NC counties want to reopen on their terms as COVID-19 pandemic drags on

The triple-digit spike in daily coronavirus cases across North Carolina may have tapered off Wednesday, but a statewide stay-at-home order is likely to stay in place — at least through April.

After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

Officials in at least two North Carolina counties, however, are vying for some say in the matter.

In separate letters to N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper over the last week, the board of commissioners in Lincoln and Gaston counties urged Cooper to hand future decision-making regarding the reopening of restaurants and businesses to them.

“There is no blame on you or your team for doing what is believed to protect lives; however, the time to move forward is quickly approaching and it is strongly recommended that all North Carolina counties make their own local decisions from this point forward,” Carrol D. Mitchem, chair of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, said in a letter Tuesday.

Following in the footsteps of California and New York, Cooper signed a stay-at-home order on March 27.

He hasn’t decided whether to extend the order past its current expiration date at the end of April, The Raleigh News & Observer reported, but he warned a “wholesale lifting” would be a “catastrophe.”

Pointing to major hiccups in their local economies, commissioners in Lincoln and Gaston counties weren’t so sure.

“Like you, not a day goes by that I don’t hear from a business owner that is worried how they can keep the lights on,” Tracy L. Philbeck, chair of the Gaston County Board of Commissioners, wrote in a letter on April 9. “The shutdown and uncertainty is causing a disruption that could take years to recover from.”

Mitchem warned counties risk “descend(ing) into economic chaos” if the lockdown continues and said local officials should have the “ultimate authority” to reopen.

Both alluded to the Thomas Jefferson quote, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”

“I firmly believe that Gaston County, along with each of the other 99 counties, can best decide on how to address the risk in each of our home territories,” Philbeck said.

According to his letter, Gaston County doesn’t plan on lifting limits on public gatherings or current social distancing measures. But Philbeck said it could be done “while also allowing our people to fully get back to work.”

Mitchem cautioned they’d continue “monitoring the impacts of COVID-19” in Lincoln County, but said “the act of destroying the livelihoods of our citizens must come to an end.”

They’re not alone.

ReopenNC, a grassroots group gaining momentum on social media with close to 35,000 members on its Facebook page as of Wednesday, is pushing the governor to let the order expire.

In a video on the personal Facebook page of one of its founders, the N&O reported Ashley Smith called it a “draconian, communistic government move.”

“This shutdown cannot continue,” Smith said during the video, according to the N&O. “The science, the data, does not support our state continuing to be out of work. Our economy cannot handle this.”

Predictive models released April 6 indicate the state would see a large jump in coronavirus cases if current social distancing policies are lifted in May, the N&O reported.

Up to 750,000 risk infection — compared with 250,000 if they stay in place, according to the data.

“Social distancing and staying at home is our best weapon in this fight,” Cooper said during a news conference last week. “I know many of you are wondering if this North Carolina model means our stay at home order will continue into May. My answer is we just don’t know yet.”

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