ASHE COUNTY — On April 21, Gov. Roy Cooper made an announcement stating that he anticipates that all mandatory social distancing, mass gathering and capacity restrictions will be lifted by June 1 in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 28, he announced that masks will no longer be required outdoors and mass gatherings outside will increase from 100 to 200, effective April 30.
“Although we’re making progress, we haven’t beaten COVID-19 yet and the virus will still be with us, even after June 1,” Cooper said. “We need to keep being responsible, we need to keep wearing masks. We need to get more people vaccinated and we need businesses to keep paying attention to current executive orders, and future health recommendations.”
The current executive order allows restaurants, breweries and wineries, amusement parks, gyms and pools to have 75 percent capacity with 100 percent outdoor capacity.
Conference centers, bars, sports arenas, movie theaters and other live performance venues will be allowed to have 50 percent capacity with safety protocols in place. The 11 p.m. curfew for alcohol sales was also ended in the new executive order. The sports arena capacity includes high school sports venues.
Museums, aquariums, retail businesses and shops as well as barbers, salons and personal care businesses can open up at 100 percent.
As masks will no longer be required outdoors, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said the state would not lift the indoor face mask mandate until at least two-thirds of adults in the state have had at least one vaccine dose.
As of May 2, 39.3 percent of North Carolinians have had at least one does of vaccine while 32.8 percent are fully vaccinated, according to NCDHHS.
In response to the order, businesses in Ashe County are looking forward to the ease of the guidelines, but still plan to proceed with caution as cases of COVID-19 continue to fluctuate throughout the county.
“We’re excited for more people to come in,” said manager of Mountain Outfitters, Helemarie Reavis. “We allow people to make their own decisions when coming through our doors, but we’re constantly cleaning and making sure we stop the spread of germs.”
District manager of Bojangles Bill Baker said that even with the new order, the Bojangles located in Jefferson is really only at 50 percent capacity due to the size of the restaurant.
They keep a six to eight feet distance from chairs and tables.
“In all of our restaurants, we’re really only hitting 50 percent,” said Baker. “When they went to 75 percent, it didn’t really increase our seating capacity because of the social distancing in place.”
Baker said he does believe restaurants could increase to 100 percent capacity later this year as the pandemic levels out.
Staffing has also been an issue for Bojangles and Baker said it continues to be their biggest obstacle.
“We’re taking some steps to change how we’re approaching new hires, but there’s really not a lot of movement,” said Baker.
He said he hopes that people will be more open to looking for jobs as the guidelines ease.
The High Country is in mourning following an April 28 standoff with law enforcement, including departments and officers from Ashe County, that left five people dead — two of which were WCSO deputies.
“This is an incredibly tragic situation and our thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved as well as their families and our community,” Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the tremendous support we are receiving from law enforcement agencies across the region and the state.”
According to the WCSO, deputies responded to a call for a welfare check at 553 Hardaman Circle just outside of Boone at 9:44 a.m. The check was initiated by the homeowner’s employer, who reported the homeowner did not report to work or respond to telephone calls, according to the WCSO.
The deputies, Sgt. Chris Ward and K9 Deputy Logan Fox, entered the residence after discovering all vehicles belonging to the residents were on the property, according to the WCSO.
After entering, the deputies discovered the bodies of Michelle Annette Ligon, 61, and George Wyatt Ligon, 58, and began searching the home, according to WCSO Major Kelly Redmon. The deputies were allegedly fired upon by a suspect identified by the WCSO as Isaac Alton Barnes, 32. Fox and Ward called for back up from responding agencies; back up responded immediately, according to Redmon.
Barnes is also believed to have killed the Ligons, who were identified by the WCSO as his mother and stepfather.
Three days before this incident, according to Hagaman, Barnes is alleged to have attacked his biological father with a knife the Sunday before the shooting. Hagaman said, from what he understood, there was no bodily harm, but that it was mostly concerning “imbalance issues.”
Fox died at the scene and Ward died after being airlifted to Johnson City Medical Center for treatment, according to the WCSO. Ward’s death was confirmed about 9 p.m., while Fox’s condition was not made public until the next day. Fox’s K9, Raven, was left in Fox’s vehicle and was unharmed, according to Redmon.
The Boone Police Department, Appalachian State Police Department, Boone Fire Department and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation assisted the WCSO in responding to the situation initially.
After backup was deployed, an initial rescue attempt resulted in a Boone Police Officer being hit by gunfire, according to Boone Police Chief Andy Le Beau. The officer was not injured, with the rounds being deflected by his protective gear, according to Le Beau, who said the officer’s physical status was “surprisingly good” as of Thursday, April 29.
Law enforcement initially blocked the roadway into the neighborhood, later evacuating those nearby.
As the stand-off went on through the day, the WCSO was also assisted by the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office, Avery County Sheriff’s Office, Beech Mountain Police, Blowing Rock Police, Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office, Henderson County Sheriff’s Office, Hickory Police, Morganton Public Safety, North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement, North Carolina State Highway Patrol, Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office, West Jefferson Police and Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office.
According to the WCSO, they were also assisted by “a large number” of emergency management departments, fire departments, emergency medical services and rescue squads from the surrounding areas. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association announced the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, including four chaplains and a Mobile Ministry Center, had been sent to support law enforcement.
Nearly 13 hours after Fox and Ward responded to the welfare check, the stand-off ended with Barnes’ death at 10:15 p.m. The WCSO has not released the circumstances of Barnes’ death as of late April 29 and will depend on autopsy results, according to Redmon.
From the start of the situation, an outpouring of support was directed to Watauga’s law enforcement.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted at 10:22 a.m. on April 29, “We grieve for Sgt. Chris Ward, K-9 Deputy Logan Fox and the entire Watauga County law enforcement community today after these tragic deaths in the line of duty. These horrific shootings that claimed lives and loved ones show the ever-present danger law enforcement can encounter in the line of duty. I have talked with Sheriff Len Hagaman to offer condolences and additional assistance.”
“These brave men and women put their lives on the line to protect us, and they deserve our profound gratitude every day,” Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R–District 5) tweeted at 8:55 a.m. on April 29.
Rep. Ray Pickett (R–Blowing Rock) and Sen. Deanna Ballard (R–Watauga) also gave statements mid-day April 28. Ballard stated on Twitter that her thoughts were with the law enforcement and families involved. Pickett also said his thoughts and prayers were with the sheriff’s department and their families.
Appalachian State University Chancellor Sheri Everts tweeted at 12:54 p.m. on April 29, “We are deeply saddened by the incredibly tragic incident that took place in Watauga County yesterday. (Appalachian State) mourns the loss of two courageous officers and the victims they tried to assist, and we extend our deepest appreciation to everyone who is responding.”
While the stand-off was still active, the Watauga High School Pioneers softball team played their game against Alexander Center in honor of local law enforcement. The two teams held a moment of silence and prayed together before the game, and Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott sent out an email asking for people to be respectful and supportive of the officers involved and their families.
The day following the standoff, an impromptu memorial began to form outside of the WCSO. Laid before a monument dedicated to other Watauga law enforcement officers who died during their service were flowers, candles and other items to memorialize the loss of Fox and Ward.
The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce posted on Instagram that behavioral health providers at AppHealthCare were available to take appointments for anyone in need of mental health and grief support. They can be reached at (828) 264-4995.
The law enforcement community also responded to the news of Fox and Ward’s deaths, with law enforcement agencies across the state and out of it sending their support. One official to voice his support was Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye, whose agency was working with the WCSO through the stand-off.
According to Frye, his office was informed of Barnes as a potential threat the previous weekend, and that his office was on alert and seeking his potential whereabouts in Avery County in the days leading up to Wednesday’s incident.
“He was making statements Sunday and Monday that were substantial enough that law enforcement in Watauga County put out a bulletin for us to be on the lookout for him because they thought he might be in Avery County,” Frye said. “We were looking for him on Sunday and Monday in Banner Elk and the Gwaltney Road area.”
Frye said thoughts and prayers go out from the Avery County Sheriff’s Office to members of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office and Watauga County law enforcement community as a whole.
“They had a tragic incident yesterday and when something like that happens, we pull together more than ever,” Frye said. “We all work together as a team to do whatever needs to be done.”
Among the tributes was the Forsyth’s County Sheriff’s Office reaction to the news of Ward’s death, “Rest easy, brother, we have the watch from here.”
WEST JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Farmers Market opened in full swing on Saturday, May 1. A beautiful spring day was the perfect backdrop for the market and its seasonal opening.
Market Manager Carol Griffith said they could not have asked for a better day.
“The market was full of vendors and we had over 670 people that came through the market,” said Griffith.
Vendors reported a good sales day, according to Griffith.
In all, there are 51 vendors that open up shop at the market on Saturdays.
Gairl & Tim Barker – Country Gardens
Linda Bennett – The Bread Lady
Wayne Berry – A Berry Patch Farm
Phaedra Boardman – For the Love of all Dogs
Samuel & Ashley Burr – The Burr Nest
Maria Christman – Maria’s Gourmet Desserts Inc
Kelly Clampitt – Kelly Clampitt Photography & Spirit Canoe Lodge
Josh & Meghann Clawson – Triple Peaks Farm
Joe & Beverly Clayton – Joe’s Jamming Woodwords and Blossom Blessings
Martha Colvard – Colvard Farms
Ron Cox – Cold Tuesday Farm
Victoria & Troy Cox – Second Breakfast Farm
Kim Cruickshank – Stag’s Leap Leatherworks
Mike & Dianne Eldreth – Fuzzy Hollar Farm & Crafts
Opal Essick – Essick Jam & Jelly
Sanford Fishel – Fishel Organics
Tom Givins & Berkeley Brown – The Sugar Shack & Abundant Toad Garden
Amanda Gentry & Wendy Painter – Gentry Farm 1821
Alan & Michelle Hanson – Blue Ridge Naturals and Jewelry
Louise Hartzog – Fresh and Dried Flowers
Danny Harvey – Apples Etc, & Piney Creek Products
Shelia Helms – Bare Bottom Farms
Joe Howard – Howard’s Knub
Ricky Hurt – Mountain Roots Farm
Melanie Joyner – Sweets and Spirits Bakery
Ron & Suzanne Joyner – Big Horse Creek Farm
George Katsaudas – Woodworking
Jennifer & Adrienne Ley – Pendle Alpacas
Ben Massey & Darlene Sekerak – Red Hill Farm
Martin McVey – MM Farms
Jamie & Sarah Miles – 7 Stands Farm
Tim & Carolyn Miller – Highland Meadow Cattle Company
Robin Miller – The Baker’s Addict
Bill Moretz – Moretz Mountain Orchard & Farm
Doris Phillips – Quilting in the Mountains
Scot Pope – Vagabond Images
Nancy Potter – Potter Farms
Paul & Bri Raiche – Happy Hens NC
Chuck & Ann Rice – Nature’s Light Candles
John Roberts – Jurkas Farms
Helen & Jerry Roman – Helen’s Products from the Farm
Ann Rose – Rose Mountain Farm
Stephanie & David Shipley – Blue Ridge Valley Farm
Ms V & Kevin Eckardt – Garnet Rose Soap Company
Carrie Vargas – Vargas Family Farms
Johnny Viers – Viers Nursery
Scott Walworth – Woodbine Native Nursery
Hollis & Jay Wild
Cheryl Williams – Grassy Creek Pottery
Linda Wylie – Pottery by Linda
Phil Wylie – Woodworking by Phil
As the world begins to open back up, Griffith expects more locals and tourists will make their way to the corner of North Carolina to visit the Market.
“We are expecting a great market season this year and hope to have more people come through than in 2020,” Griffith said.
The Ashe County Farmers Market is also offering a special Arts and Crafts Expo the second Saturday of each month.
Market hours are each Saturday of the months of May through October, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
For more information on the market, visit ashefarmersmarket.com.
The Farmers Market is located at 108 Backstreet, West Jefferson.
WEST JEFFERSON — The annual Project Graduation Fundraiser took place on April 23 and 24 in the parking lot beside McDonalds in West Jefferson. Put together by Dianne Eldreth, nearly $7,000 was deposited toward the event this past weekend.
Many students and staff volunteered to raise money for the May 28-29 safe-graduation event, which will take place in the Ashe County High School football field vicinity. The event has not been held in person since 2019 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and students are excited to participate. For the 2020 graduates, the event was virtual.
“We deposited $6,815 for the weekend, one of the best I can remember,” said Eldreth. “This amount does not include the donations that are made by mail or to the school. Currently, we lack just a few thousand in order to reach our goal of $30,000. We are a 501c3 charity, so any donation is tax deduction.”
Due to inclement weather, the fundraiser had to be shut down at noon on Saturday.
“The money was so wet, I had to dry it before we could count it,” Eldreth said.
Not including the four senior classes from ACHS that came to help out in their fourth period on Friday, there was a total of 49 student volunteers and 18 parent volunteers.
“We’d like to thank all the businesses, churches, and individuals who have contributed,” said Eldreth. “I hear the seniors are super excited about getting to have it this year.”
Project Graduation will take place on May 28 at 9 p.m. and last until 6 a.m. on May 29.