Preparing for phase one


Retail shops, hotels, some town facilities to reopen Friday.

  • Work was underway at several businesses in Highlands on Wednesday morning. Retail shops will be allowed to reopen as of 5 p.m. on May 8.
    Work was underway at several businesses in Highlands on Wednesday morning. Retail shops will be allowed to reopen as of 5 p.m. on May 8.

In a move to begin restarting the local economy, the Highlands Board of Commissioners made several changes to the town’s state of emergency declaration related to the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on Friday, May 1.

As of May 8, retail businesses that were previously considered non-essential, and thus forced to remain closed, will be allowed to reopen under social distancing guidelines and with increased cleaning/sanitizing practices. 

Face masks are not required, but the board agreed that wearing a face covering will continue to be a recommended practice in public places.

In a second motion, the board allowed restaurants to begin conducting business via traditional takeout methods, rather than the previously mandated curbside delivery.

“We have had some restaurants request that they be allowed to do takeout where the customer enters the business, picks up their food and pays at a cash register,” mayor Patrick Taylor said. “There are establishments where doing delivery, or even curbside takeout, is just not a feasible option.”

Under North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s current executive order, dine-in service is prohibited at restaurants statewide.


Hotels and VRBO’s

The board then moved on to a lengthy discussion regarding the reopening of hotels and other short-term rentals. 

Highlands Chamber of Commerce Executive director Kaye McHan shared a plan that was drafted by the chamber in coordination with hotel owners to increase safety measures at those businesses.

“We have submitted a draft of what opening hotels might look like, and that includes everything from increased social distancing at check-in and check-out to removing non-essential items from guest rooms to limit potential contact between guests,” McHan said. “We have worked with our businesses to come up with measures that are practical, and we hope, effective.”

The closing of lodging establishments was done via Highlands local proclamation, and not by state order, so the terms of reopening those businesses is up to the town board of commissioners.

“We have had hotels request that they be allowed to reopen,” Taylor said. “If the state is allowing hotels to operate, and the county is going to allow hotels and rentals to reopen on May 8, I don’t see what good it would do for us to keep those businesses closed just in Highlands.”

Commissioner Amy Patterson was hesitant about reopening lodging businesses, especially vacation rentals by owner. Patterson asked that hotels and VRBO’s be considered separately by the board.

“I don’t like hotels being lumped in with VRBO’s because they are very different businesses with very different levels of oversight,” Patterson said. “We as a town have no way to know where the VRBO’s even are in town, let alone who is coming in and out of them.”

Taylor suggested that the town create a VRBO business registry, which would allow the town code enforcement officer and law enforcement to know where each VRBO is located and who is responsible for that property.

The board gave consensus to allow hotels and VRBO’s to reopen as of May 8, but decided to schedule an additional meeting on Wednesday to discuss the language of a potential VRBO registry.


Town facilities

Town manager Josh Ward brought up several of the currently closed town facilities for reopening consideration.

“We have had some citizens call town hall and ask that the tennis courts be reopened, since the players are able to maintain social distance,” Ward said. “When we closed the courts it was based on the use of shared equipment – the ball, net, the players bench, etc. In the past week the American Tennis Association has sent out information that those measures are not necessary.”

The board voted to reopen the tennis courts at the Rec Center on May 8. The Rec Center and swimming pool will remain closed until further notice, and the children’s summer camp has been cancelled.

In a second motion, the board voted to reopen the public restrooms at Kelsey-Hutchinson Park and on Main Street with increased cleaning/sanitizing procedures.

“If we are going to allow our retail businesses to reopen and some of our parks and rec facilities, I feel like we don’t have much choice but to reopen the public restrooms,” Taylor said. “With more people out and about, we are going to need those restrooms to be available.”

McHan introduced a proposal to limit parking on Main Street and effectively increase the walking space for potential shoppers. The idea was to block off the parking spaces on each side of the street adjacent to the sidewalk and leave only the center row of spots available.

The board took no action on the proposal and decided to keep the current parking setup.