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Wooten won't cite those who violate mask order

A day after Gov. Roy Cooper announced that mask wearing in public will be mandatory in North Carolina starting at 5 p.m. today, Pasquotank County’s sheriff joined a number of other sheriffs in saying he doesn’t plan to cite those who violate the governor’s order.

Sheriff Tommy Wooten posted on the sheriff’s office Facebook page Thursday that his office does not plan to issue citations for violating the governor’s mask mandate.

“While we are aware of the Governor’s Order mandating masks when social distancing isn’t possible, we at the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office will not be issuing citations for violations of Governor’s Order #147,” Wooten said in the post. “We do, however, encourage that you continue to wash your hands and social distance when possible.”

Wooten’s post noted individual businesses may choose to deny service to those who don’t wear masks.

“If we are contacted in reference to this, we will assist the business owner in removing the violator from the property,” Wooten said.

The sheriffs in at least four other counties — Halifax, Craven, Sampson and Burke — made similar announcements on their department’s Facebook page, according to media reports.

A number of businesspeople contacted Thursday said they were already requiring or strongly encouraging customers to wear masks or cloth face coverings before Cooper’s order. Cooper announced the order on Wednesday, citing the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state. Cooper also said the state would not be moving into Phase 3 of his reopening plan for North Carolina for the same reason.

Health experts have said wearing a mask or face covering has proven effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19, the highly contagious coronavirus that’s infected more than 2.5 million Americans, more than 53,000 of them in North Carolina, and caused more than 122,000 deaths, including 1,290 in North Carolina.

Michelle Torres, manager of the Shoe Dept. store at Southgate Park, said the company requires all employees to wear masks or cloth face coverings. But the company has not required customers to wear masks inside the store, she said.

“Some wear it and some don’t,” Torres said. “We can’t make anybody wear it.”

She said at an earlier point the store had a sign asking all customers to wear face coverings. But that sign is no longer posted.

Torres said she is aware of the governor’s order but has no plans right now to try and force customers to wear masks. She said she has not received any new guidance from either her store’s parent company or the state but will consider such guidance if she does get it.

Many local people are wearing masks or cloth face coverings as a matter of course.

Kellen Whitehurst, director of the Pasquotank County Library, was wearing a mask as he walked into Muddy’s coffee shop Thursday.

“I have a family, and studies show that it protects others,” Whitehurst said. “I don’t want to be the reason for somebody else being sick.”

Whitehurst said he believes the governor’s mandate is a good idea.

“Studies show that you can sharply reduce the risk by wearing the mask,” he said.

Debbie Malenfant, executive director of Elizabeth City Downtown, who was seated inside Muddy’s said she has not heard concerns from any business owners about complying with the new mandate. Local businesses and customers alike try to be cooperative in dealing with difficult situations, she said.

Malenfant also doesn’t expect customers at local businesses will be confrontational about wearing masks. Those not willing to wear one will probably just turn around and walk away if a store requires them to, she said.

Neal Godfrey was sitting with his brother, Wonnell Godfrey, and their uncle Bill Bailey at a picnic table in Waterfront Park. Although he wasn’t wearing a mask, Godfrey said “when I go in any kind of business I wear it.”

“I think everybody should wear them going into businesses,” Godfrey said. “I make sure I have mine on.”

Bill Bailey, who is the Godfreys’ uncle, was wearing a cloth mask.

“I wear it because I want to stay here,” said Bailey, who volunteered that he’s 88 years old. “I’m not ready to go yet.”

Bailey said he believes wearing the mask helps slow the spread of COVID-19. He said he supports Cooper’s order.

Wonnell Godfrey said he, too, believes masks help stop the spread of the disease. He thinks everyone should wear them in businesses and other indoor spaces where they are around other people.

Cooper’s mask-wearing order grants several exceptions, including to those who have a medical condition or disability, children younger than 11, people who are actively eating or drinking, those who are exercising strenuously, those for whom wearing a mask poses any kind of safety risk, and children whose parent or guardian has been unable to place the covering safely on their face.

“Anyone who declines to wear a face covering for these reasons should not be required to produce documentation or any other proof of a condition,” the order states, adding children younger than 2 should not wear a face covering.

Betts: Biz can refuse customers if no mask

Residents who fail to comply with Gov. Roy Cooper’s latest order to wear a mask while in public places like grocery stores and other businesses should not be surprised if they are asked to leave.

Battle Betts, director of Albemarle Regional Health Services, says businesses have the right to ask a customer to leave if they refuse to don a mask that covers their nose and mouth.

“The governor’s order spells out the intent of the mandate and the different means for possible repercussions for noncompliance,” Betts said. “One example is that businesses that find someone that is noncompliant can ask the individual to leave the premises and that law enforcement will be able to enforce that action with a no-trespassing order for that individual.”

Betts was commenting Thursday, a day after Gov. Cooper announced his latest executive order in the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, Cooper announced that he was extending Phase 2 of his plan to reopen the state’s economy by another three weeks. Included in his announcement was his mandate for residents to wear face masks while in public settings.

Phase 3 of Cooper’s plan was set to take effect this week. But citing a rise in positive COVID-cases, Cooper delayed moving the state to Phase 3 of the reopening plan to July 17.

Betts said there are exceptions and/or allowances to the mask requirement for people who are not maintaining at least six feet of social distancing. For example, people with health care issues in which a face masks makes breathing difficult may be exempt. The governor’s order holds residents to the honor system when claiming health issues as a reason for not wearing a mask.

Businesses have the discretion to make other arrangements, such as curbside service, to accommodate customers who are not able to wear masks, the order states.

While some still argue the effectiveness of face coverings, Betts maintains masks are essential to slowing the spread of the coronavirus, the virus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

“Face coverings have proven to be an effective method to slow the spread of the virus,” he said. “The primary function of face coverings is really to prevent the wearer from inadvertently spreading the virus to others. Wearing face coverings is an expression of care for the well-being of others, especially our most vulnerable populations.”

Vulnerable populations include residents 65 years or older, people with chronic lung, heart or kidney disease, diabetes, moderate to severe asthma and people whose bodies are immunocompromised.

By wearing a face mask, residents are easing the burden on local healthcare systems by making their number of COVID-19 cases more manageable, according to Betts.

“The primary goal as we continue to weather this storm is to assure that our health care system can sustain itself over a long period of time,” he said. “We have to make sure that people do not get sick all at the same time and overwhelm our healthcare systems.”

Statewide, the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations continues to rise, Betts said. Locally, the number of hospitalizations has leveled or declined some, he said.

“Our system has adequate current capacity to meet our ongoing needs, and the face covering mandate serves to assure we can maintain that capacity moving forward,” Betts said.

Betts does not foresee a widespread problem of residents within ARHS’ eight-county service area refusing to wear face masks.

“The entire ARHS region has been very supportive of any effort to control the spread of the virus,” he said. “We had high levels of compliance during the stay-at-home phase and most citizens are staying within the current limits on inside groups of 10 or less, and outside groups of 25 or less in the safer-at-home phase.

“I believe that most people will understand that this is a necessary step on our path back to a sense of normalcy, which we all long for,” he said.

COA commits funds to simulation lab building

College of The Albemarle has officially canceled plans to build a vital records and operations facility and will instead refocus the college’s resources on a planned health sciences simulation center.

The COA Board of Trustees voted unanimously last week to cancel the records building. The board also voted to reallocate $1.4 million in NC Connect Bond funds to the health sciences simulation center. Another $89,123 in remaining bond funds will also be assigned to the simulation lab project, trustees agreed.

In recent years the construction of a health sciences simulation lab has become a high priority for the college because of an increasing emphasis on realistic simulations in the training of nurses and other healthcare professionals.

When trustees asked whether the $2.29 million in newly assigned bond funds would be enough to build the health sciences simulation facility, COA President Jack Bagwell said it would not be. The reallocated bond funds are intended to help get the project started, he said.

Bagwell said there is not yet a good estimated cost for the building. As for the location of the health sciences simulation center, Bagwell said that hasn’t been decided but there is some preliminary work underway.

Last fall college officials cited a preliminary cost estimate of roughly $3 million for the facility, which would include a new simulation lab and additional classrooms.

Right now the college is using the former COA president’s house at the back of the campus for the simulation lab. Trustees have authorized the college to use the house as a lab through the end of December. The college’s long-range plan for the former president’s house is demolition.

Trustees have said construction of a new health sciences simulation lab is the college’s number one priority when it comes to new capital improvement projects. The records storage facility formerly was the college’s top capital priority and initially was part of a plan trustees adopted in 2017 for using NC Connect bond funds.

The plan also included $1.8 million for library renovations on the main campus in Elizabeth City; $549,000 for a lobby renovation at the Performing Arts Center, also in Elizabeth City; $1.5 million for campus consolidation and renovation of professional arts spaces in Dare County; and $1 million for a public safety building and classrooms in Currituck County.

H2OBX opening delayed because of Phase 2 extension

POWELLS POINT — The region’s only waterpark continues to sell season passes but when customers will be able to use them remains unknown.

H2OBX Waterpark in southern Currituck County was set to open once North Carolina went into Phase 3 of Gov. Roy Cooper’s three-phased reopening plan from the coronavirus pandemic.

Cooper originally set today as the target date for the state to enter Phase 3. Citing, however, an increase in COVID-19 cases, the governor announced Wednesday that the state will stay in Phase 2 until July 17.

In Phase 2, outside gatherings are limited to 25 people and gyms, bars and movie theaters must remain closed.

H2OBX originally was slated to open June 20. It couldn’t, however, because the state was still in Phase 2 of the reopening plan.

Molly Garavito, marketing director for H2OBX Waterpark, said the attraction was making preparations to open in anticipation of the state entering Phase 3.

But with Cooper’s decision Wednesday to delay Phase 3 for another three weeks, H2OBX now doesn’t have an opening date.

“Until the governor gives us the green light, we are in a holding pattern,” Garavito said. “We are just waiting on information from our governor’s office.’’

Garavito said H2OBX won’t know how many guests will be allowed in the waterpark until Cooper releases details of the Phase 3 reopening.

“It honestly is going to be determined on guidance from the governor,” Garavito said. “We honestly don’t know what those (numbers) will be.”

The waterpark is selling season passes for 2020 for $109 and that pass is also good for the 2021 season.

“The summer 2020 season passes, we have extended those because of the circumstances to summer 2021,” Garavito said.

“We miss our guests,” she added.

City to start search for new city manager

A five-member committee charged with searching for Elizabeth City’s next city manager will hold its first meeting next week.

The Elizabeth City City Manager Search Committee will meet Monday at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.

City Manager Rich Olson announced last week that he is leaving Elizabeth City after 17 years to become the town administrator for Argyle, Texas. Olson’s last day with Elizabeth City is Aug. 22.

It is expected that the city will name an interim city manager to serve after Olson departs and while the search for a successor is underway.

The search committee will include Mayor Bettie Parker and one councilor from each of the city’s four wards. The list of the four councilors on the search committee had not yet been finalized as of Thursday afternoon, Olson said.

“They will have their first meeting Monday night,” Olson said. “They will open up the meeting and immediately go into closed session.’’

The full City Council will have the final vote on who is the next city manager. Olson has been the city manager since 2003.