As beaches, bars and restaurants close, what exactly does a ‘State of Emergency’ mean?

Updated: Mar. 23, 2020 at 6:13 PM EDT
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SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - Following Governor Roy Cooper’s declaration of a statewide State of Emergency in response to the novel coronavirus, many counties and municipalities have also formally declared an emergency.

However, those declarations look different depending on where you are, and the enforcement varies even more.

Just with Southeastern North Carolina’s beach towns there are differences — where some towns have closed beaches all together, others have only closed the public parking lots and beach accesses, allowing private property owners or those able to access the sand otherwise free reign.

As public distancing guidelines have tightened, public agencies have also adapted how they are doing business, from limiting face-to-face transactions at public buildings to moving public meetings entirely online.

The North Carolina Emergency Management Act, or General Statute 166, which was recodified in 2015, outlines how each level of government is to handle an emergency situation.

Statute language describes an applicable emergency as “[a]n occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from any natural or man-made accidental, military, paramilitary, terrorism, weather-related, public health, explosion-related, riot-related cause, or technological failure or accident, including, but not limited to, a cyber incident, an explosion, a transportation accident, a radiological accident, or a chemical or other hazardous material incident.”

According to Norma Houston at the North Carolina School of Government, while a public health emergency or pandemic is not expanded on in detail in the statute and such an emergency cannot be as easily defined as say a category 4 hurricane, state, county and local governments can still declare an emergency related to a public health issue.

Who actually declares the state of emergency depends on how each city or town outlines the provision in its code of ordinances.

In some cases, the ordinance requires a vote by the governing body — such as a town council — but many times the chief executive, such as the mayor or chair of the board, can issue the declaration on his or her own accord.

Houston explained the declarations need to be very specific, particularly when outlining new restrictions like curfews, so agencies will often amend them as time goes by.

As far as how long the emergency declarations last, state law doesn’t give a deadline, but instead says an order generally lasts until revoked by the body or individual who declared it.

By declaring a state of emergency, local governments are able to address safety and wellbeing issues related to a crisis like COVID-19 in ways they ordinarily would not have access to.

For example, towns and cities are able to order evacuations, enact curfews and close public property or limit access to certain areas.

Emergency orders can also extend to requiring businesses close, limiting the sale of alcohol and “other activities or conditions the control of which may be reasonably necessary to maintain order and protect lives or property during the state of emergency.”

Houston said the state statute gives local authorities a lot of leeway with determining how best to proceed in an emergency.

“The saying in Emergency Management is that all disasters begin and end at the local level, and our state legislature decades ago recognized the importance of local authority and flexibility by broadly delegating authority to take action at the local level.”

Officials, however, do not have free reign to impose whatever restrictions they want.

Houston says measures taken by local governments must be based in factual evidence that they will mitigate or prevent harm to the public.

In the case of towns limiting gatherings to 10 people, that evidence comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has published guidelines about social distancing.

“Under the court rulings that interpret the scope of emergency powers, having the decision be based in fact is part of the standard of analyzing whether or not the action that was taken is reasonable,” Houston said.

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