BOONE — Under new restrictions adopted by the Boone Town Council on May 21, anyone (except work commuters) arriving in the town of Boone who previously overnighted outside Watauga County will not be permitted to enter establishments open to the public, other than medical facilities, until they have stayed overnight in Watauga County uninterrupted for at least 14 days.
The restriction, which will remain in effect until at least June 16, applies to both residents and non-residents, whether they are visiting the town for the day or staying overnight, unless current testing confirms the person is not COVID-19 positive. “Establishments open to the public” does not apply to state or county government facilities.
During a web conference meeting, the council voted 3-1, with Councilperson Nancy LaPlaca against, to approve the amendments to its COVID-19 state of emergency declaration that were first proposed by Councilperson Sam Furgiuele on May 7. The restrictions, effective immediately, were passed the day before Watauga County’s 14-day self-quarantine order was to be lifted.
Boone Councilperson Loretta Clawson had to miss the meeting due to illness, according to Boone Town Manager John Ward.
Town attorney Allison Meade said the provision would prohibit the restricted visitors from entering indoor facilities in Boone, but not from going outdoors.
In addition, the amendments require the following measures until further notice:
- Social distancing is required in all establishments open to the public, in all places of employment and in all public areas except at businesses where distancing is not possible, and except for members of the same household.
- Employees working for establishments open to the public are required to wear masks — except for employees with a medical or behavioral condition or safety concern — and to disinfect hands after each interaction.
- To the extent possible, hand sanitizer or disinfectant shall be offered to customers as they enter and leave premises.
- In retail businesses that can accommodate it, aisles must be designated as one-way.
- Restaurants may use only disposable menus or menus that are disinfected in between each use.
- Employees of public establishments must be subject to a daily screening process before the employee begins work, to check for COVID-19 symptoms, and employees should not be permitted to work if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are presumed positive due to symptoms until they meet CDC criteria for release from isolation.
The amendments state that violations are punishable by a class 2 misdemeanor and that law enforcement officers are authorized to first issue warning citations. Boone Town Manager John Ward and Interim Police Chief Andy Le Beau acknowledged that the town doesn’t have the ability to monitor every person who enters the town, and Furgiuele said that enforcement would have to be complaint driven.
Furgiuele said he was motivated by rising COVID-19 cases in surrounding counties.
“I find it remarkable the way we’re hurrying to open up,” Furgiuele said. He noted that setting a sunset date for the self-isolation restriction — which he had originally proposed to be in effect until a vaccine or herd immunity was achieved — was due to optimism that the virus would “abate with warm weather.”
The council passed the amendments after hours of discussion and public comment. A majority of speakers asked the council not to impose the self-isolation restriction.
The governor’s executive orders enacted since March to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus have allowed for local government restrictions that go beyond the statewide mandates. Since a state of emergency was declared by Watauga County on March 15, 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.
The county commissioners voted May 19 to lift the 14-day quarantine order and allow short-term rentals at 50 percent capacity at the beginning of Phase 2 of the statewide reopening plan, which begins at 5 p.m. May 22.
AppHealthCare Director Jennifer Greene said she recommended lifting the 14-day quarantine restriction and resuming short-term rentals at reduced capacity, calling it “a balanced approach” as there is more potential for people to visit the area.
“I hope that everyone realizes that what we’re trying to do from a public health standpoint is really find a balance in all this. No one wants the death count to be zero more than me, probably,” Greene said. But she said that unemployment, poverty and food insecurity are also public health concerns.
“We have to look at the bigger health picture. I would not be doing my job if we didn’t think about that,” Greene said. “To me the proposal that the county adopted this week is a balanced one.”
She also emphasized the importance of local governments communicating the same message to visitors.
Donna Lisenby of Vilas spoke during the meeting’s public comment period to support Furgiuele’s proposal, noting that while her Airbnb has been closed for business, she has observed a spike in interest from travelers, including some in COVID-19 hotspots across the country.
“Any of them can travel to Boone to shop or rent an Airbnb if y’all don’t protect us,” Lisenby said. “The town has gotten it right. By proposing stronger measures, you are doing the right thing. The longer we can prevent a rise in cases in Boone and Watauga County, the more lives we save.”
Justin Patel, a Boone hotelier, noted that he has taken personal precautions due to several members of his family who are at high risk for severe illness from the virus. But he said that “we have to find a new normal with this virus. We cannot wait on a vaccine that may never come.”
He said his company’s hotels have required staff to wear masks, have installed plastic shields, have put up notices about the “three Ws,” are keeping doors open when possible and are taking other measures.
“We thrive and survive on tourism. Without it, Boone will die,” Patel said. “We need to get back to our lives.”
District Attorney Seth Banks asked the council to consider potential issues such as the constitutionality of some emergency declaration provisions, not all of which have been litigated in the courts, as well as how the measures could impact the police department’s community partnerships and create resource allocation issues for the court system.
Jessica Smith, general manager of the Courtyard Marriott in Boone, said the hotel had to lay off 90 percent of its more than 80-person workforce for two properties.
“We need to put our citizens back to work,” Smith said.
Maggie Trumpower, a student and full-time resident of the area, said she believed that the restrictions are needed now to prepare for students to return in the fall. Boone resident Pam Williamson said that Boone, a destination town, must protect its service workers.
“We can’t afford to get it wrong. How many cases and lives is worth it?” Williamson said. “The bottom line is we either prioritize the safety of our residents, or we don’t.”
Dennis Ryan said that he and his wife have owned a condo in the area since 2016 and plan to move there permanently in September. He said they were surprised to learn they could travel to most places in North Carolina, including their condo, but that it seemed they would not be welcome in Boone.
“We don’t feel like we or anyone like us would somehow pose more risk to Boone simply because we’re crossing a town border,” Ryan said.
Sherrill Wieland, a second homeowner in the area who lives in the Orlando, Florida, area, said that as her state has reopened, hospitals have not been overwhelmed. She urged the council to help the town’s businesses reopen responsibly.
Although well intentioned, “we can see that an innocent overreaction can have far-reaching consequences,” Wieland said. “If we don’t get back to an economic recovery, it’s going to hurt everybody.”
Watauga County Tourism Development Authority Director Wright Tilley said he believed that health and safety were top considerations by the governor and county leaders in developing their reopening plans. He emphasized the impacts of the hospitality industry on the local economy.
“Travel sustained more than 2,800 tourism jobs in Watauga County,” Tilley said. “Do you want to put those people out of work?
“The quarantine is almost impossible to enforce,” he added. “The only thing the quarantine is going to do is tell visitors and second homeowners that they’re not welcome.”
Boone Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Jackson cited a recent preliminary report from Appalachian State University’s Center for Economic Research and Policy Analysis concluding that COVID-19-related closures and operation interruptions to Watauga County’s restaurant/bar and accommodation businesses during the month of April decreased gross regional product by $31.1 million.
Meanwhile, “access to loans has been tough to come by for many small businesses,” Jackson said, and local nonprofit revenues have also been impacted as demand for service has risen. And while some, like Lisenby, have made the decision to keep certain businesses closed, he said, “our point remains that not everyone in the county can personally afford to make a similar sacrifice.”
“The economic discussion has been mischaracterized by some as being about greed and chasing the almighty dollar,” Jackson said.
Councilperson Dustin Hicks presented an alternative resolution for consideration that would have strongly encouraged many of the measures, rather than mandating them, but when Furgiuele’s motion proceeded to a vote without incorporating Hicks’ alternatives, Hicks indicated they were voting in favor in part because of favorable revisions made to the original proposals.