Mass gatherings of 50 or more people at the same time and location are now prohibited in Wilkes County, plus church and other religious gatherings are not exempt from the limit.

This action was taken under a revision of the state of emergency declared for Wilkes and the three municipalities in the county through April 30, approved Thursday by Eddie Settle, chairman of the county commissioners; North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson; Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore and Ronda Mayor Victor Varela.

No cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, had been confirmed in Wilkes County by Thursday evening. There had been 126 confirmed statewide, including the state’s first case from “community spread.” Officials said 2,505 people statewide had been tested by Thursday evening.

COVID-19 had been confirmed in 22 of the state’s 100 counties by Thursday evening, including two in Iredell and one in Watauga. The most cases were in Durham County, with 32. Wake County had 22 and Mecklenburg County had 13.

Church gatherings initially exempt

Settle and the three mayors declared the state of emergency for Wilkes on March 13, including a prohibition of gatherings of 100 or more people and exempting those held for church or other religious purposes.

On March 16, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended not having gatherings with 50 or more people for the next two months. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) made the same recommendation on March 15, after earlier recommending a limit of 100. On Tuesday, the CDC and President Trump recommended no gatherings of 10 or more people for the next 15 days.

These limits on the number of people in gatherings are intended to reduce opportunities for person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus.

On March 14, Cooper announced that he had issued an order prohibiting mass gatherings of over 100 people and closing all K-12 schools for two weeks starting March 16.

Cooper didn’t explicitly include religious gatherings in his order, but many church leaders took it that way and some with over 100 people attending their Sunday worship services cancelled services because of his order. Jane Gilchrist, general counsel for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said that any church-related gathering, including funerals, with attendance exceeding 100 people is prohibited under Cooper’s order.

Violations of Cooper’s order are punishable as a Class 2 misdemeanor.

Settle, Inscore and Johnson sought input from pastors and other church leaders in Wilkes before including church services in the ban on gatherings of 50 or more people.

The three also asked ministers to spread the word about the action and encourage social distancing for the health and safety of people in Wilkes.

“The faith community can be instrumental in helping local governments and communities,” said the Rev. Jamie McGuire, pastor of Purlear Baptist Church. “We can be very effective in the days to come.”

The state of emergency declaration gives the county and municipalities legal and administrative tools to fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

The action taken locally Thursday was discussed Wednesday in a meeting of the town and county managers and attorneys, mayors and Settle in the fellowship hall of Wilkesboro United Methodist Church.

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