North Carolina Republican Party leaders ignored COVID-19 restrictions and recommendations when they held a party and meetings Saturday in Surry County.
They then posted photos of the violations on their website.
As of Thursday morning, 5,714 North Carolinians had reportedly died of COVID-19. On Thursday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported that 5,556 more people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 than the day before and 2,440 people were hospitalized in the state. Since the pandemic reached the state in early March, more than 416,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus in North Carolina.
Nationwide, 15.5 million people have reportedly contracted the virus resulting in 290,000 deaths.
That did not stop the NC Republican Party from hosting a Victory Party Saturday, along with a luncheon, an executive committee meeting and its central committee meeting.
The 96 photos published of the events show some of North Carolina’s leaders attending without masks.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s press secretary Dory MacMillan responded to the event in a written statement to The News & Observer.
“Elected officials who care about our overwhelmed health workers and the lives of our most vulnerable people will cancel parties and mask up during a critical time of record-high cases and hospitalizations,” MacMillan wrote. “Leaders from all political stripes should come together and set the right examples.”
North Carolina is under a mask mandate that requires a face covering to be worn indoors whenever there is someone outside a person’s home present regardless of distance. In restaurants, masks must stay on unless a person is actively eating and drinking.
A maskless NC House Speaker Tim Moore is the cover photo for the album.
Further into the photos Moore is seen standing next to Sen. Thom Tillis carrying on a conversation.
Tillis is one of many politicians who, in late September, attended the Rose Garden ceremony where President Donald Trump announced his selection of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. That ceremony became known as a superspreader event after many people who attended were diagnosed with COVID-19. Tillis was one of those politicians though he wore a mask at that event.
Congressman Mark Walker, Lt. Governor-elect Mark Robinson, Rep. Jeff McNeely and Supreme Court Justice-elect Phil Berger Jr. are also seen in photos of the Surry event mingling without masks on.
Another notable attendee is Civil Rights Activist Clarence Henderson, best known for being part of the Greensboro sit-in at the Woolworth diner in 1960.
Treasurer Dale Folwell is also seen in the photographs giving a speech with a mask hanging from his ear. There is an exception in the governor’s mask mandate that allows for face coverings to be removed while giving a speech.
Folwell also contracted the virus early on in the pandemic.
Folwell told the Winston-Salem Journal he wore a mask the entire time he was at the event except for when he was speaking to the audience.
“I was there for the executive committee and not there for the dinner,” Folwell said. “I wore a mask the whole time except when I spoke. Everybody I dealt with in my recollection had a mask on. I wear a mask.”
Gov. Cooper's order
In mid-November, as COVID-19 cases were on the rise again, Cooper issued an executive order that reduced the number of people who could gather indoors together from 25 to 10. The order states that, with limited exceptions, those attending indoor events must wear a mask. Outdoor gatherings are limited to 50 people.
The Republican Party held Saturday’s events at Coley Hall at the Liberty in Elkin in Surry County, one of the state’s 48 red counties, meaning it has critical community spread.
Before the event, GOP spokesman Tim Wigginton told The News & Observer that the event could be held because the party has chosen a restaurant as the venue and was only restricted to the facility’s 50% capacity rule.
NC Department of Health and Human Services officials told The News & Observer that venues being used as meeting rooms or event spaces don’t fall under the same guidelines.
“Any meeting or function that takes place at a restaurant is covered by the capacity and other restrictions for Meeting Spaces and Entertainment Facilities,” Kelly Haight wrote in an email to The News & Observer last week.
The NCDHHS Interim Guidance for Meeting Rooms and Event Spaces limits the crowd size to 100 or 30% fire capacity, whichever is less.
A representative of Coley Hall at The Liberty said the venue is currently hosting parties of 175 people or less.
The N.C. GOP has refused to provide the number of guests who attended Saturday’s events to The News & Observer..
When asked on Thursday about Saturday’s events, Wigginton said, “I want to talk about the Supreme Court race.”
When asked again Wigginton continued to push to talk about that race but relented and said if The News & Observer had questions about Saturday’s events to send an email and someone would answer. That didn’t happen.
The News & Observer sent a series of questions by email.
Wigginton responded with a singular statement, “The NCGOP followed all state and federal guidelines and mandates, including crowd-size limits, temperature checks, required masks and social distancing.”
When asked to elaborate on how the NCGOP followed guidelines, he didn’t immediately respond.
Most of the photographs showed guests standing up and mingling with one another.
DHHS guidelines also say that these events can be only be seated with groups of guests six-feet apart in all directions. Guests are not allowed to get up unless to use the restroom or obtain food and drinks. In the photographs, pedestal rounds banquet tables, used for standing, are seen being used in the venue.
The venue is also supposed to enforce mask-wearing in its facility. Under the governor’s current executive order law enforcement can enforce the mask mandate both for the business and the individuals in violation.
In an interview about the events last week, Wigginton assured The News & Observer that the events would be seated, people would be directed to stay in their seats. He said they would be told they must wear a mask. He added that hand sanitizer would be provided.
When asked why GOP Chair Michael Whatley is frequently photographed without a mask at various large functions Wigginton said, “I will bullying him into wearing a mask.”
That didn’t happen.
Whatley is seen throughout the photographs mingling with the crowd without a mask on. He’s also photographed shaking hands, another thing Wigginton said wouldn’t happen ahead of the actual event.
‘Life or death’ warning
The party occurred just days before Cooper warned North Carolinians: “The stakes are dire. This is truly a matter of life or death,” about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cooper put a modified stay-at-home order in place across the state that begins Friday and requires North Carolinians to be home after 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. He also ended all on-site alcohol sales by 9 p.m.
He reminded residents to wear a mask whenever they’re around people outside their home, to stay distant from other people and to frequently wash their hands. He asked that people limit gatherings.
Cooper warned that if the coronavirus numbers continued to tread upwards he would take more drastic measures.
“Even though we’re all frustrated and weary of the fight,” Cooper said, “it’s more important to take this virus seriously.”