By Julie Havlak
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — Johnnie Carswell won’t be a tool for Gov. Roy Cooper’s shutdowns. He had words for Dr. Mandy Cohen, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary, too.
Cohen last week wrote 36 counties asking officials “to consider additional local actions to improve compliance.” Suggestions included shuttering bars, tightening restrictions on restaurants and gatherings, and fining businesses for not enforcing Gov. Roy Cooper’s mask mandate.
With the letter, Cooper pivoted on his approach to lockdowns, encouraging local control for the first time since March.
Carswell is having none of it.
“I told her, ‘With all respect, ma’am, you’ve lost your mind,’” said Carswell, chairman of Burke County Board of Commissioners. “She’s not going to send a Christmas card, I can tell you that.”
After shuttering the economy in March, Cooper moved North Carolina into Phase 3 in October. He has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to move backward in reopening, but he extended current restrictions until Nov. 13.
Carswell, who is 73, recently recovered from COVID-19, an experience he says “kicked his backside.” But he’s far more worried about the economic suffering in his county.
If Cooper wants to shut down county economies, he’ll have to do it himself.
Like Carswell, at least half of the 36 targeted counties won’t consider more shutdowns. After more than seven months of lockdowns, little appetite exists to keep people cooped up any longer.
But for many local leaders, the letter seemed too little, too late, and suspiciously close to the election. Far from inspiring, they found his call to action insulting — and impossible.
Wayne County Commissioner Joe Daugherty didn’t even make it to the end of the governor’s letter before he deleted the email.
“If he’s done such a damn great job, he should do it and not put it back on the county. But now that it’s close to election day, he wants to put it back on us,” said Carrol Mitchem, Lincoln County commissioner. “He wants to go into hiding? Let him go with Biden and they can both hide.”
Nineteen county commissioners told Carolina Journal they’re unlikely to reverse economic reopening — including Onslow, Rockingham, Scotland, Cumberland, Graham, Johnston, Gaston, Burke, Wayne, Lincoln, Wake, Craven, Caldwell, Guilford, Nash, Catawba, Randolph, Alamance, and Moore counties. CJ reached out to all 36 counties.
Many of the targeted counties are rural, and dominated by Republicans skeptical of Cooper’s lockdowns. They say they favor an educational strategy rather than a punitive one.
“COVID is real, but it’s not the role of the governor to throw the Constitution in the trash,” Daugherty said. “The governor’s role is to inform citizens if there is some type of danger and to make recommendations to limit that danger. But to close businesses and bankrupt individuals — I think the whole thing has been handled totally wrong.”
Even urban counties are hesitant to roll back reopening.
Wake County isn’t considering additional restrictions. County leaders say its positivity rate is below the 5% benchmark set by the state. But the county is prepared if Cooper enacts county-specific executive orders, said Greg Ford, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
“If our data spikes in the wrong direction, Wake County will consider mitigation options at that time. Wake County is prepared to quickly pivot in our response,” said Ford.
Unlike the state, local leaders have the authority to fine people without hitting them with criminal charges under their emergency powers. Cohen suggested they use this authority to fine businesses that fail to enforce Cooper’s mask mandate.
“What are we going to do? Get a coronavirus squad to go around and police people? How far do you go?” Daugherty said.
Enforcing fines on mask compliance would require more resources than counties possess, said Graham county commissioner Dale Wiggins. Local sheriffs failed to respond to requests for comment, or said that their areas had not yet passed any additional fines or restrictions.
“Here’s the problem. It’s not enforceable,” said Tracy Philbeck, Gaston County commissioner. “With spikes in crime and everything else going on because of the lockdowns, tell me when officers are going to have time to go to each business, church, and home, and enforce that?”
Further complicating matters, municipalities and cities can enforce their own restrictions. Multiple county commissioners described any crackdown they could enact as a “patchwork.”
In southwestern Haywood County, Waynesville leaders discarded a proposed local mask mandate after almost 100 people protested during a town hall meeting, the local newspaper reported.
“From our standpoint, we’re not going to be more coercive,” said Randall Isenhower, Catawba County commissioner. “We’re going to work with people on a voluntary basis, rather than governments trying to tell them what to do, particularly if it involves their livelihoods and their ability to feed their families.”
Cooper, for his part, said that local governments are working to help the state slow the spread of the virus.
“Once we get past this election, that can help us in our battle to slow the virus,” Cooper said during a Wednesday, Oct. 28, news conference. “I think you’ll find more people not using the political excuse and being willing to slow the spread.”
But they may not have a choice. Cooper’s emergency powers allow him to step in where local actions are deemed insufficient. Carswell fears Cooper will step in after Tuesday’s election.
“Now we’re shutdown, and we’re scared,” Carswell said. “Here’s what a lot of us think: Win, lose, or draw, we think he’s going to shut the state down.”