Orders declaring states of emergency in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro and requiring wearing masks or other face coverings inside most establishments open to the public in the two towns are in effect as of 5 p.m. Sept. 1.
The COVID-19-related orders were issued by Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore and North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson, with support of the two town governing bodies, stated a press release jointly issued Sept. 1 by Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland and North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper. The orders say the mask mandate is in effect for 30 days.
“These actions were taken to help battle the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 and mitigate the strain on community medical resources being caused by the virus,” the release stated.
It noted that after improved COVID-19 transmission rates locally in the spring and early summer, “Wilkes County is currently experiencing a frightening spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths driven by the highly transmissible delta variant.” It said an average of one in five COVID-19 tests is positive locally.
Wilkes had 142 deaths officially linked to COVID-19 by Tuesday, with ages among the last five ranging from 30s to 80s.
Wilkes had 140 such deaths by Friday, compared to 128 a week earlier and 123 two weeks earlier. At least 10 COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes residents occurred in an 11-day period ending in late August.
As of Friday, 8,725 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. That was up by 383 from the prior Friday and 719 more than Friday two weeks earlier.
Under the town mask orders, “establishments open to the public” may refuse service to people not wearing a face covering and adopt additional protective provisions
“Establishments open to the public” include but aren’t limited to retail and service businesses, restaurants, reception areas of professional offices, town offices, non-profit offices “and other places where members of the general public are permitted to and do enter to obtain goods, services, information or assistance.”
The orders exempt county or state government properties from the mask mandate. Noland said federal properties are also exempt.
The orders say that upon request, police will support an establishment’s refusal to serve someone not wearing a mask by removing the noncompliant individual in accordance with state trespassing laws.
They say police may charge a violator of the mask mandate with committing a class 2 misdemeanor offense, “but only in the event of repeat violations manifesting willful flouting or circumvention.” They also say police must first educate an offender about what is required and subsequently issue a warning before filing a charge.
The orders say the mask mandate applies to “customers, employees and any other occupants or users” of establishments open to the public.
Exceptions to the mask mandate are allowed, including children younger than 2 and people sitting at a table while dining in a restaurant. Also allowed are exceptions due to medical or behavioral conditions, “including but not limited to anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”
The release said the mask mandate applies to unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
State records showed that 37% of Wilkes County’s total population was fully vaccinated as of Sept. 3, putting Wilkes among counties with the lowest vaccination rates.
Public health experts say that due to high case numbers and the delta variant’s ability to spread from asymptomatic or even pre-symptomatic individuals, indoor public settings remain risky sites of substantial transmission for unmasked people.
Chad Brown, president of Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro, said that on behalf of the local hospital and the entire Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist system, “We wholeheartedly support these important safety measures that can make a real difference in the fight against COVID-19.”
Brown said properly wearing a mask indoors and practicing social distancing outdoors are key to helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. “As the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increase locally, statewide and nationally we must take every possible measure to keep ourselves, our loved ones and the community safe.”
In an Aug. 27 meeting of local leaders concerning COVID-19, Eddie Settle, chairman of the Wilkes County commissioners, said he was confident that Wilkes County government would not enact a mask mandate.
The Wilkes Board of Education voted 3-2 on Aug. 30 to require that all students, staff and visitors wear masks while indoors at schools, at least for the next 30 days. This went into effect Aug. 31, with masks being provided for people who don’t have them. Masks were already required on school buses.
Under legislation signed into law the same day, school boards must adopt policies on masks in schools and vote each month on whether to modify them.
On Aug. 31, the Wilkes County Board of Health passed a resolution urging all residents and business to follow mitigation measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The release said the Wilkes Health Department believes the orders issued Sept. 1 by the mayors of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro will help Wilkes residents stay healthy and safe.
It said that there is strong evidence that face coverings, in conjunction with vaccination, are needed to halt COVID-19 transmission and help end the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends this.
Inscore and Johnson issued states of emergency orders for their respective towns in March 2020 due to conditions during early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of April 2020, the issued amendments requiring face coverings in establishments frequented by the public.
These orders and amendments were repealed on May 8, 2021, due to improved transmission rates and other trends indicating the pandemic was less severe.
Charles “Rob” Thornburg has been named North Wilkesboro police chief, announced Town Manager Wilson Hooper on Aug. 26.
Thornburg was named interim chief after Joe Rankin, chief since 2010, retired in January. His first day as permanent chief was Aug. 27. A date for Thornburg to be publicly sworn in as chief hasn’t been set. His starting annual salary is $79,310.
Hooper said 12 candidates meeting the minimum qualifications for the job applied, including chiefs from towns in Maine, Florida and South Carolina.
He said four were invited to participate in a panel interview with him and participants from the state’s law enforcement and criminal justice communities in July. The four finalists also took an “Emotional IQ Assessment” administered by a human resources consultant. Three finalists were invited to North Wilkesboro to meet with Hooper individually.
“I believe in hiring the best candidate, whether internal or external. And when you hire an internal candidate, an open search helps you confirm that you’ve got the right person,” said Hooper.
“Such was the case with Chief Thornburg. We were fortunate that a number of very strong candidates vied for this job, and each of our finalists was experienced and capable of being our chief. Rob’s résumé, his accomplishments, and his performance during the selection process compared favorably to the other candidates who’d been chiefs of police before,” said Hooper.
Hooper said Thornburg’s service as interim chief showed him that in addition to measuring up on paper and around the interview table, he could actually perform the job.
“Rob has demonstrated both the diplomacy and the firmness required of a police chief, and you can’t go anywhere with the guy without stopping to chat with all the people who know him, trust him, and want to talk with him.”
Hooper said Thornburg’s ability to step into the job on day one and already have Hooper’s trust and confidence, the trust and confidence of his officers, and the trust and confidence of community members is what ultimately set him apart from the other candidates.
“I believe he’s going to be an effective chief,” Hooper added.
Thornburg also said, “It’s an honor and a privilege to accept the permanent position as chief of police for the Town of North Wilkesboro. As most people know, I started here at the North Wilkesboro Police Department in 1995 and have worked in every position and in all capacities.”
Thornburg said he believes his training and experience will bring continued values, compassion and professionalism to the citizens of the town.
“I want to personally say thank you for all of the support I have received from the community; my heart has been overfilled. I also want to say thank you to all of the dedicated officers here at the North Wilkesboro Police Department for all of their support as well. The officers here at the North Wilkesboro Police Department are the best around, and I would put them up against any other department.”
North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson said, “I look forward to working with Chief Thornburg to continue the work of improving our town and protecting its citizens and businesses. I wish him great success, which I think will happen.”
Johnson said the fact that Thornburg has served in a leadership capacity with North Wilkesboro Police Department and that his selection will be popular with the department’s officers gives him this confidence. “And I’ll lend my help as mayor, and as an individual, to help him be successful.”
Hooper said that after Rankin announced his plans to retire in December, he immediately consulted advisors from the N.C. League of Municipalities for best practices on police chief recruitments.
In January, an officers’ survey was launched to receive feedback from North Wilkesboro Police Department staff on what they wanted to see in their next chief. He said results of the survey were discussed with the commissioners in late January and, along with the board’s feedback, were used to produce a position profile advertised on industry websites from the end of February through April.
“I want to thank the other candidates. It was an honor to have such dedicated and experienced public servants consider North Wilkesboro,” Hooper said. “Their towns are in good hands.”
The Wilkes Journal-Patriot is holding a question and answer forum on Oct. 7 for candidates in the Wilkesboro Town Council, North Wilkesboro Board of Commissioners and North Wilkesboro mayoral races.
It will be held at the Yadkin Valley Marketplace on the CBD Loop in North Wilkesboro. This is an outdoor venue, which public health officials say is safer for gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. It offers a covered but opened-sided shelter in case of rain, as well as restrooms.
Social distancing protocol will be followed in spacing chairs for candidate and audience seating. All candidates and people in the audience will be strongly encouraged to wear masks.
The public is invited to submit questions for candidates to the Wilkes Journal-Patriot for inclusion among those asked during the forum.
Questions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or be mailed to Wilkes Journal-Patriot, P.O. Box 70, North Wilkesboro, N.C., 28659.
They can also be placed in the metal drop box immediately to the right of the front double glass doors of the building with the newspaper offices at 711 Main Street, North Wilkesboro.
Questions need to be received by or on Sept. 17.
When submitting a question, indicate if it is for the three candidates for two Wilkesboro Town Council seats, four candidates for North Wilkesboro mayor or four candidates for two North Wilkesboro commissioner seats.
The forum will have three sessions, one for each of three races. The schedule will be:
• Wilkesboro Town Council session, starts at 5:20 p.m.
• North Wilkesboro mayoral session, starts at 6:20 p.m.
• North Wilkesboro commissioner session, starts at 7:30 p.m.
All questions will be prepared in advance. Candidates will be told the general subjects of questions in their session before the forum, but not the actual questions.
Forum moderator Dane Mastin will ask the questions.
Candidates for the same seat or seats will answer the same five questions, but the same questions won’t be asked in all three sessions.
Each candidate will have two minutes to answer each question. Candidates will also have two minutes apiece for opening statements and two minutes apiece for closing statements.
L.B. Prevette, the time keeper, will let candidates know when their two minutes is about to expire and when it expires for each answer and for opening and closing statements.
The order in which candidates respond will differ with each question.
All town elections in Wilkes County are non-partisan, which means no party primaries and no indication of party affiliation on ballots. All terms are for four years. The Town of Ronda’s elections are held in even-numbered years.
Candidate names appear in this article in the order and as they are written on ballots, except ages aren’t included on ballots.
Candidates for North Wilkesboro mayor are Michael Cooper, 35; William Hamby, 73; Marc R. Hauser, 67, and Robert L. Johnson, 77. Johnson is the incumbent.
Candidates for two North Wilkesboro commissioner seats are Otis W. Church, 75; Angela J. Day, 50; Joseph A. Johnston, 69; and Jonathan Swift, 38. Day is the only incumbent. Debbie Ferguson’s term is also ending, but she didn’t file for re-election.
Candidates for two Wilkesboro Town Council seats are Nellie Hubbard Archibald, 56, Russell F. Ferree, 70, and Lee W. Taylor, 77.
Early, one-stop voting, when registering to vote and voting at the same time and location is allowed, is from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 14-29 weekdays only and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30. All early, one-stop voting in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro races is at the Wilkes Board of Elections office on the third floor of the Wilkes County Office Building in Wilkesboro.
Election Day is Nov. 2, with municipal polling places open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The deadline is 5 p.m. for returning absentee ballots in person and 7:30 p.m. to return military/overseas ballots electronically.
The deadline to register to vote on Election Day is 5 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Wilkes Board of Elections office in Wilkesboro. Mailed voter registration forms must be postmarked Oct. 8.
Oct. 1 is the first day absentee ballots can be mailed to voters.
The deadline to receive absentee ballots by mail is 5 p.m. Nov. 5. They must be postmarked by Election Day.
Nov. 8 at 5 p.m. is the deadline to receive military/overseas absentee ballots by mail at the Wilkes Board of Elections.
On Nov. 9, the Wilkes Board of Elections will canvass election results.
Nov. 10 at 5 p.m. is the deadline to request a recount. Nov. 12 at 5 p.m. is the deadline to file an election protest. (A protest concerning the vote count should be filed before results are canvassed.)
A broad array of COVID-19-related precautions will be used at MerleFest 2021, which is about one week away (Sept. 16-19) at Wilkes Community College.
Organizers worked closely with state and local health officials to determine and implement these steps, said MerleFest Director Ted Hagaman.
They include requiring that people be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or have tested negative for the virus within 72 hours of entering the festival.
Upon providing proof of meeting one of these requirements at the festival entrance, a person will be given a “well” wristband to wear throughout the event. This is in addition to wristbands provided with tickets.
Hagaman said the proof can be the original or photo copy of a vaccination card or negative test print, but the entire document must be legible. A photo ID also is needed. He said the negative test requirement applies to children of all ages, per state health officials.
He said losing or removing a well wristband will mean having to repeat the process of proving eligibility.
“State and local health officials and the CDC highly recommend this step and the live music industry is now requiring this to make large gatherings of people as safe as possible,” said Hagaman.
He said testing will be available onsite, but with limited capacity. “We strongly recommend that everyone needing a test do so before getting to the festival,” he added.
“We are scheduling testing at three sites on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (Sept. 13-15) of festival week for anyone in the immediate Wilkes area to get a test at no charge with hopes that a large segment can be tested and receive their well wristband before out of town fans arrive.”
Testing sites will be set up at the main box office plaza, beside the WCC Culinary building on Beacon Hill and in the parking lot of Herring Hall off Oakwoods Road. All three locations will be open from noon to 7 p.m. each of the three days. Optum is providing this testing, which will be rapid tests.
“If you choose to wait (to get tested) until you arrive at the festival, you might find yourself waiting in a long line instead of inside the festival enjoying the music. Your action prior to arriving will make a huge difference in the speed in which we get you into the festival.”
Hagaman said that as required by state health officials, tests must be provided by licensed medical providers and home rapid test results won’t be accepted.
He said social distancing isn’t required, “but logic tells us that we need to be sensitive in crowds and keep adequate space between you and other festival attendees.”
To help reduce congestion in the box office area, the following will open/start at 1:30 p.m. on the first day of the festival and at 9:30 a.m. each of the three subsequent days: gates, box office, shuttle buses, cooler checks and shops/craft vendors. Buses normally run about an hour before the gates open. Hagaman said opening the gates when the buses start will help people enter the festival sooner rather than congregating. Having all the shops open sooner will give people more to do and also reduce congestion.
A new festival exit for pedestrians will be added where the Yadkin River Greenway connects with WCC.
Hagaman cited other steps to reduce crowding and also mask requirements.
Masks must be worn while anywhere indoors at the event, including the Walker Center Stage, Austin Stage, Watson Stage backstage and portable bathroom trailers. In addition, fewer people at a time will be allowed in the MerleFest Museum.
The Mayes Pit Stage won’t be open this year due to the small size of its auditorium’s and difficulty increasing air flow there. The other two indoor stages will have enhanced air flow through their AC systems. There will be fans in several tents to help move air.
To have fewer people backstage, side stage seating for patrons and backstage tours won’t be offered.
Much of the seating under the large food tent will be relocated, resulting in that area being primarily only for preparing and selling food and beverages and for customer lines.
The former R&R Tent will be a place for dining, with appropriately spaced tables and chairs. A Shade Tent will be set up where the Raffle Tent used to be, with seating, lactation room and baby changing station.
“Bring your masks and we’ll all mask up when going inside, said Hagaman. Federal regulations require masks when riding a festival shuttle bus or van, he added.
MerleFest COVID-19 protocol strongly encourages attendees not vaccinated to wear masks at all times at the event and for everyone to wear them in high concentrations of people, even if vaccinated.
Under the protocol, masks are highly recommended for children. For safety of young attendees, the scrap exchange, crafts, large sandbox, do-it-yourself bubbles, arcade style games and instrument petting zoo were deleted from the Little Picker’s area this year. The annual Acoustic Kids Showcase won’t be held. The Little Pickers Stage will still offer programming for children.
School Day, when admission is free for students in certain grade levels, won’t be offered this year.
Inventory in the MerleFest Mall will be limited to items from this year’s performing artists, Doc and Merle Watson items and other select offerings. Masks are recommended for all in this area.
All heritage crafts booths will be in tents that allow vendors to face outside.
Hagaman encouraged continually washing or sanitizing hands to avoid spreading disease. Over 100 hand wash and sanitizing stations are being added throughout the festival grounds. He said WCC custodial staff and festival cleaning teams will clean and sanitize high touch areas throughout the event, as well as dispose of trash.
All festival volunteers, staff, food workers and shuttle bus drivers will be required to complete a health attestation prior to starting a work shift each day.
Wilkes Health Department staff will be onsite to monitor health practices. They will also offer free vaccinations to volunteers and staff before the festival and to attendees during the event.
“MerleFest fans have always been respectful of each other and we’re all here to enjoy the music and traditions,” said Hagaman.
“I challenge everyone to do the right thing. This will help us accomplish our goal of having a safe and successful event for everyone involved,” he concluded.