Gaston leaders: Businesses can reopen despite N.C. orders, but may face legal consequences

Residents, business owners confused after Gaston County leaders send mixed messages

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - Gaston County leaders appeared to backtrack slightly just hours after announcing a plan to sign an order reopening businesses in the county, which would contradict Gov. Roy Cooper’s Stay at Home order extension.

The Board of Commissioners first announced their new order during at 10 a.m. meeting Wednesday at the Gaston County Courthouse.

“Gaston County leadership supports the reopening of Gaston County,” Gaston County Commissioner Tracy Philbeck said of an order he plans to sign, which will be effective April 29 at 5 p.m. “Staying home is not a solution,” Philbeck said. “People need to go back to work.”

After talking with local health officials, Philbeck said the county’s numbers do not warrant a Stay at Home order to continue. “If you don’t wanna open your business, you don’t have to," Philbeck said. “We can protect the health of our citizens while at the same time putting out citizens back at work."

Just hours later, Gaston County officials sent out an update, complete with a newly-updated, signed order.

“Gov. Cooper’s staff has rightly pointed out today that in response to Gaston County’s new order, taking effect at 5 p.m. today, it acknowledges that the state order supersedes our own,” the statement reads.

The release included a paragraph of the signed order:

“WHILE CLARIFYING THAT GASTON COUNTY RESIDENTS AND BUSINESSES ARE STILL SUBJECT AND RESTRICTED BY ANY AND ALL OF THE GOVERNOR’S EXECUTIVE ORDERS UNLESS AND UNTIL THEY EXPIRE OR ARE OTHERWISE REPLACED, RESCINDED, OR ELIMINATED.”

“From a function standpoint, Gaston County Government will continue to follow all state laws, including Gov. Cooper’s executive order. At no point would county leadership ask its staff or county residents to break the law,” the release states. “In all of this, Gaston County’s Board of Commissioners want to make clear its support for the residents of our county to get back to work.”

"In spite of the Governor’s order, we support and will stand with those that want to open their businesses and go to work,” Chairman Tracy Philbeck said.

Gaston County says some businesses can reopen, then appear to backtrack

Adam Gaub, PIO for Gaston County, says the state’s stay-at-home order supersedes the county’s, and that businesses that violate it can still face Class 2 misdemeanor.

He said the county’s order was largely symbolic.

“We are not going to do anything that will put our employees in a legal bind," Gaub said. “We are not going to encourage them to break the law.” He said this applies to police departments.

Gaub said there’s been no direct communication between Cooper and the Gaston County manager, and that there has been some confusion with the business community in the county.

“There’s been some confusion over this. The chairman (Philbeck) is trying to make a point that this is an unprecedented crisis and at some point continuing with the status quo while businesses are going under isn’t sustainable.”

Philbeck held an impromptu conversation on Facebook Live just after the new order was released. His message wasn’t immediately clear.

“I’m willing to take a stand to defy the Governor’s order,” Philbeck said. “Gaston County is open for business.”

Philbeck asked the question: Can I go back to work at 5 p.m.? He answered, “According to Gaston County you can. According to the state you can’t. You have that choice – we’re supportive of that. We’ll see what they do. I stand with you to open your business.”

“I say go to work,” he continued. “If they want to go to work I will be supportive of that.”

Gaston leaders: Businesses can reopen despite N.C. orders, but there may be legal consequences

The mayors of 12 municipalities in Gaston County released a joint statement Wednesday night, emphasizing that all businesses and residents of cities and Gaston County are required to comply with the orders issued by Governor Roy Cooper until those orders expire on Friday, May 8.

“The Mayors of 12 municipalities in Gaston County would like to address the perception that anything has changed with regard to the types of businesses that may be open tomorrow following the press conference that was held at Gaston County this morning. We share the sentiments of the Gaston County Board of Commissioners that we are experiencing unprecedented times in our county, and that many people and businesses have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We want to emphasize that all businesses and residents of our cities and Gaston County are required to comply with the Orders issued by Governor Roy Cooper until those orders expire on Friday, May 8, 2020. We will therefore follow the Governor’s Orders, and we encourage all businesses and citizens to do the same so that we can continue to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We want to thank our citizens and businesses for continuing to follow these health, safety, and social distancing requirements and practices until the current expiration date of May 8th. We look forward to our businesses opening in the near future and ask that you remain patient as we all work through this together.”

We look forward to our businesses opening in the near future and ask that you remain patient as we all work through this together.

Gov. Cooper’s office addressed the news from Gaston County in a statement Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the new, signed order was sent out.

“This order’s only effect is to create confusion during a public health emergency, which is dangerous," the statement read. "The Gaston County order itself says that the statewide Stay At Home order remains in effect, and state leaders urge people to continue following it.”

Gov. Cooper responds to Gaston County confusion

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen also responded to questions about it during a press conference.

“We’re in a crisis, and I think confusion is really, really damaging during a crisis,” Cohen said. “The governor’s exectutive order is still in place, it still stands, we’re still asking folks to stay home to slow the spread of the virus and save lives.”

Cohen continued, “I know folks are frustrated and I know that this has been hard in so many ways, and we’re trying to move through this in the best way possible to protect health.”

Social distancing, awareness and sanitizing will still need to be practiced under the new Gaston County order.

“This Order is to ensure that the people of Gaston County know that Gaston County plans to reopen for business once state-level restrictions found in the Governor’s executive orders are relaxed or otherwise lifted,” part of the reopening order stated. “As soon as the state-level restrictions are relaxed or rescinded, Gaston County shall use the guidelines established by the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force in reopening the County for business.”

County leaders put focus on how their small businesses, such as Ellie Mae’s Bake Shop, have suffered during this pandemic.

WATCH LIVE | Gaston County leaders respond to NC's Stay at Home order extension

WATCH LIVE: Gaston County leaders respond to NC's Stay at Home order extension. They are expected to discuss steps to reopen the county » https://bit.ly/2WdhbS1

Posted by WBTV News on Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Cooper extended North Carolina’s Stay at Home order through May 8, announcing a gradual three-step phase. Cooper made the announcement during a press conference Thursday.

“Our state is not ready to lift restrictions yet,” Cooper said, “We need more time.”

Although Gaston County has not seen the amount of cases as some other North Carolina counties, like Mecklenburg, Cooper said that people often live in one county but work or shop in another.

“We do not believe one size fits all,” Philbeck said Wednesday, saying that a continued Stay at Home order would have a “disastrous” effect on Gaston County’s residents.

Philbeck said the premise of hospital capacity in the county no longer warrants a stay at home order.

Philbeck says business owners in Gaston County who can practice social distancing and proper sanitation have the commission’s support of going back to work.

“We are letting our folks know that we support them going back to work," Philbeck said.

Restrictions will be loosened under the state’s Stay at Home order extension, but mass gatherings will still be limited to 10 people or less.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Gaston County has had 137 COVID-19 cases and three virus-related deaths.

Copyright 2020 WBTV. All rights reserved.