanStalk Community Theatre, Haircut 101, Michael’s, Omega Tees and Screen Printing, Precision Printing, Hibbett Sports, SageSport, Blue Ridge Vision, Tanger Outlets and Walgreens.

The WCS district-wide Teacher of the Year will be announced in May after a selection process that includes interviews and a review of a written statement of teaching philosophy prepared by each candidate.

Board OKs phased plan for lifting Watauga restrictions

BOONE — Watauga County has 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 Gov. Roy Cooper.

The governor’s executive orders allow for local government restrictions that go beyond the statewide mandates. 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.

County Manager Deron Geouque presented the Watauga County Board of Commissioners with three options for reopening plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic during the group’s May 5 virtual meeting. Geouque said plans were made in consultation with local municipal leaders, the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce and officials of surrounding counties.

Option 1 — which the commissioners unanimously approved — will mirror the same timeframe that Cooper will implement. Cooper’s plan involves three phases, and the county plan will not lift local restrictions until phase 2. According to Geouque, Watauga officials will wait two weeks after the beginning of the state’s phase 2 to implement a partial lifting of some restrictions.

Geouque said the decision was made to ease restrictions two weeks into phase 2 as restaurants and more businesses will be allowed to open during that phase. County officials would like to use the two-week span to monitor impacts.

If metrics are met and local health officials deem it appropriate, then option 1 allows the county to authorize short-term rentals with a reduction in occupancy — facilities with more than a six-person occupancy shall be limited to 50 percent of occupancy capacity or 50 percent of available rental units — whichever is less — during the second week of phase 2. At the same time, the county would discontinue the 14-day self-quarantine restriction.

AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene said that with more testing on the horizon and the easing of restrictions, Watauga will experience more COVID-19 cases. She said the county is hoping for more of a consistent “storm” rather than a “flash flood of cases.”

In order to perform more testing, Greene said AppHealthCare must ensure in tandem that it has the capability of widespread contact tracing in place. The agency is trying to time its testing expansion in concert with gaining more help with contact tracing as officials “can’t do one without the other.”

Greene has participated in a state team that’s working to expand contact tracing via the Carolina Contact Tracing Collaborative monitored by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. NCDHHS has selected a contractor — Community Care of NC — who will be hiring a workforce to deploy across the state, according to Greene.

David Jackson, the president and CEO of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports the two-week wait into phase 2 to allow businesses time to ramp back up. In order for the community to get back to a level that visitors can be welcomed, businesses need time, he said.

“A bit of rationale behind the two weeks was to give our local infrastructure time to catch up to make sure that cleaning policies they may be implementing are indeed working and that they’re able to staff properly,” Jackson said. “So that they’re not forced into thinking they need to open at 100 percent when they might not financially be able to do so at this point in time.”

The commissioners approved option 1 with an addition suggested by Watauga Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Wright Tilley. Tilley advised that the county include language about families being able to stay together in one rental unit. Tilley said the TDA had consistently heard from rental management companies throughout the county that it would be difficult to open without allowing a single family currently living together to occupy one dwelling.

During phase 3 of the state plan, the county would have a total lifting of the occupancy reduction to allow establishments to operate at full capacity. Watauga will then follow the lead of the National Park Service on how it will open campgrounds — such as Price Park — to determine the approach to opening local campgrounds.

The county’s option 2 would have removed all county restrictions with the implementation of Cooper’s phase I. Option 3 proposed to end all county restrictions with the implementation of the state’s phase 2.

Boone Town Manager John Ward, Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox and Seven Devils Town Manager Debbie Powers were all included in the May 5 call and each voiced their support for option 1.

Geouque said he’d had conversations with officials in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery and Wilkes counties to see what other leaders may be implementing. He said that he believed that the Ashe County Board of Commissioners did not take action on the matter at its May 4 board meeting on Monday and planned to allow short-term rental restrictions to expire May 8 if Cooper’s phase 1 is implemented.

According to Geouque, Avery County planned to lift the 14-day self quarantine in phase 1 while also using a 50 percent short-term rental occupancy restriction, similar to Watauga. He added that to his knowledge, Wilkes County was leaving decisions about short-term rentals up to its individual municipalities. Geouque said Watauga wanted to share a unified message about restrictions rather than municipalities offering different directives.

The commissioners received seven letters for public comment — all gave remarks about restrictions and when they should be lifted. All but one called for the county to lift restrictions earlier; the one that agreed with option 1 to lift restrictions was Blowing Rock Town Council Member David Harwood.

A letter from Blowing Rock Civic Association President Tim Gupton said the association encouraged the commissioners to lift the quarantine order at the beginning of Phase 1 as outlined in Cooper’s plan. He said the group also believed that returning homeowners were a lower risk to the community than tourists.

“Returning homeowners are traveling from one stay-at-home community to another and those restrictions are adequate to allow for an orderly return to Blowing Rock,” said Gupton in his letter. “If homeowners wait until the county lifts the quarantine order at the same time as they lift the rental restriction order then both homeowners and tourists could descend on our town at once. So, we believe a phased approach makes more sense.”

A joint statement was sent from Hound Ears Club President Ann Lovern and COO/General Manager Russ Curtis. The officials listed changes to the club’s operations it had made so far and other precautions taken to keep club members safe. Lovern and Curtis stated that while Hound Ears strives for a safe environment, the club also needs to provide part-time residents, members and seasonal renters the “opportunity to safely enjoy the High Country.” The two urged the county to support option 2.

Debbie Miller and Richard Miller are both part-time residents in Beech Mountain and wrote separate statements. Debbie Miller said she has owned a home in Beech Mountain for 20 years, and also resides in Florida.

“I am very concerned for our country if states don’t begin to open up immediately,” said Debbie Miller in her comments. “Please do not delay and consider the permanent, extensive, economical damage that could occur.”

Boone man sentenced to 10 years as part of drug trafficking investigation

Ashley Dawn Walker

CHARLOTTE — A Boone man and a Lansing woman were each sentenced to 10 years in prison and five years of supervised release for trafficking methamphetamine, according to an April 30 announcement by U.S. Attorney Andrew Murray.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth D. Bell handed down the judgment to Ashley Dawn Walker, 33, of Lansing, and Cody Ryan Oakes, 31, of Boone. The U.S. Attorney’s office stated that the convictions were due in part to an ongoing multi-agency drug trafficking task force investigation.

According to filed court documents and an April 30 sentencing hearing, Walker was a member of a drug conspiracy trafficking methamphetamine in Ashe County from 2018 until July 2019. In addition to trafficking methamphetamine, Walker previously admitted that, on two occasions, she and her co-conspirators participated in drug-related robberies of competitor drug dealers, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

On Dec. 17, 2019, Walker pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.

In Oakes’ case, court records show that Oakes conspired with Jared Pardue — who during the relevant time period was incarcerated in Georgia — to buy methamphetamine from Pardue’s supply source in Georgia. Oakes then transported the methamphetamine back to Western North Carolina and sold to it to local dealers.

According to court records, from January 2019 to June 2019, Oakes trafficked approximately 3.5 kilograms of methamphetamine from Georgia to Watauga County and elsewhere. Oakes pleaded guilty on Nov. 5, 2019, to conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Pardue pleaded guilty to federal drug trafficking charges for his role in the conspiracy and is currently awaiting sentencing.

Both defendants are currently in federal custody. Federal sentences are served without the possibility of parole.

The two defendants were prosecuted as part of an ongoing Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation. According to court documents, since 2015, more than 200 individuals have been prosecuted, and more than 100 pounds of methamphetamine, $1 million in cash and 60 firearms have been seized as a result of the investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven R. Kaufman is prosecuting both cases.

The U.S. Attorney’s office was joined in making the announcement by Vincent C. Pallozzi (special agent in charge of the Charlotte Field Division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), Ronnie Martinez (special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations in Charlotte), Robert Schurmeier (director of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation), Sheriff B. Phil Howell of the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Len D. Hagaman of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office and Chief Dana Crawford of the Boone Police Department.

Murray thanked all of the law enforcement agencies involved for their outstanding investigative work.