Highlands Town Board closes hotels, motels, and rentals in response to COVID-19

Town of Highlands Board of Commissioners held an emergency meeting Monday afternoon and approved an order closing all hotels, motels, and rentals to the public effective immediately to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

In regard to rentals, existing continuously occupied rentals are excluded. The order is in effect until modified or rescinded.

Editor’s note: The board is trying to keep people from traveling to and from Highlands. If you have a current long-term rental contract (say for a year) and you live there year-round, you’re not out on the streets.

Highlands proclamation ordering closure of all hotels, motels, and rentals.

Commissioners met at the Highlands Police Department and stood lining the walls to keep a safe distance from each other while discussing the closure. Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor said the order was made to discourage travelers from seeking “safe haven” in the mountains.

“We’re in a state of emergency and we have to decide what is in the best interest of the public at large,” he said.

Taylor added anyone traveling to Highlands from an infected area only adds to the risk and drains Town resources.

“If a large number of people are thinking this is the place to be, this will put additional strain our hospitals and other resources,” said Taylor. “We want to discourage people from coming up here and adding to the challenges we’ll face in the coming weeks.”

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal joined the meeting by phone and voiced concerns about people who have been identified as showing symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19 and thinking they should leave where they are to come to the mountains.

“We have serious concerns about people leaving whatever their infected area is,” said Neal. “I really think patients already ID’d as possibly infected or already infected don’t come here.”

Commissioner Amy Patterson said people should stay where they are.

“I don’t care what your status is, don’t come here,” said Patterson.

Neal added that there are no patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 currently at HCH.

He said the number of positive cases is on the rise, but statistics are skewed because new cases are added to the patient’s home state and not the location of the test. For the most accurate count, he deferred people to public health departments.

Taylor said the Macon County Board of Commissioners is considering a similar order of closing short-term accomodations, but Town Commissioners and officials felt action needed to be taken immediately and not to see what the county comes up with.

“I think it’s time to make a decision,” said Town Manager Josh Ward.

Town Attorney Jay Coward said some municipalities are closing roads at state lines or setting curfews, and it is within the power of the Board to enact such severe measures in times of emergency if necessary.

Taylor said the aims of the closure are to protect people and prevent the spread of coronavirus, and recovery and maintaining a resilient economy.

He added this is an ever-changing situation and tough decisions have to made. All commissioners voted unanimously to approve the closures to help the Town in the long run.

Patterson said the Board should brainstorm ways the Town cold help businesses throughout the closure at future meetings.

“We need to figure out a way to support these businesses during this emergency,” said Patterson. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, we just need to make sure we still have an economy when this is all over.”

Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center Director Kaye McHan participated in the meeting via phone and said she has been receiving messages from several business owners who have already closed up shop.

“A lot [of businesses] are saying they closed their doors,” said McHan. “They value human life more than they value profit. Anything the Town could do to help would be great.”

Taylor said there will be more meetings scheduled throughout the state of emergency and Commissioners are making decisions based on information that’s available.

In other COVID-19 news:

  • Governor Roy Cooper has extended the closure of all schools in the state until May 15, 2020.
  • Cooper’s order also includes setting a limit on large gatherings to 50 people or less, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Violators are subject to being charged with a misdemeanor.
  • Specific businesses are also being ordered to close as a result of Cooper’s order, including all hair salons and barbershops, gyms, movie theaters, and similar businesses offering activities that run counter to social distancing. These businesses are to close by 5 p.m. on Wednesday (3/25).
  • The North Carolina Utilities Commission has suspended disconnections for nonpayment.

For more information about COVID-19 from the Macon County Public Health Department click HERE.

For more information about COVID-19 from Gov. Roy Cooper’s Office click HERE.

For more information about COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention click HERE.

For more information about the North Carolina Utility Commission suspending disconnections click HERE.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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