May 16, 2020
Thursday we had an issue where a small business, Carolina Cafe in Spindale, opened up to inside diners in violation of Governor Cooper’s Executive Order 118 “Limiting Operations of Restaurants and Bars…..” The owners (Mike Spina and Linda Fortner) posted on Facebook that they were going to open for inside dining using all currently accepted social distancing guidelines.
Within an hour of opening Karen Powell (Director of Foothills Health District) identifying herself as a Task Force Official representing the Governor accompanied by the local Fire Marshall/Emergency Management Director (Frankie Hamrick) and another officer showed up to access the situation. The owners of Carolina Cafe had been unsuccessful in applying for a Covid-19 small business loan and felt they had no choice but to open.
The owners were told they were in violation of the Governor’s Executive Order and could face a Class 2 misdemeanor (A Class 2 misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of sixty days in jail and a $1,000 fine) for the violation. The owners who felt that they and their customers constitutional rights were being violated by the Executive Order agreed to pay the fine and continue to operate. Ms. Powell then told the owners that if they did not cease and desist from allowing customers to dine inside their restaurant they could lose their health certificate to operate a restaurant and be closed completely. The owners at this point felt they had no choice but to comply in order to stay in business and continue to serve take out. The entire situation was handled with respect for each other by all parties involved.
Social media response to this has been mixed with some agreeing with the owners and others with the officials. One of the main issues here is freedom of choice. Do we have the right to decide for ourselves what risks we are willing to take in social settings? Does government have the right to deny our Constitutional rights in the face of a pandemic? These are questions that are being asked not only locally but on a national level and the courts will be fully involved in attempting to answering it.
However locally our elected officials are faced with a dilemma. Local governments are subdivisions of the State of NC, which means they are not sovereign counties and clearly just extensions of the State. They only exist as the State Legislature permits them to and the State Legislature can pull the charters of local governments and dissolve them if they so choose. The Executive Orders includes two NC General Statutes that require enforcement at the local level.
Gaston County Commissioners attempted to circumvent the Governor’s Executive Order and open up last week but soon found that they could not do so and rescinded their intent to open. There is so much more going on here than just government versus public. These are questions that the courts must answer in the future. In the meantime our local elected officials are trying their best to help the citizens get through this turbulent time and stay true to the contracts and ordinances of the State at whose pleasure they serve.
Also at this time the State of NC is having NCDHHS (North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services) spearhead the direction that the recovery is taking. Our local health department (Foothills Health District) is directly under the auspices of NCDHHS and independent of our local County Commissioners and dictates all course of action concerning the enforcement of the Governor’s Executive order. Therefore when Ms. Powell made the statement she was representing the Governor’s Task Force she was correct. All enforcement agencies must work with NCDHHS in regards to the Covid-19 order by Governor Cooper.
Our local elected officials may ask questions of Foothills Health District but the decisions being made come directly from them and the State and are given to the Commissioners the same as they are to the general public.
This presents the dilemma. When it comes to Covid-19 response on a local level our elected officials here are truly caught “between a rock and a hard place” as the saying goes. So are the staff of Foothills Health District as well as all the small business owners affected. On the one hand we all want everyone to be safe but on the other hand how much “freedom” are we willing to give up to obtain that and where exactly does personal responsibility figure in?
As we see restrictions being lifted all around us it is difficult for some to justify such severe measures as we are currently under. It is apparent that our state unemployment system was completely unable to deal with the situation this pandemic caused with many still receiving no financial assistance whatsoever from them. It is hard to judge someone who has no income or has had their ability to generate income taken away by the State for demanding that the State reopen. Also the available data does not seem to support the closing of the entire state. It remains to be seen if the Governor will let individual county governments decide if it is safe for them to open or continue to use a “one size fits all” approach. Again it puts us all “between a rock and a hard place” as was said earlier.
Hopefully we will continue to see our active case numbers go down and Governor Cooper and NCDHHS will allow us to proceed to Phase II and beyond. Until then it seems we are all just going to have to try to do the best that we can, be patient, and always try to respect one another.
If you have any information about a Covid-19 situation at a business or institution that you would like investigated please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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*This article is a personal observation and does not reflect the position of RC Catalyst in any way.