Three weeks ago, Lincoln County Commissioners sent a letter to Governor Roy Cooper asking him to turn control of restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic over to the individual counties. Gaston County Commission chair Tracy Philbeck had sent a similar letter to Cooper earlier that week.
Last Sunday (May 10th) Philbeck's Dallas church defied the Governor's executive order that churches couldn't hold indoor services of more than 10 people. Sunday afternoon (May 17th) Mitchem posted on Facebook that he was going to reopen the dining room at Mitchem's Kitchen on Monday.
Cooper's restriction on church gatherings was overturned by a court this past week. Cooper said he wouldn't appeal that decision. Some churches across the state held indoor gatherings Sunday (May 17th) while others continued to use online services and drive-in services instead.
Mitchem isn't the first North Carolina restaurateur to decide to defy the Governor's order.
The Carolina Cafe in Spindale attempted to open its dining room last Friday (May 15th). The owners, Mike Spina and Linda Fortner, said they made arrangements for properly-spaced seated dining by blocking off some of their tables and booths.
Spina said an hour after they opened, two Sheriff's deputies, the fire marshal and a person he identified as a member of the state’s task force showed up. (It was actually the director of the local health dept.)
"She threatened a fine if anyone sat down to eat. When I told her I was willing to take the fine, she said she would immediately revoke my health inspection certification and business license and 'lock the doors.'
After a heated discussion, Spina and Fortner backed down, returning to offering only take-out service.
Spina said the Governor's order has cost his business, which he and Fortner have operated for 14 years, so much money they may not be able to recover. "We usually feed about 300 people at breakfast; now we're lucky to sell 100 breakfasts."
The incident has become the most talked-about Facebook subject in Rutherford County, with some residents calling for ousting the Sheriff for enforcing the law. The Governor's order has the force of law under emergency powers granted by the General Assembly; violating it is a class II misdemeanor. While the owners were warned, neither was cited for violating the edict.
Karen Powell, the Foothills Health District public health director gave Asheville tv station WLOS-TV a statement:
"It is my responsibility under GS 166A-19.30 to protect the public’s health. All citizens of North Carolina fall under the Governor’s current orders, which are in the interest of public health. We know the virus can spread more quickly in a closed indoor environment, which is why restaurants are not currently open for dine-in service. My biggest concern is not to keep restaurants from having people sit down, but if one person is positive in a restaurant then we potentially have an entire restaurant full of positive patients. Everyone in that restaurant and their staff would have to go home and isolate for 14 days, which would keep them from being able to do even take-out service. My number one goal is to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Rutherford County and to protect our citizens. We know the virus is still out there, even as our numbers continue to drop. I urge all businesses, to follow the Governor’s orders as we make strides towards protecting all."
Mitchem's Facebook post drew multiple favorable comments. One said, "Good for you. I hope Adolf Cooper's thugs don't show up to shut you down;" to which Mitchem replied, "I have had enough maybe Roy_ will."
Another wrote: "Good for y’all, Wish my hairdressers would do the same."
The decision to reopen several days ahead of a possible move into Phase Two of Cooper's reopening plan may present a conundrum for Sheriff Bill Beam. Beam and Mitchem are friends; the two served together on the County Commission. But if Beam doesn't enforce the law in Mitchem's case, can he enforce it anywhere else? And will the Health Director, whose job is a county position controlled by the commissioners, have anything to say about the early reopening?