Judge Orders N.C. Track With Large Crowds To Stop Races

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GRAHAM, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina judge on Thursday ordered a small stock-car track to halt racing after state health officials declared large weekend crowds at recent races violated an executive order by Gov. Roy Cooper designed to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Superior Court Judge Tom Lambeth said he would issue a temporary restraining order preventing the operators of Ace Speedway in Alamance County from holding further events for now. Earlier this week, state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen called the speedway an “imminent hazard,” ordered it closed and told the operators to announce the closure publicly.

But there was no evidence that father-and-son owners Robert and Jason Turner had done so, leading Cohen to seek a court to intervene. The Democratic governor’s restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus still limit outdoor mass gatherings to 25 people.

Media outlets had reported crowds at the speedway exceeding 2,000 people, including a gathering last Saturday even after Cooper wrote a letter stating the speedway’s actions were in “open defiance” of the health restrictions. Media reports indicated many gathered at three weekend races since late May sat and stood near each other, and few wore masks. Cohen took action after Sheriff Terry Johnson announced he wouldn’t issue a citation against the speedway.

Andrew Kasper, a state lawyer for Cohen’s department, told Lambeth during a hearing that the close contact, along with shouting required by patrons to communicate above the din of racing engines, made attendees particularly susceptible to catching the virus. Cohen announced on Wednesday that Alamance was one of eight counties this week that would receive expanded testing and tracing help.

“This action is necessary because Ace Speedway has refused to share in other North Carolinians’ sacrifices to preserve our collective public health,” Kasper said, adding repeated violations of Cooper’ order “have placed spectators, residents of Alamance County and all North Carolinians at grave risk.”

The speedway appeared to attempt to bypass the governor’s rules last Saturday by suggesting the gathering was protected by a First Amendment exemption. A placard at the speedway read: “This event is held in peaceful protest of injustice and inequality everywhere.”

A lawyer representing the Turners and their company said his clients had not violated Cooper’s order and was never served with Cohen’s directive to close. Track operators met with local leaders and put virus control measures in place, including temperature checks and recording the license plate numbers of attendees to track any potential cases, said their attorney, Chuck Kitchen.

Kitchen also argued that the Turners’ constitutional rights were being violated and that they were subject to selective enforcement of Cooper’s order. Kitchen said as many as a dozen races with fans present were held last weekend across the state.

“If it’s wrong to have races, than all races have to be shut down,” Kitchen said. Kasper, however said he knew of only one race venue where problems have surfaced.

Lambeth said government leaders are doing their best to balance between keeping people healthy and letting people try to work.

“I don’t think anybody takes delight in having a business not being able to have people to come to their establishment,” the judge said.

Lambeth scheduled another hearing for June 19, where he is likely to consider requests from the state for more permanent action. Cohen’s abatement order said the speedway could reopen if they came up with a plan to comply with Cooper’s restrictions, but that would essentially allow no fans. Cooper’s current executive order expires June 26, but it could be extended.

Original Story (6/10/20):

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The administration of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has ordered the closure of a small stock-car track that’s allowed large crowds to gather repeatedly for weekend races, declaring it an “imminent hazard” for the spread of COVID-19.

The order signed by Cooper’s health secretary says Ace Speedway in Alamance County, 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Raleigh, is violating the governor’s executive order limiting outside mass assemblies to 25 people.

Media outlets have reported crowds at the speedway exceeding 2,000 people, including a gathering last Saturday even after the Democratic governor’s office wrote a letter stating the speedway’s actions were in “open defiance” of the health restrictions. Media reports indicated many attendees at three weekend races since late May sat and stood near each other, and few wore masks.

The action came after Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson announced on Monday he wouldn’t issue a misdemeanor citation to the speedway. He questioned the legality of Cooper’s restrictions and said local tracks elsewhere weren’t being punished for opening. Cooper had said he would act if Alamance County officials wouldn’t.

“North Carolinians are making huge sacrifices to protect their families and neighbors. This virus is highly contagious and very dangerous,” Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said in a news release Tuesday. “Bad actors who flagrantly violate public health orders put all of our families and loved ones at risk.”

An email sent through the speedway’s web site seeking comment from father-and-son owners Robert and Jason Turner wasn’t immediately returned Tuesday. A message at the speedway’s main phone number said the voice mail was full.

Disclosure of the legal action came as North Carolina reported another record high of virus-related hospitalizations at 774 as of Tuesday morning. There have now been over 37,150 positive COVID-19 cases in the state since the pandemic began and about 1,030 deaths, according to Department of Health and Human Services data.

The number of tests completed has exceeded 553,700, and health officials unveiled updated testing guidance that encourages doctors to consider testing of people who have participated in protests and other mass gatherings where exposure could have occurred.

Cohen’s order issued Monday tells the owners they must announce publicly that the races are canceled until Cooper’s executive order expires June 26, although that could be extended. She said the speedway could reopen sooner if its operators create a plan that would keep spectators away, perform daily symptom checks of employees and conduct frequent cleaning.

The next regularly scheduled race at the 0.4-mile track is June 19.

The speedway appeared to attempt to bypass the governor’s rules last Saturday by suggesting the gathering was protected by a First Amendment exemption. A placard at the speedway read: “This event is held in peaceful protest of injustice and inequality everywhere.” Demonstrations had occurred in major cities over the past 10 days after the Minnesota police custody death of George Floyd.

NASCAR, which resumed racing last month at its major tracks without any crowds, announced Tuesday it would allow some fans back for races later in the month in Florida and Alabama.

Cooper’s executive orders limiting commerce and movement during the pandemic have caused him grief from industries still unable to open. He’s been sued by bars, gyms and adult entertainment clubs seeking to overturn his restrictions. A Business Court judge on Tuesday denied motions by a handful of gyms, martial arts facilities and a primarily outdoor bar seeking to reopen immediately, but the lawsuits aren’t over.

Cooper vetoed a bill last week from the Republican-controlled legislature that would have allowed bars to reopen outdoors only and give more outdoor seating options to restaurants that still must cap their indoor capacity. The governor said it prevented him and other emergency officials from easily shutting them down in case of a surge of the virus.

After sharp debate weighing the physical health of residents and financial struggles of business owners, the state Senate voted late Tuesday for a measure that contains the bar and restaurant language while also partially reopening gyms. It also contains a new provision letting Cooper close them down again provided he receives the backing of other statewide elected leaders.

While some Democrats complained the provision would let Republican Council of State members block such action by Cooper, seven Democrats joined all Republicans in voting for the full measure. The bill needs one more affirmative House vote before heading to Cooper’s desk.