It took only hours for the Republican commissioners of North Carolina’s Gaston County to back off their announcement that county businesses could reopen Wednesday evening despite Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) stay-at-home order.
Earlier Wednesday morning, the commissioners came out guns blazing with their green light for businesses, including gyms, dine-in restaurants and sporting venues, to open at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, despite the fact that Cooper’s order lasts until May 8.
A few hours later, the commissioners issued a revised order highlighting that the county was still subject to the governor’s executive order.
“Gov. Cooper’s staff has rightly pointed out today that in response to Gaston County’s new order, taking effect at 5 p.m. today, it acknowledges that the state order supersedes our own,” said a “clarification” posted to the county website.
But commissioner Tracy Philbeck, opining on Facebook live off and on during the day Wednesday, is maintaining that he supports businesses that choose to open anyway.
“We can allow people to work if they’re limiting capacity and doing social distancing,” he said.
Painting himself as the leader of the movement, he said that though “you’re going to see a lot of people backtracking and elected officials that are scared who don’t want to make a decision and will continue following the governor.”
“I’m gonna stand with any business that does it anyway,” he said of defying the governor’s order.
Per Cooper’s office, the commissioners’ announcement was toothless even before the revision.
“The order’s only effect is to create confusion during a public health emergency, which is dangerous,” said the governor’s spokesman, Ford Porter, in a statement. “The Gaston order itself says that the statewide Stay at Home order remains in effect, and state leaders urge people to keep following it.”
Gaston County public information officer Adam Gaub said that while county staff supports Philbeck’s desire to reopen local businesses, they too are hamstrung by the governor’s order.
“The board sets the policy for the county and staff has to implement that policy,” he told TPM. “When a policy comes into conflict with the law, we cannot ask our citizens or our staff to break the law.”
He added that county police would still be instructed to enforce the governor’s order.
The now-revised order was accompanied by a “Gaston Promise,” a document proclaiming that the commissioners were only breaking step with the governor to restore people’s right to work and to worship.
The back-and-forth is resonant of another Republican county vs. Democratic governor quarrel across the country.
Late last week, the Republican commissioners of Franklin County in Washington proclaimed business in the county open, arguing that Gov. Jay Inslee’s (D) stay-at-home order was unconstitutional.
The governor’s lawyer responded with strongly-worded letter declaring the announcement both illegal and a threat to public health. Hours later, one of the commissioners issued a mea culpa and called on his colleagues to rescind the order. They did.