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WNC Towns And Counties Are Closing Their Borders During COVID-19: Is It Legal?

Courtesy of James Reid
Andrews in Cherokee County announced on Monday that it would restrict access to non-locals.

 Across Western North Carolina, towns and counties are closing ranks to slow the spread of COVID-19. But is it legal to shut down local borders in a state of emergency?

Every morning for the last two weeks Mayor James Reid of Andrews goes live on Facebook with updates for town residents.  

“Good morning Andrews. I hope everyone had a good night's rest last night,” says Reid on his personal Facebook page. 
This week, Reid has had a lot of updates. On Monday, he announced that only locals - those from Cherokee, Graham and Macon counties - would be allowed inside the city limits. He’s spent the week working out the kinks of this plan, including moving barriers to improve access to local businesses.

“I would rather it be safer and we save a life or 50 lives and then be careless and lose those lives and say, ‘hey, we should have done something,’”says Reid. 

Credit Courtesy of James Reid
James Reid, mayor of Andrews, says he was out at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning to re-position the barricades so that residents could get to work in the town. This was taken from a Facebook Live update.

Reid says he’s gotten mostly positive reactions to his caution but he’s gotten a few angry residents who have called into question the constitutionality of the move - and it’s gotten personal. Reid describes a text he received: 

“He said there is no need for you to respond but pretty much, I'm done with you as a friend. And this is a 40-year friend,” says Reid. 

Professor Norma Houston is a legal expert at UNC School of Government who specializes in laws pertaining to declarations of a state of emergency. 

“Local governments don’t literally close their borders like you might think of with a national border. What cities and counties do have the authority to do is limit ingress and egress into the emergency area,” says Houston. 

The “emergency area,” Houston says, can be a whole town or county. Houston, lives in Manteo in Dare County. She explains that the county has now put in place the same points to the restrictions on visitors as they do after a hurricane. This is easy for the county because there are only 2 bridges - one to enter and one to leave the islands. 

“If you impose a restriction and then do not enforce it then that calls into question the necessity of the restriction,” says Houston. So far logistics like this have kept many counties from following through on similar measures. Graham County has effectively restricted visitors.  

Beyond the logistics of a restriction, she says the courts consider the legal reason behind any restriction: 

 “There must be some credible evidence that the local government can point to demonstrate that the restriction that is reasonably imposed is necessary to address the threat,” says Houston. 

For Mayor Reid, the rising number of COVID-19 cases in surrounding Cherokee County – many of which are people from out of state – are reason enough to restrict Andrews for now. 

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.