County leader reopens restaurant in pandemic, defying NC governor's executive order

©The Charlotte Observer

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An elected official in one North Carolina county has become the latest restaurant owner to defy Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order that closed dine-in services during the coronavirus pandemic.

And in an unusual move, the Lincoln County sheriff released a statement saying he issued a citation reluctantly.

Carrol Dean Mitchem, the Republican chairman of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, was charged Monday with violating N.C. Executive Order 138, which bans on-site food consumption during the pandemic.

Cooper, a Democrat, put the order into effect in March in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants are still allowed to serve take-out.

Mitchem, who owns Mitchem’s Kitchen in the Western North Carolina town of Vale, made no secret of his act of defiance, announcing the reopening in advance on Facebook on Sunday. The restaurant’s dining room was full of customers on Monday, according to Charlotte Observer’s news partner WBTV.

“I felt like it was an issue and someone needed to stand up,” Mitchem told WBTV. “So I took that step (Monday) when I once heard that the churches were opening up, I thought, ‘Well maybe the time and opportunity for me to do that too.’ So I decided to open my dining room to the public.”

Lincoln County Sheriff Bill Beam, a Republican, issued a statement saying Mitchem was cited after his office received “complaints from the general public.”

“I may not personally approve of all the Emergency Orders issued by Governor Cooper but … General Statute 166A states, local law enforcement SHALL enforce these orders,” Beam said.

“No law enforcement officer has the authority to decide which laws are and are not Constitutional. The NC courts and ultimately the Supreme Court makes these decisions.”

Mitchem is known for taking controversial stands on the board of commissioners, including saying prayers from non-Christian religions are unwelcome at the county’s government meetings, WBTV reported in 2015.

His restaurant was one of two cited Monday for violating the executive order.

The Rise ‘n Shine Cafe in Asheville was issued a citation for what police called “persistent non-compliance to the public health order,” McClatchy News reported. Police said they received three complaints that the cafe was allowing people to dine inside.

Pressure on Gov. Cooper to reopen restaurant dining rooms, bars and salons has increased in recent weeks, despite the continued spread of the coronavirus in North Carolina. A group called ReOpenNC has been protesting on Tuesdays in downtown Raleigh for weeks now.

Some Republicans in the N.C. House of Representatives filed a bill Thursday to “render several of Cooper’s executive orders related to COVID-19 almost entirely powerless,” The News and Observer reported last week.

The bill includes a provision that would remove criminal penalties against people who violate the executive orders and reduce fines from $1,000 to $25 for the first violation and $1 for every subsequent violation.

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)