Bear Creek at Linville

Bear Creek at Linville is one of the many gated communities in Avery County that has been sending out information to its members regarding the social distancing mandates the county has ordered and the necessary precautions to take.

NEWLAND — Avery County is a popular summer destination, but in the wake of COVID-19 the allure of the area’s scenic attractions and homes of part-time residents may potentially cause difficulties in keeping the virus at bay.

In part, this is why Avery County has implemented several measures to ensure that the influx of tourists and part-time residents, who typically begin to arrive to the region in May, will not inadvertently transmit the virus or cause a strain on local resources.

Keeping in line with the governor’s stay-at-home order which has been extended until May 8, the county has passed its own mandatory 14-day quarantine order for those traveling to the county, as well as continued its ban on short-term rentals.

“What we have in effect in our state of emergency is if you come after an overnight stay and you come from wherever to my home, I’m ordered to self-quarantine for 14 days to make sure that I am virus free. I don’t use facilities, grocery stores or pharmacies. I try to bring everything with me to sustain me for that 14-day period,” County Manager Phillip Barrier said.

Barrier associates these safety measures, along with citizen obedience to statewide mandates, with the reason why Avery is one of five North Carolina counties with no active cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, April 28.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Estimate Program for 2019, Avery County has a population of 17,577. However, the county’s population increases every summer with the influx of part-time residents who own homes in the area. The U.S. Census aims to count each person only once, and citizens with seasonal homes are included in the population of the area where they live the majority of the time, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Barrier says the influx of part-time residents during the summer months increases the county’s population by around 8,000 to 10,000. These part-time residents also account for approximately 50 percent of the county’s tax base through property and sales tax, according to Barrier.

Yet with the cancellation of this year’s Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Singing on the Mountain events, as well as a nationwide decrease in tourism in recent years, it is expected that the county will see much less of an influx. Surrounding areas, such as Johnson City, Tenn., have also canceled its Fourth of July celebrations, while Avery County has yet to take such action.

“With the governor’s stay-at-home order, and a lot of states’ stay-at-home orders, there will probably be [less] of an influx. I think everybody’s taking it very serious to beat this curve,” Barrier said.

In addition to countywide mandates, local law enforcement is able to enforce the governor’s stay-at-home order by issuing citations to individuals who are in violation of the order. According to the UNC School of Government, violations of the order are punishable as a Class 2 misdemeanor, which can carry a maximum punishment of 60 days imprisonment for violators with five or more prior convictions while violators with no prior convictions may receive fines or sentences to probation.

So far, two people in Avery County have been charged for being in violation of the stay-at-home or non-essential travel order.

Deputies with the Avery County Sheriff’s Office charged Jeffery S. McMahan of Roan Mountain, Tenn. on Tuesday, April 14, for violation of the order, along with possession of an open container of an alcoholic beverage, after he and his girlfriend dropped off a possible hitchhiker in Boone before returning to Elk Park and became involved in a domestic dispute, according to an ACSO press release.

Charges were filed against Heidy Joyner of Advance, NC for traveling to Avery County to camp at a primitive camping site. ACSO was notified due to a dispute between Joyner and the owner of the campsite. A criminal summons was obtained against Joyner for the stay-at-home/non-essential travel order after the ACSO resolved the dispute, according to a release from the office of Sheriff Kevin Frye.

“We’re being very judicious in how we enforce the orders, and we’re trying to give people an opportunity, but if somebody wants to come into Avery County and be disrespectful or blatantly be in violation then gets in trouble with something else, they’ll get charged with the non-essential travel order also,” Sheriff Frye said.

ACSO has also been in contact with the gated communities across the county, and Frye ensured that these communities are abiding by the orders put in place.

These communities, which include resorts and private clubs such as Linville Ridge, Grandfather Golf and Country Club, Linville Land Harbor, Diamond Creek, Elk River, The Lodges at Eagles Nest and others, have closed various amenities to its members and informed them of the stipulations the county has put in place.

“We have a property management company that has emailed them every single update that has come out. Our staff at the gate at the main entrance has given that information out as well. We’ve kept them well-informed,” The Lodges at Eagles Nest Event Coordinator Lisa Bender said.

Part-time residents who own second homes in Avery come from all over the country, including nearby states such as Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida. Several of these states are planning reopening parts of their economies once each of its respective stay-at-home orders expires.

Tennessee has 8,200 cases of COVID-19, and 170 residents have died from the virus, as of April 27. Last week, Gov. Bill Lee announced that he would not extend the state’s stay-at-home order beyond April 30. Restaurants will begin to have in-person but limited dining room service, while other businesses will continue to be encouraged to work from home, and close-contact services will remain closed until additional guidelines are issued.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has already begun opening up the state, as its stay-at-home order expired on April 20. Retail stores are ordered to operate at 20-percent capacity, while beaches and other stores are allowed to reopen. The governor encouraged citizens to continue practicing social distancing during an April 20 press conference. The state has 5,253 cases of COVID-19 and 166 deaths from the virus, as of April 27.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s reopening strategy has been the most expansive to date, with large parts of its economy, including in-person services such as gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys and tattoo parlors, now allowed to operate. Beginning on April 27, restaurants are allowed to resume limited dine-in service while movie theaters and other entertainment venues are allowed to operate. However, the state continues to keep certain restrictions, including screening workers for fevers. Georgia has 22,695 COVID cases and 904 deaths as of April 27.

Additionally, cases in Florida have begun to decline, and the state has allowed beaches to begin reopening. Gov. Ron DeSantis has not indicated by press time if the state will extend its stay-at-home order, which is set to expire April 30. Florida has 30,839 COVID-19 cases with 1,055 deaths, as of April 27.

In the meantime, it is uncertain whether other states’ reopening strategies will affect the spreading of the virus locally due to the travel restrictions that are in place. County officials have confidence in the state’s coronavirus containment strategy and believe social distancing continues to be residents’ best defense against COVID-19.

“I agree with the governor. This is here until we get a cure. The virus is here until we find a cure. We just have to learn how to live and maintain our social distancing and keep it from spreading. I think in this state it has done a great job,” Barrier said.

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