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Confusion ensues after Gaston County leaders say businesses could reopen despite state Stay at Home order

The mayors of 12 Gaston County municipalities emphasized residents of the county are still required to comply with Governor Cooper's orders, which expire on May 8.

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — Gaston County leaders announced their plan to reopen businesses in the county at 5 p.m. Wednesday, going against Governor Roy Cooper's stay home order. 

Even though Cooper extended his order for another two weeks through May 8, Gaston officials openly said they're contradicting him with their reopening order. 

The county planned to "reopen for business" and is giving business owners the option to reopen as long as they practice social distancing. For example, large venues like sit-down dining and movie theaters would be able to operate under strict protocols. Gyms could reopen if they adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols. 

Commissioner Tracy Philbeck said he has a moral right to stand up for the county against Cooper's stay home order.

"If you own a business in Gaston County,  and you can practice social distancing, strict sanitation and proper hygiene, your Gaston County Commission supports your decision and your right to go back to work," Philbeck said Wednesday morning. "We base that off hospital capacity."

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Governor Cooper: Gaston County order would be confusing, dangerous

In a statement released by the office of Governor Cooper, the governor expressed that the order would be dangerous to the surrounding area. 

"This order’s only effect is to create confusion during a public health emergency, which is dangerous," the office of Gov. Cooper said in the statement. "The Gaston County order itself says that the statewide Stay At Home order remains in effect, and state leaders urge people to continue following it."

Gaston County later clarified their stance on the executive order, saying Governor Cooper's staff "has rightly pointed out" that the state order supersedes the county order.

"From a function standpoint, Gaston County Government will continue to follow all state laws, including Gov. Cooper’s executive order," the county said in a statement. "At no point would county leadership ask its staff or county residents to break the law."

Commissioner Philbeck doubles down

In a Facebook live town hall Wednesday evening, Philbeck doubled down on the county's decision, saying there's no confusion over the order.

"That document told you your commissioners would stand with you, no matter where your business is, in opening," Philbeck said. "That doesn't mean the governor wouldn't have the state police arrest you. I can't stop that. That doesn't mean that there wouldn't be a consequence, but here's what I would do: Let me know, and I'll be the first one arrested."

Philbeck stood by his original statements despite Governor Roy Cooper's condemnation. 

Gaston County mayors speak out

The mayors of 12 Gaston County municipalities went public after the Gaston County Board of Commissioners implied businesses would be reopening. 

"We share the sentiments of the Gaston County Board of Commissioners that we are experiencing unprecedented times in our county, and that many people and businesses have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic," the mayors said, in part in a statement.

The mayors emphasized businesses and residents of Gaston County are still required to comply with Governor Roy Cooper's orders, which currently expire on May 8.

"We will therefore follow the Governor’s Orders, and we encourage all businesses and citizens to do the same so that we can continue to slow the spread of the coronavirus," the mayors said in the statement.

What's next?

Gaston County Police Chief Joseph Ramey told WCNC the department is required to enforce Governor Cooper's order as officers are sworn to uphold North Carolina laws. 

During a Facebook Town Hall, Commissioner Philbeck said, "I'm willing to take a stand to defy the governor's order because I believe it's unconstitutional."

But as it stands, all residents and business-owners in Gaston County are still expected to follow the statewide Stay at Home order, as put in place by Governor Cooper.


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