Currituck commissioners discuss COVID-19 restrictions
Published 9:12 am Thursday, April 2, 2020
It was a far cry from business as usual for Currituck County commissioners Monday.
Holding a 5 p.m. work session followed by a special called meeting March 30, seven commissioners discussed at length the county’s response to state and federal COVID-19 declarations while sitting spread out around the Historic Courthouse conference room.
Although work sessions are not normally televised, Chairman Bob White explained that in light of recent safety protocol guidelines limiting assemblies to no more than ten people, both sessions were being broadcast live. County manager Ben Stikeleather also advised, for those watching and any dialing in to listen by phone, that the seating arrangement complied with proper social distancing guidelines and in order to maintain the 10 person limit, the county attorney would wait outside until after the sheriff departed.
Stikeleather said early in the evening that it is important for the community to understand that the restrictions in place are not punitive actions.
“The stay-at-home order is not a punitive directive and it works well if we comply and understand the reasoning behind it,” he explained.
Stikeleather pointed out that there has been considerable confusion and misinformation being circulated and encouraged residents and non-residents to check the county website and county facebook page for the most recent and accurate information.
“Currituck restrictions were not put in place lightly,” explained Stikeleather. “We know people are frustrated, angry and some are scared. But the idea is not to limit the spread, it is already in Currituck County. The restriction is to not bring a population here that is so dense it cannot be adequately treated by the limited medical facilities we have on the Outer Banks.”
Currituck does not have a hospital and The Outer Banks Hospital in Nags Head has less than 20 beds with no intensive care capabilities.
Primarily an evening of information and education, two actions for the evening included setting an April 30 expiration date for the county’s current state of emergency and authorizing remote participation for commissioner meetings during declared emergencies.
The initial declaration that restricted county access for non-resident property owners and visitors to Corolla and the 4WD area, closed most county facilities, closed county playgrounds and equipment, cancelled county events and meetings and authorized county offices to be open to public by appointment only was issued without an expiration date.
According to Stikeleather, the proposed deadline matches one in place for Dare County and can be re-evaluated at the April 20 Board of Commissioners meeting.
“This will give non-resident property owners a target date,” said Stikeleather. “And we can make adjustments to the date if necessary.”
Stikeleather went on to stress that staff are listening to complaints, but being firm in not allowing exceptions. He added that emergency requests are being considered, but the test of an emergency is extremely narrow.
While discussing the April meeting, the question was raised about commissioners participating remotely, to which county attorney Donald “Ike” McRee Jr. advised that while state law is not clear on the subject, Currituck County code prohibits commissioners and advisory board members from voting unless physically present at a meeting.
McRee said if commissioners want to have the ability to hold remote meetings, the code would have to be amended.
After debate on the need and under what conditions remote meetings might be called, commissioners approved a motion to allow remote participation of the commissioners in meetings when under an emergency declaration. Advisory board members are not included in the change.
In another discussion, Sheriff Matthew W. Beickert reported that deputies are enforcing a March 21 county declaration limiting county access and check points are in place in cooperation with Dare County. Beickert added that a marine patrol has checked boats, providing information to Virginia boaters and more than several boats have been turned around.
“It seems things are going well and people are complying with the governor’s order,” said Beickert. “No real issues but there were some reports of mass gatherings that proved to be less than what was thought. We will continue to monitor that and hope all goes well.”
Fielding questions about joyriders and reports of people being smuggled into the county, Beickert advised that a number of activities are still allowed and that would require stopping a lot of people, so there are no current plans to stop vehicles without specific information and the check points are being closely monitored.
When Beickert was asked about the accuracy of reports that Food Lion bussed in a number of workers in violation of the county declaration, he advised that there was no violation and Stikeleather added that after fielding questions about that from the community, it was looked into and everything is legal.
“Our economic development director reached out to Food Lion and found that the J-1 workers have been in the country for many months,” said Stikeleather. “They did come into Corolla after our declaration was put in place, but as employees of an essential business, that is legal. Our declaration says that if you are a worker coming into Corolla for an essential business then that is legal. And actually the J-1 program has been suspended, so no new folks can come in.”
The J-1 program, with eligibility criteria for both applicants and employers, began in the 1960s is a non-immigrant visa issued by the United States to promote cultural exchange in the private sector or in government and academic programs with participants from more than 150 countries.
Stikeleather went on to explain how most county departments that have not already done so are moving to telecommuting and that the county was prepared to comply with the Family First Coronavirus act the first of April. Language in the act expands the reasons employees can use the already existing federal Family and Medical Leave Act and allows use if needed for a COVID-19 related exposure, provides an additional 80 hours of sick leave beyond regular sick time, makes part-time employees eligible for leave equal and applies to all small business employers, not just county government.
It does not cover people sent home from a business being shut down or under the statewide stay-at-home order; it has to be a COVID-19 exposure incident.