BOONE — 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.
The motion was made by Councilperson Loretta Clawson, who was absent from the 3-1 vote on May 21 to pass the emergency declaration amendments. Clawson and Councilpersons Dustin Hicks, Nancy LaPlaca and Connie Ulmer voted to remove the self-isolation restriction, while Sam Furgiuele, who originally proposed the emergency declaration amendments, voted against the motion.
The restriction barred anyone who had overnighted outside of Watauga County from entering indoor establishments in Boone until they had stayed in the county for an uninterrupted 14-day period.
"This has been unbelievably disruptive. This is a great way to just end the pain," said LaPlaca, who cast the lone dissenting vote against the May 21 restrictions. With businesses trying to reopen and getting mixed messages about different government restrictions, “I got calls and emails and texts from business owners that couldn't keep up," she added.
The town’s restrictions passed May 21 were a departure from the unified countywide actions of the county and its four towns since March, which included a similar 14-day quarantine order for people arriving in the county from overnight stays elsewhere. But the county commission voted to lift that restriction with the beginning of Phase 2 of the statewide reopening, which began at 5 p.m. May 22. Surrounding counties and towns did the same.
On May 22, Superior Court Judge Gregory Horne granted a request for a temporary restraining order precluding the town from enforcing the 14-day self-isolation restriction. The request was filed at 4:07 p.m. by Anne-Marie Yates, Mountain Resort Management LLC (dba Holiday Inn Express), Hospitality Group of Hickory and Smokey Mountain Hospitality LLC, who are represented by attorney Nathan Miller.
Speaking May 22, Miller said his clients would challenge whether the Boone Town Council’s restriction was lawful under § 166A-19.22, the N.C. General Statute governing municipal and county declarations of emergency — specifically, whether or not the town’s “emergency” was legitimate in light of evidence that the state has “flattened the curve.”
The clients also planned to challenge on constitutional grounds, including the right to travel under the U.S. Constitution and the right to earn a livelihood under the North Carolina Constitution.
“We were put in the lockdown to flatten the curve,” Miller said on May 22, and to give health providers time to stock up on personal protective equipment and ventilators.
“Everybody complied with it for the most part,” Miller said. “It was a restriction of my constitutional rights, but we all complied with it.” Now, he said, the town of Boone has “moved the goalpost.”
After the council’s vote on May 26, Miller said he had not yet spoken to his clients about the action to remove the restriction.
The council held an emergency meeting on May 23 and a special meeting on May 26 to give direction to its attorney with regard to the restraining order and to consider potential clarifications and modifications to its state of emergency declaration.
On May 26, the council heard public comments from 18 people — including several who have spoken to the council previously about the restrictions. A number of business leaders said that since May 21, their businesses had received hundreds of calls from customers who were angry or confused about the town’s new restrictions.
“I fear the restraining order, although swift, was not enough to prevent the damage done,” said Tara Brossa, general manager of the Hampton Inn and Suites in Boone.
Miller, who spoke during the public comment period on May 26, said that while some people receive pay from a governmental source, “the private economy relies on commerce.” Wright Tilley, executive director of the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority, added, “People need to work. They need money to feed their families and to keep a roof over their head.”
Justin Patel, owner of the La Quinta, Super 8 and Sleep Inn, said his businesses needed a return to work not for profit, but for survival: “No business in Boone is going to make money this year. We are all going to struggle to get by.”
Donna Lisenby of Vilas urged the council to fight to maintain the self-isolation requirement.
“I believe that saving lives is more important than making money. Profit for a few should not cost the lives of many,” Lisenby said. Boone resident Pam Williamson addressed her comment to her fellow Boone citizens, saying, “If your council lacks strength, character and moral clarity, it doesn’t serve you, it serves you up.”
In defending his proposals, Furgiuele noted the rising numbers of cases in surrounding counties and that the self-isolation restriction only would have been in place until June 16. He also noted the large number of visitors in downtown Boone last weekend who were not wearing masks and not social distancing.
“It was reasonable, and it was prudent,” Furgiuele said. “Until visitors invaded the area, we were doing quite well.”
Furgiuele added that many of the employees who were out of work were likely making more money with the government’s enhanced unemployment compensation than they were previously with their employers who had spoken to the council.
Hicks said they had spoken more with AppHealthCare Director Jennifer Greene and with a loved one who is a nurse in Wilkes County, and that they disagreed that the matter is as simple as people vs. profit.
“I want to emphasize that we’ve got to keep doing stuff on this for sure, but on this end I need to side with the health experts in this,” Hicks said. “From what I’m hearing we’re capable of handling an increase. We know we will have an increase.”
The council also voted to make minor clarifications to other provisions of the state of emergency amendments enacted on May 21 — including measures requiring face masks to be worn by employees interacting with the public, mandated social distancing in establishments open to the public, mandated screening by establishments of employees for COVID-19 symptoms and other measures — and to delay the effective date of the provisions until June 2 to give the town time to educate businesses and the public about the measures.
A motion by Sam Furgiuele to require face coverings to be worn by people entering indoor establishments open to the public — with exceptions for people sitting at their table in restaurants and people with potential medical issues — failed by a vote of 2-3, with Ulmer, LaPlaca and Hicks against. The three expressed concerns about how a face mask requirement would be enforced, and Hicks indicated they would like to discuss the idea further.
“Every one of these people that we just listened to today said, 'Let us be responsible. We will be responsible,'" Ulmer said. "Maybe we should give them that chance.”
Furgiuele disagreed that the mask requirement would be difficult to enforce, saying that police could easily see if a person is wearing a mask. He said it seems that people are concerned more about inconveniencing visitors than protecting the people who live here. "The people who live here have to hide so they don’t get infected," he said, while people who visit here "have the run of the town."
"I find that really objectionable," he said.