Town board approves additional emergency regulations

  • The Highlands board of commissioners closed public restrooms and other public facilities on Tuesday.
    The Highlands board of commissioners closed public restrooms and other public facilities on Tuesday.

The Highlands Board of Commissioners passed additional restrictions aimed at stopping the public from congregating and promoting social distancing on Tuesday night.

The emergency called meeting was the fifth such meeting in the past three weeks since the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak began to make headlines locally and nationally.

Mayor Patrick Taylor suggested that the town close its public restrooms, and cited sanitation policies as the primary reason to add restrooms to the list of already shuttered town facilities.

“Public restrooms are the kind of place where you never know who was in there five minutes before you, and that seems like the kind of place where coronavirus could easily be transmitted,” Taylor said. “Even cleaning those restrooms on a regular schedule doesn’t seem like it’s enough.”

Taylor also asked for board approval to close the pavilion at the dog park located behind the Highlands Rec Center, the stage at Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park and the dugouts at the baseball field on 4th Street.

The board approved all of those closures and directed town staff to tape those facilities off with police tape as of Wednesday. Founders Park, the dog park’s open play area and the baseball field itself will remain open for public access.

“One of the things the CDC is recommending is that people get outside and walk or exercise as long as they maintain social distancing of six feet apart,” commissioner Brian Stiehler said. “I don’t think we should close down the park completely, because a lot of people walk, jog, etc. through there.”

Taylor then proposed an evening curfew, but the board quickly dismissed that idea. 

Then the conversation turned to another popular topic, the ongoing road checkpoints and possibility of 24-hour manned roadblocks at Highlands’ town limits. The board discussed, for more than an hour, the logistical hurdles that closing the borders would present before ultimately taking no action.

Highlands police chief Bill Harrell noted that town officers have been doing checkpoints along main entries into town, including US64, NC106 and NC28. Officers have also been doing random stops throughout town.

“For example, we completed more than a dozen random stops today (Tuesday) and asked drivers what their business was in Highlands and where they were going,” Harrell said. “Every single one of those drivers had legitimate business reasons to be in Highlands.”

Commissioner John ‘Buz’ Dotson asked about people driving through town, specifically motorcycle riders who come to Highlands on the weekends. Harrell replied that the officers at the checkpoints have turned around sightseers with no residential, family or business reasons to be in Highlands.

Harrell also noted that he was instructed by the attorney for the N.C. Sheriff’s Association that the town has to allow drivers a pass-through to other destinations. Harrell did agree that officers can tell “day trippers” that they can drive through Highlands but are not permitted to stop for any reason, but the enforcement of such policy is questionable.

“What about Graham County, they have totally closed their borders,” Dotson said. “What would it take for us to do something like that?”

Town manager Josh Ward pointed out that Graham County’s border closure is evolving as they are greeted with new challenges. For example, Graham County was blocking roads with concrete barriers, but the NC Department of Transportation has outlawed that practice for public safety reasons. All of Graham County’s ingress and egress roads must now have manned checkpoints.

“I spoke with our district NCDOT engineer today and he told me the only barricades he would approve are the wooden ones with the orange and white reflective paint,” Ward said. “Those would also have to be manned, or else people will just get out and move them. And at the current time, the NCDOT does not have any of those barriers to give us to use.”

Dotson floated the idea of paying volunteer firefighters to man the roadblocks if necessary, and further discussion turned to the logistics of closing the borders and who would be allowed in or kept out.

Ultimately, the idea of roadblocks was dismissed for the time being.

The board also discussed the possibility of a permitting process, which would allow drivers to enter town limits for a list of approved reasons. In theory, the permits would allow the town to track who is coming and going from inside town limits. Again, enforcement questions, who would oversee the permitting process, the turnaround time and potential legal challenges quelled the permit idea.

The board also instructed Harrell and his officers to be on the lookout for anyone who is still renting vacation rentals or other properties. Anyone caught renting a property is subject to being charged with a Class II misdemeanor for violating the town’s state of emergency proclamation.

“At the end of the day, most of the people are doing what they are supposed to do, staying home, social distancing, etc.,” commissioner Donnie Calloway said. “Beyond that we aren’t going to have an answer for every possible issue or a way to enforce every person abiding by the rules… We can’t fix stupid.”