Buncombe board split on direction for next phase of COVID-19 response

Robert Pressley at April 16 Board of Commissioners meeting
ON THE SAME PAGE?: Republican Buncombe County Commissioner Robert Pressley critiques a resolution, later approved by his Democratic colleagues, regarding the county's COVID-19 response. Screen capture courtesy of Buncombe County

In a contentious April 16 special meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners narrowly approved a resolution setting terms for the next phase of the county’s COVID-19 response. The commission’s Democratic members — Chair Brownie Newman, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Amanda Edwards and Al Whitesides — passed direction for expanded community testing and contact tracing over the objections of Republicans Joe Belcher, Anthony Penland and Robert Pressley.

While the Republican commissioners stressed their commitment to ensuring the county’s safety, they expressed concern over the process by which the resolution was introduced and some of its terms. Penland said that he’d previously been told to expect a discussion, not a vote on implementing specific plans, which the commissioners had received that morning.

“I’ve only been here about a month, and boy, what a month it has been,” Penland said, referencing his March 3 appointment to fill out the term of deceased Commissioner Mike Fryar. “I hope we don’t do business where an email went out saying one thing, and then I didn’t even know we had a resolution until another commissioner asked, ‘Have you read the resolution?’”

In response, Beach-Ferrara argued it was important for the commissioners to provide explicit, documented guidance for county staff as they navigated difficult times. “We are paddling through classified rapids; it’s a crisis situation,” she said. “And there are moments where you have to make decisive decisions about which way to paddle. To me, we’re at one of those moments.”

Belcher asked to cut parts of the resolution that directly requested staff to expand contact tracing, provide isolation and care services for residents with known or suspected COVID-19 and use testing “as part of an overall plan for safely reopening the local economy and community.” Whitesides, who made the initial motion to approve the resolution, declined consideration of the changes.

Following that exchange, Pressley said the measure had “turned into a political deal” in which his Democratic colleagues were unwilling to compromise. “I support it all, but I will not vote for it. Because if we cannot come to conclusions that a piece of paper, a resolution, is going to keep us going forward, we’re in bad shape. We are in bad shape.”

General Assembly to reconvene April 28

So far, COVID-19 action at the state level has come from the executive branch led by Gov. Roy Cooper. That’s set to change on Tuesday, April 28, as the N.C. General Assembly returns to Raleigh for a short session. Access to the legislative chambers will be limited to members, staff and credentialed media for the duration of the session.

“The business of the General Assembly is making laws and appropriating money,” wrote the office of Sen. Phil Berger (R-Caswell) in an April 15 press release. “With appropriate health and safety measures in effect, the legislature will carry on the people’s business and work in a collaborative manner to pass consensus COVID-19 legislation.”

During an April 10 legislative luncheon hosted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, members of Western North Carolina’s General Assembly delegation said they expected action to be taken quickly. Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) suggested new legislation could be introduced on the first day of the session, with votes occurring as early as Thursday, April 30.

Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe) said her Democratic colleagues would be recommending “significant investments” in public health, including personal protective equipment and diagnostic testing, as well as small business support. Rep. Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) noted that he had been working on “regulatory relief bills” to adjust deadlines and fees for businesses that require state licensing.

In response to a question from Xpress, Turner added that he didn’t expect the General Assembly to take up changes to legislation governing the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority during the short session. “We will pick up where we left off after the crisis is over,” he said.

In other news

  • The ASPCA is distributing free pet food for drive-through pickup to Buncombe County residents in need due to COVID-19. Pet owners can call 800-738-9437, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for more information and the pickup location.
  • Both the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest enacted additional restrictions in response to COVID-19. The parkway has closed roads and parking areas at popular spots such as Craggy Gardens and the US-74A roadside access to the Mountains to Sea Trail, while the forest has prohibited dispersed camping and prohibited use of numerous trails.
  • Mission Hospital has scheduled a virtual forum at 5 p.m. on Monday, April 20, to discuss the hospital’s coronavirus preparations. Questions can be submitted online prior to the forum; to join the discussion, community members must call 877-228-2184 and enter the code 19449.
  • The United Way of Henderson County and the Community Foundation of Henderson County announced an additional $64,000 in awards to area nonprofits from the COVID-19 Response Fund. Grants included $10,000 each to Amazing Grace Ministries of Hendersonville, MANNA FoodBank and The Free Clinics.
  • Carolina Hemp Company and Ambrose West are hosting a community aid drive for supplies to support local emergency relief. On Wednesdays from noon-6 p.m., community members can drop off donations at 312 Haywood Road for distribution to recipients such as Homeward Bound, Western Carolina Rescue Ministries and the YMCA.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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2 thoughts on “Buncombe board split on direction for next phase of COVID-19 response

  1. bsummers

    Did Joe Belcher or either of the other Republicans say why they are opposed to contact tracing and isolation? Even Trump’s CDC recommends them as “key concepts” in fighting the spread of COVID-19.


    Do they want people to get sick and die and take others with them? Oh – wait. I forgot. Republicans are all about preserving people’s God-given right to get sick and die and take others with them.

    • Commissioner Belcher expressed objections around the process of the resolution and said he was skeptical of some of Commissioner Beach-Ferrara’s sources, but as far as I could tell, he did not explain why he wanted those particular parts of the resolution cut.

      Commissioner Penland was specifically concerned that the resolution didn’t specify who would be responsible for conducting tests or who would pay for them. There was also some debate over whether reopening the economy would be explictly tied to the establishment of community-wide testing.

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