Sheriff’s deputies enforce executive order as people flocked to popular spots during nice weather

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Moss Brennan, Political Editor

With warm weather and the impending stay-at-home order beginning Monday afternoon, many people took to popular hangout spots like the Old Dam and Trash Can Falls Saturday.

As people flocked to those spots, Watauga County Sheriff’s deputies asked people to leave, dispersing large crowds. Executive Order 120, enacted on March 23, bans gatherings of more than 50 people. 

Sheriff Len Hagaman said state and local law enforcement agencies are tasked with enforcing Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order. Those agencies include the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office, Boone Police, Blowing Rock Police, Beech Mountain Police, Seven Devils Police, Watauga Medical Police and App State Police. 

One of the places deputies asked people to leave was the Old Dam off of Highway 105. 

Billy McLaughlin was at the dam with some of his friends when deputies asked them to leave. He said a deputy pulled up to the top of hill and sat there for about 5 to 10 minutes before more arrived and asked people to leave. 

“Basically, they all just showed up and pretty much kicked us all out,” McLaughlin said. “They were just kind of like ‘Hey, y’all need to stop doing this,’ and made us all leave.” 

McLaughlin and his friends went out because of the nice weather and he said he had never been to the dam

“There were big groups of people, but we kind of just did our own thing in our own little area,” McLaughlin said. 

He said he was a little “salty” about having to leave and bummed because he and his friends were only there for about an hour before being asked to leave. 

“We expect the community to comply with that and the new order reducing gatherings even further along with the stay-at-home order effective March 30,” Hagaman said. “While our goal is to have voluntary compliance as we encourage more people to stay at home and practice social distancing.”

Hagaman said the sheriff’s office wants to make people aware that “violating this order may result in a Class 2 misdemeanor.”

“We know this is challenging, but we all have a responsibility to help protect each other during this pandemic,” Hagaman said. “There is a real need for all to understand and adopt a, hopefully a temporary, ‘new normal’ of healthy awareness.”

COVID-19 responses are coordinated to ensure Watauga County Sheriff’s Office’s message is consistent with local, state, and federal orders, and best practices are derived from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and regional health providers, Hagaman said. 

In his life, Hagaman has served as an intelligence officer during the Vietnam War, a police administrator and assistant chief for Boone Police, a county commissioner, the town manager for Boone, and Watauga County Sheriff for the past 14 years. This pandemic is nothing like Hagaman has seen before. 

“In my entire governmental career, spanning some 35-plus years, I have never seen anything like this — totally unprecedented and with such a local and worldwide impact,” Hagaman said.