Pandemic shifts life in Carteret County, other top stories from 2020

CARTERET COUNTY — 2021 is upon us, but last year the News-Times covered challenges ranging from major redevelopment, to a feral cat trapping program, to a ban on ocean recreation, to rough weather and everything in between, all while covering a pandemic that transformed nearly everything.

Below you will find briefs on each of 2020’s top local stories, as voted by our news staff.

Thank you for your support and readership this year.

No. 1: Coronavirus sweeps U.S., touching nearly every aspect of life

We’re at a loss for words to sum up the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the life of Carteret County residents.

As of Dec. 31, 26 county residents had died with COVID-19, and nearly 3,000 cases had been confirmed. Both numbers continue to grow.

Below is an inexhaustive timeline of events in the local public sphere related to the pandemic:

  • March 3: N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper confirms first case of COVID-19 in the state.
  • March 9: Gov. Cooper declares state of emergency, effective March 10.
  • March 14: Gov. Cooper restricts gatherings to less than 100 people and announces the closure of public schools for two weeks.
  • March 16: Carteret Community College switches to online curriculum offerings.
  • March 20: Carteret County officials confirm first known case of COVID-19 in the county. Commissioners issue state of emergency.
  • March 23: Gov. Cooper orders public schools closed through May, bans gatherings of more than 50 people and orders some businesses, like theaters, to close.
  • March 25: North Carolina reports first COVID-19 death.
  • March 27: Gov. Cooper issues stay-at-home order, effective March 30, bans gatherings of 10 or more people.
  • March 28: First county resident dies of COVID-19.
  • March 30: County amends state of emergency to ban short-term rentals.
  • April 5: Beaufort officials close the town to nonessential business, create checkpoint at Turner Street bridge.
  • April 18-20: Beaufort removes checkpoint at Turner Street, opens other entrances to town.
  • April 29: County lifts short-term rental ban.
  • May 5: Gov. Cooper announces stay-at-home order will be eased some, N.C. enters phase 1 of reopening.
  • May 18: Morehead City confirmed it laid off 18 workers due to the pandemic. It was the only local government to confirm such cuts.
  • June 24: Gov. Cooper issues mask mandate, effective June 26, “pauses” reopening.
  • Aug. 17: Carteret County schools reopen on hybrid model.
  • Dec. 16: County reaches a high to date of 16 hospitalizations reported at Carteret Health Care in Morehead City. (The high of 16 hospitalizations was reached again Jan. 4.)
  • Dec. 17: CHC administers first vaccine in the county to a frontline health care worker. 

No. 2: Despite pandemic, travel restrictions, tourism to Carteret County soars

Defying what would appear on the surface to be logic, Carteret County tourism set all-time records this summer as the pandemic raged.

Although travel restrictions imposed by the state limited visitation in the early spring, things turned around by June, and record-setting visitation continued through October, the last month for which data has been released.

Greg Rudolph, manager of the Carteret County Shore Protection Office, said occupancy tax revenues topped $500,000 in October for the first time since record-keeping began.

On top of an all-time monthly record of $2.41 million in July and monthly records in August and September, the total revenue for the calendar year through October was more than $8 million, eclipsing the previous record of $7.6 million in 2018. November and December information is still to come.

Mr. Rudolph said with many students taking classes online and many parents working from home, families had unusual flexibility to take vacations. They were also reportedly less likely to go far, so they discovered or rediscovered Bogue Banks beaches.

The occupancy tax is 6% of gross receipts derived from any room, lodging, campsite or accommodation furnished by any hotel, motel, inn, condominium, cottage, campground or rental agency.

Woody Warren, co-owner of Bluewater Real Estate in Emerald Isle and a member of the Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority Board of Directors, said in November he felt the final two months of 2020 would close equally strong, based on advance reservations.

 No. 3: Demonstrators take to the streets protesting police brutality, injustice

Peaceful protestors in Beaufort and Morehead City joined in on a worldwide movement over the summer calling for racial equality and police reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis, Minn., police officer.

The incident, which occurred May 25 and was captured on video by multiple witnesses, sparked protests around the world as people came together to demand an end to police brutality. Demonstrations happened in cities big and small across the U.S., with protests taking place in Morehead City and Beaufort, as well as other eastern North Carolina communities.

In Beaufort, community organizers held multiple peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protests on the Turner Street bridge in early June. The events drew a mix of residents and were attended by local elected officials, religious leaders and other community organizers. Around the same time, a small group of demonstrators in Morehead City began gathering daily at the train depot for protests, which lasted through the summer.

A group also staged a “die-in” at Katherine Davis Park in Morehead City in which participants laid face down on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time Mr. Floyd was pinned under the knee of an officer, resulting in his death. 

While the widespread protests have died down since the summer, the conversation over racial equality and police reform continues. The group which organized the protests in Beaufort has hosted several virtual town hall events for law enforcement, elected officials and other community leaders to discuss racial equality and chart a way forward for a more equitable future.

No. 4: School bond passes, but voters say no to sales tax, trail borrowing

In the 2020 General Election Nov. 3, Carteret County voters not only cast their ballots for the next president of the United States and other federal and state offices, but also decided the fates of several referendums specific to the county.

All voters had a say in two countywide referendum questions — one, a $42 million school bond, and the other, a quarter-cent sales tax increase — while Cape Carteret voters had an additional question on a $1.2 million bond to fund construction of the remainder of a partly-completed trail in town. Only the school bond referendum passed, with voters striking down the local sales tax increase and Cape Carteret Trail bond.

The $42 million school bond will fund construction of numerous school building projects, including classrooms and shelter-ready gyms, and it gained wide support from county officials and other residents.  In the months leading up to the November election, local business owners and other community leaders formed the grassroots group Carteret Citizens Advocating Responsible Spending to campaign for the school bond and sales tax referendums.

While the school bond passed with more than 70% voting in favor, the sales tax increase, which would have raised the local sales and use tax rate from 6.75% to 7%, did not have the same kind of support. Nearly 60% of voters were opposed to the proposal, making the 2020 election the third time in recent years the measure has failed. County commissioners introduced similar sales tax increases in 2014 and 2016, but both failed.

Meanwhile, the Cape Carteret Trail bond referendum failed by a relatively narrow margin, 756 to 712. The bonds would have funded construction of around 2 miles of trail to the tune of $1.2 million, but officials hope the project will still be able to proceed through other funding avenues.  

No. 5: Three violent deaths shock county

Two alleged murders, one in Emerald Isle and one on Core Banks, plus one alleged shooting death in Atlantic Beach, captured the violent crime spotlight in 2020.

In the Emerald Isle case, town police arrested 25-year-old Patrick Keith-Reich Whitley of Havelock for the Jan. 9, 2020, death of Carl Eugene Jones Jr. in a house at 107 Melanie St.

Mr. Whitley was taken into custody without incident in Corpus Christi, Texas, later in the month. Emerald Isle Police Chief Tony Reese said Mr. Jones was found Jan. 9 dead inside a home on Melanie Street after police and fire department personnel responded to a report of a structure fire. The town received a 911 hang-up call and dispatched officers. On the way there, they reached the caller, who said there might be a body in the home. They found the body of Mr. Jones in the burned house.

Mr. Whitley has been charged with murder and arson.

In an unrelated case, Cape Lookout National Seashore officials found the partial remains of U.S. Army Specialist Enrique Roman-Martinez on Shackleford Banks May 29, 2020, a week after he reportedly went missing from a campsite near mile marker 46 on South Core Banks. He had been camping with others and reportedly was last seen just after midnight May 22, walking away from the site. His wallet and phone were found at the campsite.

In December, the state coroner ruled it a murder, and the U.S. Army is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.

The day after the paratrooper’s head was found, there was an unrelated fatal shooting at the Oceanana Motel in Atlantic Beach.

Law enforcement officials said almost a month later, on June 29, 2020, they arrested Shaquille O’Neil Carter, 27, of Wilmington, and charged him with one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of possession of a firearm by a felon in connection with the shooting at the motel. He was released on $100,000 bond July 1.

The victim was 26-year-old Travis Lamar Bunch of Smithfield, who died in transit to Vidant Health in Greenville.

By year’s end, none of the cases had been resolved.

No. 6: A never-ending election year

In a year ripe with natural disasters and a ravaging pandemic, the 2020 General Election still managed to eclipse much of the news cycle.

While federal races, including the U.S. presidential contest, did the most headline grabbing, many state and local races appeared on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Republicans swept statewide races, including judicial seats, with the exception of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Gov. Cooper, now in his second term, was reelected over then-Lt. Governor Dan Forest by roughly 248,000 ballots.

In Carteret County, Republicans faired similarly well, handily taking all seats on the board of commissioners and the school board. Two local referendums failed, and one – a question on bonds for school infrastructure – passed.

In all, 42,848 Carteret County voters participated in the November contest, which saw record-breaking mail-in voting amid other pandemic- (and non-pandemic) related challenges.

As for the presidential contest, former Vice President Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president Wednesday, Jan. 20. Kamala Harris, a California senator, will take the oath as the nation’s first woman and first woman of African American and South Asian American descent to hold the seat of vice president.

No. 7: Bogue Banks towns institute ‘ocean ban’ in early days of pandemic

Early this spring, officials for the four Bogue Banks towns restricted access to the water to discourage nonessential travel to the island and help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The mayors of Emerald Isle, Indian Beach, Pine Knoll Shores and Atlantic Beach all advised North Carolinians and others not to travel to Bogue Banks for leisure as they might normally during the spring and summer. The mayors held a joint press teleconference April 2 to announce heavy restrictions on recreational beach and water activities.

The announcement came around the time Gov. Roy Cooper’s 30-day stay-at-home order was going into effect, and during the ocean ban, all four towns prohibited swimming, surfing, kiting and non-motorized recreational water access.

Officials stressed travel restrictions were to try to prevent the spread of the virus, as well as ease the burden on emergency services personnel so they could focus on the pandemic, not water rescues.

The beaches were available for small groups of less than 10 people practicing social distancing, as well as non-water-based activities, like walking and fishing.

Carteret County officials also put their own water access restrictions in place, issuing a notice that the county-owned recreational water access in Salter Path, located on Bogue Banks, was temporarily closed, following suit with the rest of the island.

The ocean ban quickly drew ire, particularly from surfers and hopeful tourists, resulting in it being short-lived.

The towns announced April 17 they would lift the ban.

No. 8: School board halts enrollment of freshman class at MaST

Citing budget uncertainties, the Carteret County Board of Education moved in June to suspend enrollment of a new class of 50 freshmen at the Marine Science and Technologies Early College High School.

The school meets on the campus of Carteret Community College and allows students to simultaneously earn high school and college credits. Currently, the school has a junior and sophomore class.

The board at the time said the move was just to “pause” enrollment over uncertainty of obtaining funds promised by the General Assembly. It followed a November 2019 attempt by the school board to close the school entirely, also citing budget concerns.

In both instances, parents and students have pushed back against the attempts to stifle the school. After the freshman class was suspended in June 2020, parents filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force enrollment.

In a last ditch attempt, outgoing school board member Melissa Ehlers pushed the board to reinstate the freshman class following a budget resolution. Her motion failed due to lack of a second from the rest of the board.

In October, a judge dismissed a portion of the suit, ruling some of the plaintiffs involved did not have standing to be party to the suit.

No. 9: New faces in top posts

The past year was one of new beginnings for several Carteret County institutions with top officials who passed the mantle on to new leadership in 2020.

Late in 2019, Carteret County Schools Superintendent and longtime educator Mat Bottoms announced his retirement, and the search for a replacement was on. In June, the County Board of Education announced it had chosen Dr. Rob Jackson, who officially took over the role of superintendent in July.

Dr. Jackson’s first year with the school system has been marked by virtual schooling and other challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many students and teachers out of the classroom and into online learning spaces.

Another educational institution in the county also got new leadership in 2020. Dr. Tracy Mancini was named president of Carteret Community College by trustees in April, replacing Dr. John Hauser, who retired at the end of May.

Dr. Mancini was already a familiar face around CCC, having previously served as vice president of instruction and student support at the college since 2016. Her peers and college trustees spoke highly of her upon her unanimous selection as the next president of the community college.

Finally, after more than eight years as president and CEO of Carteret Health Care, Dick Brvenik retired early in 2020 and Harvey Case stepped into the role. Starting his new position barely a month before the first COVID-19 cases were identified in Carteret County, Mr. Case has seen the hospital through all stages of the pandemic, from early testing challenges, to increasing numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, to administering the vaccine to frontline health workers.

No. 10: Cedar Point switches to council-manager government

Thirty-two-year-old Cedar Point took a historic step Nov. 24 when the board of commissioners voted unanimously to switch from the town administrator form of government to the town manager form, leaving only Bogue and Peletier without managers in Carteret County.

A few weeks later, on Dec. 15, Town Clerk Jayne Calhoun swore in David Rief as the town’s first manager. He had been hired as town administrator in August 2019, but commissioners said he had the background to be a manager.

Commissioner John Nash raised the issue of the change in government earlier in the year, saying Cedar Point’s rapid growth necessitated the change to a system in which all employees report to a manager.

Mr. Rief reflected his gratitude and sense of history in a statement at the end of the Dec. 15 meeting.

“I think it’s important to reflect on those who came before us, the founders of the town, the former mayors and commissioners and Chris Seaberg (his predecessor),” he said. “All of them led us to where we are tonight and we owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Honorable Mentions

No. 1: Notable deaths

With each passing year, Carteret County loses valuable community members and friends. In 2020, the area marked a number of notable deaths, including two serving politicians, a philanthropist and a brilliant scientific mind.

Pine Knoll Shores lost a figurehead in early May with the unexpected death of Mayor Ken Jones. Mr. Jones, who had served in the role for years, was 61.

He was known around the county and state as an enthusiastic supporter of the town and Bogue Banks more widely, and served in a number of boards and commissions in support of the Crystal Coast. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Mayor Jones was remembered in Pine Knoll Shores for heralding each Thanksgiving Turkey Trot with a trumpet call.

Just weeks later, in late May, longtime Carteret County Commissioner Jonathan Robinson died suddenly. He was 68. A staunch advocate for Down East on the board for roughly 22 years, Mr. Robinson also served in the N.C. House of Representative from 1995-96.

This summer, commissioners renamed the North River bridge in his honor, and his legacy of supporting the rural communities in the eastern part of the county and preserving the industry and heritage of commercial fishing lives on.

Many mourned the August passing of philanthropist Doris Buffett, who died in her Rockport, Maine, home at 92. A former resident of Morehead City, Ms. Buffett was widely known as “the sunshine lady.” She leaves a legacy of support for public education and children’s programs, especially in Carteret County, home to the Sunshine Lady Club, a Boys & Girls Club of the Coastal Plain.

Finally, the science community fondly remembered UNC Distinguished Professor Emeritus Dr. Charles “Pete” Peterson, who died at his Pine Knoll Shores home in late October. He was 74.

Dr. Peterson was an acclaimed and accomplished marine scientist focused on conserving marine ecosystems. The many students who studied under or had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Peterson remembered him this year as a pioneer, mentor and wonderful friend. 

No. 2: Library breaks from tri-county system, takes criticism from public

After spending more than 60 years as part of a regional library system, Carteret County public libraries went independent in 2020 to mixed reactions from patrons.   

In May 2019, county commissioners quietly decided to withdraw from the tri-county library system that had encompassed Carteret, Craven and Pamlico counties. At the time, commissioners said they felt the county’s five public library branches would be better served under local management, and the board set into motion the process for transitioning out of the regional system.

The transition officially became effective July 1, 2020, the start of the new fiscal year, with the county’s libraries now falling under a department administered by Carteret County government, led by Director Lesley Mason.

The immediate reaction was one of confusion and frustration as many patrons reported losing access to their existing holds and the online catalogue system that had been in use previously.

Some criticized the county for poor communication throughout the transition, saying they weren’t even aware the change was taking place until they suddenly lost access to their materials. Others had concerns with how the county was hiring employees to fill open library position, and Ms. Mason and other library officials came under fire for reportedly disposing of materials, including books, by discarding them into dumpsters.

However, county officials defend the decision to leave the regional system and claim the change has been positive for readers. The library announced several new initiatives in 2020, including a program providing all Carteret County public school students with access to library materials using their student IDs. The library is also now part of N.C. Cardinal, a statewide system for sharing materials across multiple counties. 

No. 3: Harkers Island bridge replacement moves forward

A 2019 petition for judicial review over the Harkers Island bridge replacement project ended in a settlement this September, allowing the construction project to proceed.

Larry and Elizabeth Baldwin and Hollis and Carolyn Batson filed the July 2019 petition for judicial review with the Carteret County Clerk of Civil Court against the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, on which Mr. Baldwin serves as vice chairperson.

The petition eventually went to the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, but in September 2020, Davis, Hartman and Wright PLLC attorney Clark Wright, who represented the Baldwins and Batsons, confirmeda settlement had been reached.

The four property owners filed the petition due to concerns about the potential effects of the replacement project, particularly environmental effects.

As part of the settlement, the N.C. Department of Transportation agreed to provide funding for a living shoreline project near James Creek, which is close to the bridge replacement site. The coastal environment nonprofit N.C. Coastal Federation will be in charge of the living shoreline project. 

These reports were compiled and edited by reporter Jackie Starkey.

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