Commissioners end local coronavirus restrictions

wain County Health Department Assistant Director Amber Frost addresses questions before the commissioners.

In a 3-2 decision on Monday, May 4, Swain County Board of Commissioners voted to terminate four State of Emergency addendums, lifting local restrictions over the coronavirus. Thus, the board lifted the 14-day quarantine, curfew and restrictions on short-term stays at hotels or vacation rentals. The local stay-at-home order actually sunset on April 16, but the statewide order is still in place.

The bulk of the discussion Monday was around the restriction on vacation rentals and hotels, as it’s believed that this order has the greatest influence on tourists visiting the county, bringing both an influx of cash and potentially the virus.

As of Friday, Swain County has been successful at avoiding a COVID-19 outbreak, with just 5 confirmed cases. As Emergency Management Director David Breedlove pointed out, when you consider the data by zip code released recently by the state, there were no confirmed cases in zip code 28713. He gave credit to the actions of the board, particularly closing the short-term rentals, and the cooperation of county residents on preventing an outbreak. The emergency team is working on providing guidance for businesses as they reopen on best practices to prevent any potential spread of the virus.


Three options presented

There was confusion among the board over the three options provided by the emergency team. County Manager Kevin King presented the following, after conferring with local business owners for input on Friday.

In all three options, the team recommended removing the quarantine, curfew and stay-at-home order. On the short-term rental restrictions, it offered three options, favoring the first: Option 1 would end that restriction when Gov. Roy Cooper implements Phase 2 of the statewide reopening plan; option 2 would end it on May 22; and option 3 would end it on May 8.

The dates are tied to the assumed times for the state’s plan for lifting restrictions with Phase 1, May 8, and Phase 2, two weeks later, although the Governor hasn’t set specific dates.

County attorney Kim Carpenter drew attention to the fact that all the commissioners are doing is terminating the local restrictions, adding 

adding the rental owners will still fall under state regulations.

On Tuesday, May 5,  Gov. Cooper issued executive order 138 introducing Phase 1 that will begin Friday, May 8 at 5 p.m. This will allow more businesses to reopen, including retail establishments. The stay at home order remains in effect, but the order provides for an increase in activities that people can leave home for.

On rentals and hotels, the state says they can reopen but visitors should still follow the stay at home rules, in a frequently asked questions document also released Tuesday evening.

On Monday, the board continued discussion and at the time believed the state was unlikely to allow rentals to resume until Phase 2.

The board also discussed how there are already visitors in town, such as bikers and boaters, acknowledging that there could be some exposure risk already.

There was also some talk about how more people in the county could impact supplies at grocery stores.

“Will food supply and a spike in cases still be an issue no matter how long we put this off?” asked Commissioner Kenneth Parton. “When we open up, do you think we will get a spike in the numbers of the virus?”

Breedlove said he didn’t anticipate the county to see a spike in cases, rather a slow build up of more cases. He also reminded the board they can anticipate that coronavirus will remain a public health concern until a vaccine is widely available, which is estimated to be in about 18 months.

Commission Chairman Ben Bushyhead wondered if lifting the restriction disregards the governor’s rules.

Burns said he wasn’t in favor of setting a date, as that could send a message to people who own rentals that they can start booking then, but it’s not the case if the sate orders are still in place. He said he agreed with the team’s preferred option that would keep that regulation in place until the state’s Phase 2.

Commissioner Roger Parsons also said he preferred that option.

“Once we remove all our restrictions what we do comes out of Raleigh not Bryson City here,” noted Bushyhead.

When it came to voting, Parton made the motion to terminate the addendums, which was seconded by Seagle. Bushyhead made the deciding vote in favor with Burns and Parsons voting against.

Carpenter noted the State of Emergency is still in place, but the supplemental addendums have been terminated as of May 4.



In the health department’s update to the board Amber Frost, assistant director, said the office has had questions about testing.

“All of the providers in the community are able to do the diagnostic test for COVID-19 both the throat or nasal swab test. Smoky Mountain Urgent Care also has some blood tests available for antibody testing.”

On the antibody tests, she explained one test shows current infection for someone without symptoms and the other would show if you have had any type of coronavirus. She added the Centers for Disease Control is still trying to improve accuracy on that test so it can be specific to COVID-19. The antibody tests aren’t diagnostic, she added.


Comments from the public

The board heard from five people during public comment prior to taking up action on Monday. First up was Jesse Shows who urged the board to drop the curfew. “The fact is there’s no reason for a night time curfew as the spread of coronavirus is determined by what you do not when you do it.”

After the meeting, Shows said he plans to dismiss his federal case against Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran and he hopes for a positive resolution of the charges he personally faces for a violation of the curfew.

Michael Watson urged the commissioners to allow lodging rentals to resume, saying he could lose his business and $65,000-$85,000 in business if the order isn’t lifted. “It wasn’t Roy Cooper that shut down me being able to rent out a room, it was the commissioner board,” he said, adding he didn’t blame the board for their actions but that would change if they didn’t rescind the order.

More spoke on the interest in the restrictions on rentals to be lifted even if slowly. Rosewood Inn’s owner said it was become very difficult to make ends meet, citing property taxes of $8,000 that have to covered this year.

Mike Shaker, owner of Everett Street Diner, also suggested a partial lifting of the restriction.

Roger Hopp, a Bryson City resident, urged the board to base their decision-making on reliable data and think about how their decisions will impact the people of the county. “Think about the people regardless of where we stand financially, it is devastating for all of us,” he said. “My hope is the balances and measures in place are fitting for everybody.”

Bryson City Mayor Tom Sutton also said he was in favor of lifting the restriction.

“I think we’ve put a lot of burden on our short-term rentals, and a couple weeks could make a big difference for them,” he said. “They predict a slow growth. I think it would give them a chance to put procedures in place if we get them open now.”