Gaston commissioner Tracy Philbeck got the big headlines he surely was going for when he told reporters Wednesday morning that his county would be open for business, in defiance of N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 stay at home order. But within hours, the commissioner’s bold declaration was exposed for what it actually was — an ill-conceived, comically executed and ultimately spineless political stunt.
Philbeck, in his morning news conference, declared that he would sign an order that would allow Gaston County businesses to open at 5 p.m. Wednesday. “We’re going to put our people to work,” said the commissioner, who along with other commissioners also released a “Gaston Promise” — adorned in red, white and blue — that talked about constitutional rights and said that the county “supports the reopening of businesses and houses of worship” so long as they do it safely.
Problem was, the order that Philbeck was signing said something very different:
“Gaston County is ready to reopen for business once the Governor lifts the statewide restrictions that are still binding upon the individuals and businesses throughout North Carolina.”
Wait — once the governor lifts statewide restrictions? Yes, the next paragraph affirmed:
“This Order is to ensure that the people of Gaston County know that Gaston County plans to reopen for business once state-level restrictions found in the Governor’s executive orders are relaxed or otherwise lifted.”
To further complicate things, the order also stated that “large venues” — places such as restaurant dining rooms, theaters, gyms and houses of worship — could reopen with social distancing limitations. Those businesses are not allowed to open under Cooper’s order.
So which was it — would Gaston County open for business at 5, or did the governor’s order still apply? We asked Gaston County spokesperson Adam Gaub, who promised a clarifying statement. Meanwhile, the county yanked Philbeck’s order from its website, and the governor’s office weighed in with a statement that chastised the county for creating “confusion during a public health emergency, which is dangerous.”
Then, incredibly, the county made things worse.
In a statement later Wednesday afternoon, the county government’s website said North Carolina’s order supersedes Gaston’s order and that “at no point would county leadership ask its staff or county residents to break the law.” But two paragraphs later, Philbeck said: “In spite of the Governor’s order, we support and will stand with those that want to open their businesses and go to work.”
In other words, Philbeck was winking at county residents and saying it was OK to defy the governor.
“Yeah,” Gaub, the spokesperson, confirmed in a phone call. “Our political leaders are basically saying, ‘You can do this.’ ”
All of which means the county administration is officially disagreeing with its county commission chair. It also means that Philbeck’s defiance is not really defiance at all. He’s telling his county’s business owners to take their chances and see what happens. It was a statement that had all the courage of a big brother urging his younger sibling to disobey mom and dad.
“I know, it’s a mess,” said a clearly exasperated Gaub.
It’s more than that. It’s political theater with real consequences. Businesses could endanger public health or risk penalty, all of which doesn’t appear to bother a commission chair who thought he was making a statement, but was really just making a spectacle of himself.