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N.C. leaders react to Gaston County order to reopen businesses

Updated: Apr. 29, 2020 at 3:04 PM EDT
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GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - North Carolina health officials reacted to Gaston County leaders’ announcement that they plan to sign an order reopening businesses in the county, which would contradict Gov. Roy Cooper’s Stay at Home order extension.

The Gaston County Board of Commissioners announced their decision Wednesday during a meeting at the Gaston County Courthouse. County Commissioner Tracy Philbeck said he plans on signing the order, which will go into effect the same day - April 29 - at 5 p.m.

After talking with local health officials, Philbeck said the county’s numbers do not warrant a Stay at Home order to continue. “Staying home is not a solution,” he said. “People need to go back to work.”

“If you don’t wanna open your business, you don’t have to," Philbeck continued. “We can protect the health of our citizens while at the same time putting out citizens back at work."

However, just hours later county leaders appeared to backtrack slightly on their earlier plans.

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.”

Gov. Cooper’s office addressed the news from Gaston County in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“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.”

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.”

Cohen said state leaders are trying to look at the data from across North Carolina so they can step through different phases of loosening restrictions.

“We already know businesses are open right now and are protecting their employees and are protecting their consumers, and we’re going to slowly expand that over the next coming weeks.” Cohen said. “We’re going to keep looking at that data and make the modifications we need as we go forward.”

When asked if the state would take any action addressing Gaston County’s plan, Cohen reemphasized that the statewide order is still in effect and that Gaston’s order even states that. She urged citizens to “stick with” it.

“I thank all North Carolinians who have done such a good job of keeping our viral spread really low in the state. We should be very proud that our state is doing as well as it has,” Cohen said. "So stick with this plan, let us move through a phased reopening - we’re only talking about next in which we will start to ease these restrictions. We want to do it in the smartest way possible so that folks can feel like they have confidence when they go back to shop."

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.

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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.

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