SURF CITY — After two closed meetings, Surf City Council has agreed to reopen short-term vacation rentals on Friday at 5 p.m., the same time the governor’s new ‘Phase 1’ executive order will go into effect.
The town is also considering mandatory face masks in all enclosed public spaces, including grocery stores, large box stores, and other retail establishments and private businesses. The July 3 celebration and firework show, held annually at Soundside Park, has been canceled due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
A decision on face masks is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m., when the meeting will continue on its third day after two recesses and two closed sessions. On Friday, Council will discuss other Covid-19 regulations, according to Mayor Doug Medlin.
In addition to opening vacation rental homes, the town will also open public parking areas, parks, and recreation areas (the tennis courts and dog park at the Surf City Community Center) on Friday at 7 a.m. Although public restrooms will remain closed, the town will place port-a-johns at various public access points and the public boat ramp.
Public beach accesses were reopened April 18, but public parking remained closed.
Masks or no masks?
The beach town is a popular vacation destination for people traveling from Raleigh, Charlotte, and northeastern states like New York. The short-term rental moratorium was originally scheduled to be lifted on May 15, so Council’s decision comes as a welcome reprieve to the realtor companies and private homeowners who form the backbone of the town’s tourism-based economy.
But with the re-opening of vacation rentals will come a wave of people traveling from Covid-19 hotspots within the state, like Raleigh and Durham, and some of the worst-hit places in the world, like New York and New Jersey.
During a virtual council meeting on May 5, Mayor Doug Medlin said he originally proposed the face mask requirement — not for the sake of restricting people’s freedom, but to protect them from contracting the virus. The added restriction would require everyone in public enclosed spaces, including private businesses, to wear homemade or manufactured face coverings.
The proposed law would mirror one recently passed by the city of Durham, according to town attorney Brian Edes. He read it to Council “verbatim,” only modified, he said, to remove sections on public transport:
Members of the general public are required to wear a clean face covering anytime they are or will be in contact with other people who are not household members in public or in private spaces where it is not possible to maintain social distance. These spaces include grocery stores, pharmacies, and business locations. While wearing the face covering, it is essential to still maintain social distance so far as possible, since social distancing is the best defense against the spread of the virus.
A ‘face covering’ is defined as material that covers the nose and mouth. It can be secured to the head with ties or straps or simply wrapped around the lower face. It can be made with a variety of materials, such as cotton, silk, or linen. A cloth mask can be factory made or sewn by hand and can be improvised from household items such as scarves, t-shirts, sweatshirts, or towels.
If passed, face masks would not be required while exercising outdoors or while walking or exercising with other people from the same household as long as social distancing from others.
Councilman Dwight Torres opposed the move, saying it would infringe on people’s freedom of choice.
“I just don’t see how an individual can’t make the decision for themselves as to whether they’re at risk — someone who’s at age or is compromised in their own health already, maybe that makes sense … My concern is restricting people more and more as we start to open up. It’s a fine line,” Torres said.
All other councilmembers were proponents of face masks, whether they are mandatory or “strongly encouraged,” according to Edes. Medlin said the face mask restriction could last one to two months.
‘It could get even worse once we open it up’
In response to Torres, Medlin said he has seen many visitors around town in recent days with tags from states that have high case counts: New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, for instance.
“I’m not doing this to protect the people coming from the North, I’m doing this to protect the people who live here from the people who are coming from the high-risk areas,” Medlin said.
Councilman Buddy Fowler added that with increased testing now available in the area, the numbers of postive cases in Surf City would likely rise.
“I defend the rights of people just like you Mr. Torres,” Fowler said. “It’s a fine line trying to balance that. But you need to look at it from the standpoint of what’s best to make our community safe with all these people coming in. And not just from people coming from the North; we have hot spots in our own state — Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh — who are coming down here now. It could get even worse once we open it up. Most folks don’t remember the smallpox and flus [in the past] and the sacrifices that had to be made. Our normalcy has been changed; I don’t know what our new normalcy will be.”
Later, in arguing for the reopening of short-term rentals on Friday, a week before scheduled, Torres said, “the economic livelihood of our tourism is just as important as the livelihood of our people.”
Councilwoman Teresa Batts said the lifting of some parking restrictions would help ease issues the town saw with congregation on the streets last weekend.
Councilman Jeremy Shugarts supported face mask restrictions although he agreed with Torres that it would be difficult to enforce. Any measures to protect the people, he said, would be necessary and not long-lasting.
“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t … We know in about two-and-a-half weeks we’re going to have a major influx of people here for Memorial Day weekend. And so we could have 25,000 people come into this city. And most of these people will come from the North, and although personally I’m not in favor of face masks, if it protects my family and protects our community — the people who live here — I think it’s not a bad thing. Especially because those people will be in our grocery stores, our shops,” Shugarts said.
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