Local reaction Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to require widespread use of face coverings and to extend Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan ranged from engaged to enraged on Thursday.

While some said the order, which goes in effect at 5 p.m. today, gives teeth to efforts they already had in place, an armed man marched around Greenville Mall Tuesday with a sign that used an expletive to tell the governor what he thought about the law.

Thursday also saw Pitt County surge past the 600 threshold in confirmed COVID-19 cases to 617 total cases. That’s up 26 cases from Wednesday and an addition of 113 cases in a seven-day period. Statewide, 57,183 cases had been confirmed as of Thursday, with 891 hospitalizations.

Cooper’s order requires people to wear face masks or other coverings when physical distance isn’t possible. It requires face coverings for employees and customers at all retail businesses and restaurants, and state employees in the executive branch.

Businesses and organizations that fail to enforce the mask requirement can be cited by law enforcements. An unmasked person who refuses to leave a business can be charged with trespassing.

Customer compliance

Basil’s Restaurant co-owner Jeremy Spengeman delayed reopening his dining room earlier this month to ensure he was complying with distancing and cleaning rules. He requires all servers and front of the house staff to wear masks.

“I have no problem complying with what the governor says. The big issue I have with the governor’s most recent order is they are putting it on businesses to police the community,” Spengeman said. “I think that’s ridiculous. ... We are already put in the position where we haven’t had the full business we would have had, why are we the enforcers?”

Spengeman doesn’t want to alienate customers who don’t want to wear the mask. He’s already struggled with customers unhappy that he can only seat a maximum of eight people together. “I really don’t want to call the cops on anyone who doesn’t want to wear the mask. The way it’s written.”

He is left hoping customers at the Fire Tower Road eatery will comply, he said. The order permits restaurant patrons to remove their masks when they are actively eating and drinking.

Julia Dietrich, one of four owners of Coastal Fog and The Market in downtown Greenville, said the order helps businesses like theirs which already required everyone to mask up to protect everyone on the premises.

“Since we’ve been opened with COVID we have required masks,” she said. “We’ve had someone at the door and, at quite a great expense, we have been providing masks to people who walk up without them. For us, this is almost a relief that the governor was, and I’m not making a political statement with this, but it really was a relief that the governor was looking out for everyone’s well being and making it a little easier to enforce what we thought was necessary already.”

The business has had would-be customers walk away because the masks were offered, Dietrich said.

“We’ve had a lot of customers who have come to Coastal Fog for their very first outings, their very first dine-in experiences, their very first shopping experiences since COVID began and so many have been so grateful for our practices because they chose us knowing they were coming to a safe and clean place,” she said. “It makes us feel great. The only thing that keeps you going is your customers and when they are grateful and excited and when they say thank you for being here, thank you for being safe and open. That’s why we do it.”

Britt Laughinghouse, president of Bostic-Sugg Furniture Company, said his business’ approach was that if a customer walked in with a mask, the sales staff would wear a mask. He said he understands the governor’s motivation for issuing the order, but he has questions.

“I think it’s difficult for the public and for business owners to understand what all needs to be in compliance in 48 hours,” he said. “I would have liked to have a little more notice because I’m not sure who is enforcing it, what the penalties are. We are going to comply with it. There’s no question.”

Since the business reopened about 60 percent of customers were wearing masks, he said. That’s left him with questions about who is held responsible if a customer walks in without a mask.

“We’ll be glad to do anything we can to comply with the rule but it’s hard for us to tell the customer what to do,” he said.

Polite enforcement

Local law enforcement finds itself in a position where many people will likely turn to those agencies for assistance.

“Much like the governor’s previous orders, the Greenville Police Department will be seeking voluntary compliance from businesses. Our response will be complaint driven,” said department spokeswoman Kristen Hunter. The department’s first approach will be to educate businesses about the order, either through a visit or telephone call.

“If it becomes necessary and compliance is not achieved, the Greenville Police Department has the ability to cite any business that does not comply with the order,” she said. “We have had success with voluntary compliance with our business community in the past and expect no different this time around.”

Individuals who wish to file a complaint against a business are asked to use the department’s non-emergency line, 329-4315, or email us gpdcomplaints@greenvillenc.gov. In emergency situations, always dial 9-1-1, she said.

Law enforcement can intervene if a business owner or employee asks a person without a mask to leave the location and the person doesn’t comply. At that point, a trespassing charge can be brought against the individual.

“Our best advice to store employees is to rely on their customer service training, much of which incorporates de-escalation techniques,” Hunter said. “Calmly and clearly state the rules. Do not leave any openings for debate. If a citizen becomes unruly, refuses to leave the premises, or threatens violence in any way, store employees should call law enforcement, just as they would under normal circumstances.”

Winterville Police Chief Ryan Willhite said his department will work to educate people about the governor’s order.

“Our officers will have masks on when interacting with the public,” he said. “Our basic enforcement direction in that executive order is basically toward businesses that don’t adhere to the guidelines.”

Willhite said he would advise businesses and their employees to be as polite as possible when asking customers to wear a mask. As for the people being asked to wear the mask, he referenced a statement released by Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance.

“We do hope that our citizens understand that businesses can require masks just like they can expect you to wear shoes and shirts,” she said.

Dance added that people who don’t put on a mask can be asked to leave a store. If they don’t, they could be charged with trespassing.

“These are very tense and polarizing times in so many ways,” Dance said. “I hope and pray that the virus clears quickly and we don’t lose any more friends or family.”

“We have to be polite and be empathic and try not to insult,” Willhite said. “As long as we do it tactfully it should go pretty well.

“I don’t know why people would be so defiant. You should pretty much expect that when you leave your house to have your mask with you. You are going to be in the majority, not the minority,” Willhite said.

Defiance unmasked

Jimy Gurganus of Stokes plans to defy the governor’s order.

He walked down Greenville Boulevard near East Arlington Boulevard with a shotgun strapped to his back, several other guns and knives holstered and in his pockets and carrying a sign said “(expletive) Roy (Stalin) Cooper.”

He said everyone needs to “wake up.”

“They don’t have the legal authority to tell me (to) wear a mask, they don’t have the legal authority to keep me 6 feet from anybody and I refuse to let it happen,” Gurganus said. He said he won’t wear a mask in public.

“Forcing” the public to wear masks is unnecessary, said state Rep. Chris Humphrey, R-Lenoir, one of Pitt County’s four legislative delegates.

“My hope was the recent executive order would be a compromise that would require masks, but exchange that concession for the ability for gyms and other businesses to open with restrictions,” Humphrey said. “Instead, it’s a one-size-fits-all model that further drives a wedge in this state. Gyms are no different than Walmart, Lowe’s and Food Lion where mass gatherings are concerned.”

The governor’s order doesn’t require members of the General Assembly to wear face coverings, but Humphrey said he occasionally wears a mask while in Raleigh.

“It’s irritating at times, making it difficult to breath and effectively communicate at times,” he said. “But I understand that wearing a face covering while in an enclosed building will help control the spread.”

State Sen. Don Davis, D-Pitt, supports wearing face coverings in public places where physical distancing of 6 feet from other people is not possible.

“Regardless of anyone’s politics, I highly encourage everyone to take basic measures to make us all safer,” Davis said. “Now more than ever I believe it’s important for citizens to protect themselves, their loved ones, and those in our community by wearing face coverings.”

Reps. Perrin Jones, R-Pitt, and Kandie Smith, D-Pitt, could not be reached for comment.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.