‘Sometimes you have to make hard decisions’

By on May 9, 2020

Dare Control Group at center of the COVID-19 crisis

The Control Goup’s decisions on entry to the county have been praised and criticized.

In mid-March, the Dare County Control Group was thrust into the midst of heated public debate when its members agreed to restrict entry by visitors and non-resident property owners in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Consisting primarily of the chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners and the county’s six mayors, the group has remained at center stage ever since – both applauded and criticized for its decisions during the pandemic.

The Dare Control Group has become a household name during major storm events that require coordination between the county and municipalities, convening to make what are potentially life-and-death decisions on multi-jurisdictional states of emergency, evacuations and re-entries. Indeed, the group, which does not meet in public, has been at the center of local emergency operations since the mid-1980s.

The Control Group chairman, currently Dare County Commissioners Chair Bob Woodard, calls the group of elected officials together. Also in the group are Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch, who represents Hatteras Island, the county sheriff and the superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Other officials, often the county’s emergency management director or in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dare County Health and Human Services Director Sheila Davies, will brief the Control Group on the crisis at hand.

Making decisions in the midst of a dangerous worldwide pandemic is uncharted territory for the Control Group, and during the May 5 Dare County Commissioners meeting, Woodard offered an impassioned endorsement of the group’s work, noting that it had met more than 30 times during the COVID-19 crisis.

“These folks have worked extremely, extremely hard to vet every single situation and issue that was brought before them,” he asserted. “And they’ve made sound decisions.”

According to an expert on local government, the makeup and function of the Dare Control Group are similar to operational models used in other counties across the state.

“It might not be called a Control Group and might be called something different, but it’s pretty common for counties to have some sort of communications mechanism to coordinate with the cities,” said Norma Houston, lecturer in public law and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Government and an expert in emergency management law.

While Houston said she couldn’t provide the number of counties that have groups like Dare’s Control Group, she confirmed that “most” do.

Control Groups and similar bodies exist for two reasons, according to Houston, who also served as the Dare County Attorney in the early 2000’s and as general counsel for N.C. Senate Pro Tem Marc Basnight.

The first is that under North Carolina’ s Emergency Management Act, counties are legally responsible for coordinating emergency management functions among municipalities. The group, which is not a public body and is not subject to the state’s open meetings law, provides an opportunity for county and town officials to discuss the emergency actions the towns are going to take, Houston explained.

“Even though, operationally, cities and towns are subject to coordination with the county for their operations, cities still retain independent legal authority for declaring states of emergency and imposing restrictions and prohibitions,” she said.

As Houston explains it, each municipality has the right to make its own decisions in emergency situations, or they can consent to be part of the action agreed upon by the Control Group, which takes no formal votes and operates by consensus.

The second reason is to provide local decision makers with information in real time – such as National Weather Service bulletins and in the case of the pandemic, public health updates. The group, Houston said, essentially operates in the same way as mayors and county officials would when they meet to discuss economic situations or other issues facing counties at various times during the year.

According to their websites, Carteret and Beaufort counties have Control Groups almost identical to Dare County, while Onslow County officials collaborate with municipalities within the county via phone.

“We currently have a call with our municipal partners twice a week during this crisis to ensure we are all on the same page, and not confusing citizens with recommendations or restrictions that change as you move from unincorporated areas into municipalities,” County Manager Sharon Russell said in an email.

“We always involve local municipalities any time we will be making movement, access or other restrictions that involve all of the areas of the county, or typically with any big policy or financial change,” explained Russell, adding that the county and municipalities have all been discussing reopening plans recently.

Some version of the Dare County Control Group has been around since at least the mid-1980s, says longtime local official Bobby Owens.

Currently the mayor of Manteo, Owens at that time was serving as the chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners. He recalls that before the formation of the group and a comprehensive Emergency Operations Center, decisions during storm events typically involved him and few county officials riding along the beach when a hurricane was approaching.

“We would judge by the weather, the wind and everything, and we would decide when to call an emergency…You’re going to laugh at me, but I used to tell people I would wet my finger, stick it out the window and that’s how we could tell what was going to happen,” Owens said with a laugh.

During that time, each municipality and the county government acted more or less on their own when it came to emergencies, he explained to the Voice. “Can you imagine six mayors going six different ways, what would happen to this strip of beach,” Owens asserted. “It’s better to have a centralized group to put it all together…and everybody know what’s going on at all times.”

Although it rarely happens, mayors of municipalities are able to take action that goes against a county declaration or the consensus of the Control Group.

“A mayor has, at times, expressed a different view than others in the discussion,” Dare County Manager Bobby Outten noted.  When common ground can’t be found, he said, then the town that mayor represents does not give consent to the order and does its own order.

“For example,” Outten recalled, “in one of the hurricanes, the issue of curfews came up. Some towns wanted them while others did not, so each town did their own order and dealt with curfews as they saw fit.”

Houston also recalls another instance during Hurricane Isabel when a town within the county banned alcohol sales at a certain point when the others did not.

She said that as the pandemic hit North Carolina in mid-March, counties in the western part of the state were reaching out to her regarding the Dare County Control Group model, noting that  “People have really come to recognize and respect the organization model that Dare County has.”

From his perspective, Owens said the Control Group is essential in order for things to run smoothly county-wide during times of crisis. “Sometimes you have to make hard decisions and I will tell you this…you can’t have six of us mayors going in six different directions and then leave the chairman [of the county board of commissioners] hanging. He’s got a hard job.”

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  • OBXhome

    So we’ve heard about the Control Board, the Boards of Commissioners, full time residents, business owners, the hospital and the tourism board but we have yet to see a single article addressing the infringements on the constitutional rights of nonresident property owners and visitors. Amazing, really, since it has been covered by Fox, CNN, abc, etc.

    Saturday, May 9 @ 4:28 pm
  • Melshell

    I think our control group did the right thing, and applaud them for taking action. However I’m concerned too fast too soon. We need these people here, but what is the final toll. I have a 10 year old at high risk, many npos not wearing face mask. Too soon to lift that restriction. Now I’m stuck having to try and order groceries because I’m scared to leave house. If more people are here, shouldn’t the mask requirement be in full effect. Or are you scared to send wrong messages to visitors. Always community b4 commerce. My 10 year old doesn’t deserve to get sick because mask restrictions are lifted. I beg everyone please wear a mask!!!!

    Saturday, May 9 @ 5:05 pm
  • James

    Well you made the wrong hard decision. It’s too early to open up the bridges and let tourists from hotspots all over the country come pouring in. Even NC cases are still in increasing!

    Saturday, May 9 @ 8:45 pm
  • Runnerguy45

    The “Control Group” was and is in a no win situation.
    They, in my opinion, have done an excellent job, as has the Governor.
    You have people on one side, who can only think of money, they throw conspiracies out to the general public to get their way to line their pockets.
    The other side, scared to death, won’t go outside and think anyone who does should be condemned.
    The Control Group has done a good job, now change your name.

    Sunday, May 10 @ 7:02 am
  • Steve

    Deciding to take measures to prevent the decimation of this place from virus transmission, should not be a hard decision.

    Sunday, May 10 @ 7:33 am
  • NRPO

    While Carteret county and Beaufort county may have similar groups at NO Time during this “pandemic “ have they EVER RESTRICTED property owners from their homes!!! NOT EVER!!!
    I have a house in both Dare county and Carteret county. I can tell you that your actions during this pandemic and the response of the people who live there, have shown me it is time to sell my property. So when I come and I am getting my property ready to sell, I WILL not be using ANYONE from Dare county to fix/repair my home. I will be using people from my home county who are MORE than willing to drive the 3 hours to work. I also will be bringing in my own supplies to fix/repair my place and I will be bringing all my own food and toilet paper and should I need medical assistance while I am there fixing my house to sell, I will die or seek medical attention in the next county over! I will however, be purchasing the most expensive item from Kitty Hawk Kites!!!

    Sunday, May 10 @ 7:52 am
  • Right Hook

    I applaud and appreciate our leaders and Control Group for putting the health of our community above economics. Yes, the decisions have put considerable hardships on many of us but have resulted in protecting us from any community spread of the virus. Let us pray that with the reopening we continue to remain a healthy community as our local economy begins a gradual but eventually complete recovery!

    Sunday, May 10 @ 9:03 am
  • wombatnc

    Our Constitutional right to health/life trumps your right to visit your second (3rd,4th, etc.) home(s).

    Sunday, May 10 @ 9:24 am
  • Steve

    Hopefully the I Me My crowd will follow through, selling and moving out. It is that northerner mentality that has eroded this place beyond cognition.

    Sunday, May 10 @ 9:33 am
  • murphy

    The re-opening to ALL is a big mistake. Money before safety I guess. Why not let the NRPOs come in first, and see what happens? To open the OBX to everyone in just a week, is an accident waiting to happen. “Sometimes you have to make hard decisions…” It will be EASY come election day for the residents who live here year-round and vote. No longer a “party” issue…. it’ll be who failed to keep us safe. Unbelievable!!!

    Sunday, May 10 @ 11:00 am
  • sandflea

    OBXhome and NRPO…..it’s all about you; right?
    OBXhome: What specific “Constitutional rights” of yours were violated. Please cite the specific Article, Paragraph and Lines that specify this. You project to have knowledge of this.

    NRPO: You used “I” TWELVE times in your paragraph post. I can surmise as to what is most important to YOU!

    At the time I posted this, there were seven posts and now eight with this one. Two of the posts appeared to be all about themselves where six were about placing people over profits. Its good and comforting to see that the overwhelming majority seem to view this pandemic this way.

    Sunday, May 10 @ 11:14 am
  • Trashcan Man

    On May 8, NC saw largest increase in the number of cases. Today, the number of cases in Dare County jumped 3 in 24 hours to 21. Tell me again why visitors are permitted? And why they are coming?

    At this rate, half of Dare County will be infected in just a couple of weeks. But we won’t know because of the nature of this beast.


    Sunday, May 10 @ 1:42 pm
  • Perspective

    As a resident of this state, I can and do see both sides of this continuing discussion. I’ve struggled with commenting during this entire lock down because adding fuel to the fire is not my goal. However, that being said, I believe the biggest issue at hand is perspective. Somewhere, somehow, clear perspective has been clouded in all of this.

    As I stated, I am a resident of this great state. I am also a native – born in the state I’ve been raised to love. I live less than 60 miles from the OBX and grew up in a different town also less than 60 miles from the OBX. For over 50 years I’ve dipped my toes in these waters. I have played ball against Hatteras, Ocracoke, Currituck and Manteo with many of my opponents also being my friends. I remember when Winks in Kitty Hawk was about the only place to shop and when Dowdy Park was alive every summer with Ferris wheels, arcade type games, and the tilt-a-whirl. I remember when there were no four lanes, sidewalks, cross-walks, mini-hotels, big chain hotels or even a Pizza Hut or McDonald’s. Pirate’s Cove was all marsh-land and the beach was filled with sand and lots of space. There were no big department stores or box stores or grocery stores or pharmacies. You went to family owned businesses like Winks, Daniel’s, ACE and Gray’s and went to Bear Drugs pharmacy when you needed any type of medical supply. Finally, and most interestingly, I remember when you always kept a good supply of product to get the tar off your feet after walking the beach. Oh, yes, those were the days. I dearly love this beach.

    Now, in the second stretch of my life, I’ve been blessed to have built a second home here. A home I love – in a place I love. It is not a “money maker” in that I only rent it out for about 15-20 weeks a year. Basically, it pays for itself. The rest of the time, I live here and my family, also all natives and all close by, come and stay as well. I built the home with a local builder, I use locals for everything – I even come here for doctor appointments and hair cuts year ’round. I pay my taxes – in full and on time. I shop all year on this beach – on, at a bare minimum, a monthly basis. I donate to local causes and give to the fire department in my town every year. I love the Outer Banks and I love its people.

    When did we forget that we are all one? When did we forget that in these 13 surrounding counties we have always supported one another? When did it become okay to spew hatred and lies and slander against the very people we depend upon for our livelihoods? We all have the right to our opinion and we have the right to voice that opinion. However, there are times when that opinion should be kept to ourselves because it tears people and communities down. We should be lifting one another up. We are in a crisis situation. What good does it do to constantly throw rocks at one another. I rely on you – you rely on me. How I feel/felt about not being allowed in my home is not the point. Perspective is the issue. I need to understand, and I do, how a small island in an extremely rural area can feel vulnerable in a crisis of this magnitude. In turn, I ask that you try to understand that some of the people who were verbally attacked during this crisis, are the very people in the surrounding 13 counties who support you yearly and who show up to clean up and help recovery after every single storm. We love you. We love “our” beach and would never do anything to hurt or harm it or its people. And, just like we are happy to see your license plates in our towns on a daily basis – we just ask that you are happy to see us as well.

    I am thankful that I live in Northeastern North Carolina and I am thankful that the Outer Banks is my neighbor and my friend.

    Sunday, May 10 @ 1:48 pm
  • GT705

    Wake up, people! I don’t care if you are a “local” or an NPRO. Are you an American? Then you should be disgusted at this one element. “Indeed, the group, which does not meet in public, has been at the center of local emergency operations since the mid-1980s.”

    The group is not open to public input or public accountability. Wake up people!

    Sunday, May 10 @ 4:29 pm
  • Taxation Without Representation

    I am buying a big ass kite from Kitty Hawk Kites! But let me tell you were I won’t be spending money…..everywhere else in Dare county.

    Sunday, May 10 @ 4:30 pm
  • No mo $

    Stock up Columbia N.C. My goal is not to spend a DIME in Dare this summer. Will stop at my local Lowes for any needs for home repair and supplies. Will stop and shop in Columbia for grocery’s, gas, fresh sea food and ABC store. Nothing in Dare NC for me.
    My bad… I will be going to Kitty Hawk Kites.
    Not …. Local as it GETS!!!!

    Sunday, May 10 @ 6:32 pm
  • Publius

    While I do not agree with several of the specific decisions made by the Control Group, I think in all fairness they were faced with a series of no-win decisions. I would like to offer a few hopefully constructive suggestions for the future:

    I think Control Group meetings must be public; while closed sessions for personnel matters are on thing, deciding the fates of your constituents behind closed doors is another. Trust and transparency here are the name of the game and open meetings are a must.

    There must be better communication around the conditions under which restrictions are put in place; a seeming lack of systemic analysis on both closing and opening restrictions only feeds the appearance that many of these decisions were simply emotional in nature.

    Either line up with the Governor’s plan or don’t; but, to sometimes line up (on the tail end) and sometimes not (at the beginning) is inconsistent and with inconsistency comes both increased risk and unfortunate guessing games around what should be sound policy.

    Schedule regular updates via publicly accessible channels; communicating via text or personal email makes it hard to sort fact from fiction. Hold a virtual forum.

    Acknowledge the risks in decision-making; for example, highlight the need for health care access in the homeowner restrictions but also highlight the corresponding risk–how can we ask to have our rights respected if we aren’t willing to respect the rights of others?

    Beware the precedents we are setting; if we can deny access to a class of people, we can deny access to any class of people. We would do well to remember that as hurricane season approaches.

    Lastly, even though I disagree with many of the actions of the Group I do want to thank them for their service in what are truly dark times.

    Monday, May 11 @ 8:45 am
  • Travis

    The amusing logic of the “Dare sucks, I’m selling my vacation/rental home” is that the sellers assume (rightly) that there will be someone willing to buy it. Ergo it’s a zero sum game for the county. Well, actually the county benefits from the fees associated with the sale.
    So thanks for helping our economy. Just wonder whether you use scissors or a knife to cut off your nose to spite your face.

    Monday, May 11 @ 9:18 am
  • Mary

    It’s so tiring to hear the continued NRPOs versus the Locals. IT’S NOT PERSONAL…it’s about the FACTS and NUMBERS! No where else in NC will you find the HUGE number of NRPOs …more people means more odds of spreading COVID! Duh???
    The best way not to spend $$$ in Dare County, is don’t come to Dare County! Stay at Home! If you do come, you SHOULD bring your own supplies as requested and NOT spend your precious $$$ here. Go ahead and sell your 2nd, 3rd home. We’re better off without your negative attitudes and lack of compassion!
    My opinion is that when you do come (because you will), go buy the largest and most expensive kite and then go fly it!

    Monday, May 11 @ 9:21 am
  • kdh back seat observer

    This is all just so Dare County.

    Those that live here and/or get it, know what I am expressing.

    Now, if that bridge would have been built from Currituck to Currituck, who knows what the hell els’ ya would have gone on.

    Monday, May 11 @ 10:13 am