People in Gaston County are debating the need for a continued statewide stay-at-home order as some county leaders say they'll support any businesses that want to reopen. Gov. Roy Cooper says reopening too early could cost lives.
At the Belmont exit off I-85 in Gaston County, lunchtime traffic is so heavy that you might not know North Carolina remains under a statewide stay-home order. Cars sit in long lines at fast-food drive-thrus. Shopping center parking lots are full. People are ready for the coronavirus to be history, said Kathy Floyd of Cramerton.
"I think everyone's just antsy trying to get back to work," she said. "I mean, like I just left Lowe's and Sam's and you can't even find a parking spot, because people are out in droves."
Floyd runs Floyd & Blackies coffee and ice cream shop in downtown Cramerton, where there's a steady stream of customers these days. They're coming in four at a time, standing on lines taped to the floor marking six-foot distances. Floyd says business is down slightly because they're only doing takeout right now.
Commissioners Push To Reopen Now
Some Gaston County commissioners have said they want businesses to reopen now. In a press conference Wednesday morning, they said there wouldn't be any repercussions as long as businesses enforced social distancing. In an order adopted later, they walked that back slightly, saying the governor's order remains in effect.
Cooper's order expires May 8, when businesses like Floyd & Blackies would be allowed to fully reopen. Floyd says she's willing to wait.
"I wanna follow the state law, yes," she said.
This week's debate has pitted some Gaston County staff and commissioners against Cooper and state health officials. County Commission chairman Tracy Philbeck says he thinks businesses should be allowed to reopen now. He said Thursday the governor's order helps big businesses at the expense of small ones.
"Instead of the governor picking winners and losers, which I believe is unconstitutional, that is not equal protection under the law, he should just apply best practices that we've learned to all businesses," Philbeck said. "And I just think that's a fair argument. It's not Republican. It's not Democrat. It's just the truth."
Pushback On The Pushback
Not all Gaston County leaders agree. All of Gaston County's mayors issued their own statement Wednesday night reminding people that the governor's order remains in effect. And Gaston Sheriff Alan Cloninger says his office is still enforcing the statewide order.
County commissioner Ronnie Worley said Thursday he agrees "philosophically" with Philbeck that the county could probably reopen safely. But he's worried that businesses that violate Cooper's order could wind up risking their licenses and permits.
"If there is a legal way that we can open business, I would like to explore that option. But I'm opposed to encouraging folks to violate the state's order, and I think that's irresponsible as an elected official to do that," Worley said.
Other officials around the state have criticized Gaston officials for their reopen-now stance. In a press conference Thursday, Cooper said: "I have concerns when people are blatantly ignoring rules because it can cost lives."
The war of words could turn into a legal fight. Philbeck said he thinks the governor's order is worthy of a challenge.
"We support any business's right to open," Philbeck said. "We're looking at taking some legal action on behalf of businesses in Gaston County. We are looking at several different avenues of what we can do to lend support to those individuals."
Philbeck said he has heard of a few Gaston County businesses that have reopened quietly. He wouldn't give their names.
WFAE reporters Dashiell Coleman, Steve Harrison and Catherine Welch contributed to this report.