Following North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s lead, the Highlands board of commissioners put additional restrictions on what types of businesses may remain open during the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak on Monday afternoon.
The town board unanimously approved a proclamation to be added to the town’s state of emergency declaration from March 18. The proclamation closes all hotels, motels and rental properties until further notice.
The intent, as stated by mayor Patrick Taylor, is to keep potential visitors away from Highlands for the time being. The proclamation gives the Highlands Police Department the authority to enforce the policy. Penalties for violators were not outlined in the proclamation.
“We had a situation where a business was advertising over the weekend that Highlands was the perfect place to come and self quarantine,” Taylor said. “That of course is not what we want. People should not be traveling, and they should not be coming to Highlands from places where there are higher rates of coronavirus occurrence.”
Originally, the proclamation designated “short-term” rentals, which are defined as properties that rent for 90 days or less, but the board agreed to take a more sweeping approach to all rentals.
“I think we need to just leave it at rentals, because who is to say a wealthy person wouldn’t rent a place for six months just to come up here on weekends,” commissioner Amy Patterson said. “We don’t want people coming up and back from Atlanta, or Florida, or wherever every weekend.”
Closing all rentals came with an additional set of questions. Commissioner Brian Stiehler asked what will happen if a business hires an employee, or group of employees, and they aren’t allowed to find a place to rent as a residence.
“A lot of our local businesses hire seasonal employees and if they don’t commit to those employees now they won’t get them at all,” Stiehler said. “There is a difference between short-term rentals and long-term residential rentals.”
Commissioner John ‘Buz’ Dotson pointed out that closing hotels, motels and rentals only cuts down a small subset of the population coming to, or through, Highlands. He added that Old Edwards Hospitality Group voluntarily closed its properties on March 18.
“If you go online, you may find a handful of places still operating as (vacation rentals by owner) but it’s a small number,” Dotson said. “I don’t know if anyone was in town this past weekend, but there was a huge group of motorcycle riders here from out of state. Those folks are not staying here, but they are still here and they can still spread whatever illness they have.”
In the end, the proclamation was approved unanimously with the all rentals language in place. An exemption was added to cover all existing, continuously occupied rentals, as a way to account for long-term residential leases that are already in place.
When Taylor asked town attorney Jay Coward about the legality of the proclamation related to breaking rental contracts, Coward offered a stark take on the town board’s current authority under the state of emergency declaration.
“The action you are taking is more than what would normally be allowed, but under the Emergency Powers Act you have basically totalitarian power,” Coward said. “It’s amazing the amount of power you have right now, so whether you are breaking a contract or not is irrelevant. There is a statute that says the town is in no way liable for anything you are doing, at all, as long as you act in good faith.”
Taylor noted that the board can rescind or amend the proclamation at any time and can bring it up for discussion at future meetings. The proclamation does not address second home owners coming to their respective properties.
“There is the potential that a lot of people from other areas may come back to their homes in and around Highlands soon, but if they own the property I don’t think there is anything we can do about that,” Patterson said. “What we can do is try to keep vacationers and tourists away now in hopes that taking this action will save our prime tourism season later.”
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper held a briefing at 1 p.m. on Monday in Raleigh at which time he issued an executive order closing businesses where social distancing is not possible.
Cooper’s order closed all hair salons, nail salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors, gyms, fitness centers, spas, massage therapy businesses, bingo parlors, bowling alleys, skating rinks, public swimming pools, arcades and live performance venues as of Wednesday at 5 p.m. The closures will remain in place until further notice.
“Each and every choice we are making is intended to flatten the curve and provide our health care system the ability to treat the sickest patients in the coming months. This is what we need to do to slow the spread of this illness and protect the health and safety of North Carolinians,” Cooper said in a written statement.
Also part of Cooper’s order was a measure to close all public schools through May 15. A previous executive order from the governor had closed schools through March 31. Teachers will continue to instruct students via online and remote learning means during the closure of the school facilities.
Cooper’s order also prohibits any large gatherings of more than 50 people. A previous order had capped all gatherings at 100 people.
Second COVID-19 patient
On Monday evening the Macon County Public Health department confirmed a second case of COVID-19 coronavirus connected to Macon County.
The patient is a traveler from Maryland, who owns a secondary residence in Jackson County. The person became ill and subsequently was tested at Highlands Cashiers Hospital before being transported to Mission Hospital in Asheville, according to information provided by MCPH officials.
During the town board meeting, Highlands Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal noted that patients who test positive at the facility and need more extensive care will be transferred to Asheville due to the relatively low number of ventilators and lack of an intensive care unit in Highlands.
“We don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, we do have ventilators and we can use those to save someone’s life if they are in respiratory arrest,” Neal said. “But what we don’t have are the facilities or equipment to handle multiple patients who need that type of in-depth care simultaneously.”
Neal noted that the hospital is still operating as normal with additional COVID-19 precautions in place, and that there have been several COVID-19 tests performed over the past week. Some of which are still pending results.
Monday’s confirmed case came eight days after a traveler from New York tested positive for COVID-19 in Asheville and was quarantined at a property in Highlands. That patient is still quarantined and is being monitored by MCPH staff.