COVID-19 trends are headed in the right direction, Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday, April 30, but North Carolinians are going to be at home at least a week longer — and most shuttered businesses won’t be up-and-running again anytime soon. 

For some, that’s too long to wait. 

On Wednesday, April 29, the Gaston County Board of Commissioners said it would support people who return to work, even though doing so would violate Cooper’s stay-at-home order. Later in the day, the county clarified its stance, saying it would continue to follow all state laws, including the governor’s executive order, and that it wouldn’t ask county staff or county residents to break the law. 

“That action created confusion in a pandemic, and that’s dangerous,” Cooper said during Thursday’s news conference. 

The county board said it would support people who want to return to work. 

Gaston County isn’t the only community looking for some relief from the economic shutdown, and its move to reopen added new fire to local and private acts of civil disobedience already happening across the state. 

Matthew “Jax” Myers, owner of an Apex tattoo parlor, was arrested after trying to re-open his business. He hadn’t received any federal Paycheck Protection Program or small business assistance loans. He didn’t know anyone who had, he told the News & Observer. 

Over the past two weeks, 5,317 North Carolinians signed a petition asking the governor for a “soft opening” of hair salons, allowing only one customer at a time. 

Four ReopenNC protesters were arrested in Raleigh on charges of violating the governor’s order and direct orders from police. ReopenNC protesters in Wilmington took to the streets April 18, warning about economic destruction if the stay-at-home orders continue.

Beaches are reopening, too. The Carteret County Department of Human Services announced April 27 that officials are reopening its three county-maintained beach access points, while urging residents to maintain social distancing and avoid mass gatherings. 

North Carolinians have engaged in small, private acts of civil disobedience since the beginning of the stay-at-home order, even if they didn’t consider their actions civil disobedience, said Jeanette Doran, staff attorney for the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law. Activities like gathering in a parking lot to share a drink and listen to music, or sneaking off to a city park to play outdoor basketball, have occurred for weeks, even though they violate the governor’s order.

Gaston County promises support to those who reopen

The governor’s stay-at-home order defies the data, Gaston County Board Chairman Tracy Philbeck said last week. Despite dire warnings about hospital capacity, Gaston County’s local hospital, CaroMont Health Regional Medical Center, has three patients who tested positive for COVID-19, he noted in a virtual town hall hosted by the John Locke Foundation April 25. Last week, the county reported a total of 21 active cases, 122 recovered cases, and three deaths.

“The canary in the coal mine, if you will, has been hospital capacity at the federal, state level, and even the local level,” Philbeck told Carolina Journal. “With that said, our hospital hasn’t seen any capacity issues. … We shouldn’t tell people to do things the data don’t support.”

Gaston County’s initial order followed phase one of White House reopening guidelines: opening up all businesses, as long as they practice proper sanitation and hygiene, while limiting gatherings such as concerts and banquets.

“Of course, legally, the governor’s order will trump our order,” Philbeck said at the John Locke Foundation event. “But we’re going to do business, and if you can’t feed your families, or you can’t get to work, or you can’t get the surgeries you need, the governor is going to have to own that.” 

The governor’s executive order locks down all 100 counties, even though a good deal of COVID-19 infections come from more densely populated counties, such as Mecklenburg and Wake, Philbeck said. Even in the counties with more cases, hospitals aren’t overrun. It’s just the opposite: many hospitals are furloughing employees because they see so few patients. They’re also losing money due to the number of elective surgeries they’ve postponed.

Cooper and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen acknowledged the added risks to public health at the Thursday news conference. They noted people with chronic illnesses including diabetes and hypertension aren’t checking their blood sugar or blood pressure as regularly. Some are delaying colonoscopies because the state told hospitals and surgical centers to stop providing elective procedures.

Cooper and Cohen urged North Carolinians not to ignore their health during the pandemic.

On Thursday, 546 North Carolina patients were hospitalized for COVID-19, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported. The state has more than 6,600 hospital beds available.

The state is doing everything it can to ramp up testing, Cohen said Thursday. Between 5,000 and 6,000 tests are completed every day.

Associate Editor Kari Travis provided additional reporting for this story.