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Gaston Cities, Towns Push Back Against County Plan To Defy Cooper

Ann Doss Helms
A park in the Gaston County town of Belmont is closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

The mayors of Gaston County's 12 cities and towns pushed back Wednesday night against county statements earlier in the day that businesses could open, despite Gov. Roy Cooper's extension of a stay-at-home order until May 8.

Gaston County Commissioner Tracy Philbeck

Gaston County Commission Chairman Tracy Philbeck said at a news conference Wednesday morning that law enforcement would not enforce the governor's order if businesses are using safe practices such as social distancing and extra sanitation. The county's health director, Chris Dobbins, and County Manager Kim Eagle attended the news conference.

"We support your right to work," he said.

Philbeck also appeared on a Facebook Live interview Wednesday and said, "In our order, the stay-at-home is gone. All of those restrictions are gone. If you want to open up, open up."

"Gaston County is open for business as long as it is done through social distancing, strict sanitation, strict hygiene," Philbeck said.

County Attorney Jonathan Sink also said Wednesday that the county was prepared to defend in court its proclamation that would have cleared the way for businesses to reopen.

But the county's declaration was criticized by Gov. Roy Cooper and Health and Human Secretary Mandy Cohen. Cooper's spokesperson Ford Porter said the announcement was "irresponsible" and Cohen said it would cause confusion throughout the state.

After the state weighed in, the mayors of the county's towns and cities issued a statement that said businesses and residents are "required" to comply with the state orders.

"We want to emphasize that all businesses and residents of our cities and Gaston County are required to comply with the orders issued by Gov. Roy Cooper until those orders expire on May 8," the statement said. The mayors said they encouraged businesses and residents to follow the orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In explaining the county's plans, Philbeck said confirmed cases of COVID-19 could increase, but said Gaston hospitals have enough capacity to handle new patients. Mecklenburg County's hospitals have seen a decrease in COVID-19 patients, but commissioners there support the longer stay-at-home order.

Philbeck said he's upset that Cooper has shut down almost all businesses, but the Department of Revenue has given numerous exemptions that classify businesses as "essential."

He also talked about Cooper's decision to allow the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 race to be held in Charlotte without fans.

"I love NASCAR, but they will be all over each working on these cars," he said. "What about a bakery? It doesn't make sense, and elected officials here will no longer stand for that."

Gaston County was one of the first counties to enact a stay-at-home order.

Philbeck and Sink said that starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, all businesses -- such as gyms, bakeries and retail stores -- will be allowed to open in Gaston County. Youth sports teams will be allowed to practice, and the county said it will not enforce a limit on the number of people at gatherings.

Gaston County has had 143 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including three deaths from COVID-19 complications. The county says there are 19 active cases.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.