SOUTHERN SHORES, N.C. ― On March 30, Joseph Bakersmith arrived home from work feeling angry and tired.
As a plumber and newly dubbed “essential worker,” he’d spent the day fixing people’s pipes while wearing a gas mask in an attempt to protect himself from the coronavirus sweeping the United States.
Bakersmith lives in Dare County, whose five Atlantic beach towns, Roanoke Island and Hatteras Island make up most of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Dare County had announced on March 17 that it was closing its two main bridges to the Outer Banks to visitors, a restriction it extended to all non-resident homeowners on March 20. To cross the bridges, drivers now need a valid North Carolina driver’s license or other government-issued identification showing an address in Dare or in the surrounding counties of Currituck, Hyde or Tyrell. Non-resident employees can present pay stubs or employee identification badges to gain entry. Businesses can also apply for entry permits for their non-resident employees.
Dare County had zero confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, when the county acted. As of Thursday, it has reported 13 cases.
Despite the bridge closures, Bakersmith had spent the day working at rental houses with driveways full of cars sporting out-of-state license plates.
He knew some of those cars could belong to people who arrived on the Outer Banks for an early-season vacation before the closures or to full-time residents who simply didn’t have North Carolina plates.
But after seeing dozens of Facebook posts attesting to an increased number of out-of-staters flooding the islands’ rental homes, grocery stores and gas stations, Bakersmith was convinced people were sneaking onto the Outer Banks ― and he was going to prove it.
Bakersmith opened the Craigslist app on his phone and created a new advertisement. “Rides from Virginia to the Outer Banks,” the post’s headline read.
Within six hours, Bakersmith said he’d received 18 messages. A man from Chesapeake, Virginia, offered money in exchange for a ride over the bridge to see his girlfriend. A woman said she was coming from Virginia and asked if Bakersmith would be available around 1 p.m. the next day.
Bakersmith said he posted the fake ad to draw attention to the possibility of people actually offering these kinds of services. And it worked. A screenshot of his post went viral on Facebook.
On March 31, the Kitty Hawk Police Department posted a statement on Facebook regarding the ad and implied that they were investigating the matter. Bakersmith called the police station the next morning and admitted that he was the poster. According to the police report, a Dare County officer told Bakersmith it was a “stupid idea” and he agreed.
Although Bakersmith’s post was just a ploy, the issue it drew attention to is very much real. Amidst a global pandemic, police and officials in North Carolina are reporting a number of people attempting to sneak onto the Outer Banks through all sorts of illicit means ― in the trunks of cars, by boat, via tow trucks.
‘We’ve Never Seen People In Trunks’
The limited-entry protocols in use on the Outer Banks right now are similar to those used after severe hurricanes. However, Kitty Hawk Police Chief Joel Johnson said the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing closures have been nothing like a hurricane.
“We’ve never seen people in trunks,” Johnson said. “In hurricanes, it’s not as intense as this is. I don’t think people are taking this as seriously.”
Maj. Jeff Deringer with the Dare County Sheriff’s Office said that since the closures, officers have charged four individuals who attempted to access the islands without the proper ID or entry permits, or aided someone else in doing so.
One of them was found in the trunk of a car.
As for the driver of that vehicle, Deringer said, “When the deputy was asking them for their identification, they pointed to their work uniform. The deputy said, ‘No, that’s not good enough. You have to show me something official.’”
Neither the driver in the uniform nor the person in the trunk was a Dare County resident, Deringer said. In the other case, he said, the driver was a county resident and their passenger was a non-resident friend they were trying to sneak onto the Outer Banks.
Deringer said he believes the individuals trying to sneak in without the proper permits are primarily either visitors who want to wait out the pandemic on the beach or non-resident property owners who want to reach their properties.
Others may have found legal ways around the bridge closures. Steve Abbott, communications supervisor at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said there appears to be an increase in the number of people from out of state registering for licenses in North Carolina. Division of Motor Vehicles staff in Elizabeth City, not far north of Dare County, said they have seen the same, anecdotally.
“The officers have seen a lot of the paper form of driver’s license coming through the checkpoints,” Dare County Deputy Sheriff Capt. Greg Wilson said. “When you get your license renewed, they’ll give you a paper one until your other one comes in the mail.”
Officers are stationed at the bridge checkpoints 24 hours a day, working 12-hour shifts. On the north end of the barrier islands, at the Wright Memorial Bridge, Deringer said officers turn away about 50 drivers without the proper paperwork per day.
To the south, at a checkpoint just after the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge, officers are turning away five to 15 cars per day.
Two beach towns in Currituck County, to the north, have also restricted access by visitors and non-resident property owners.
The Currituck County Sheriff’s Department has taken to the water to monitor boat traffic between mainland Currituck and the Outer Banks. On March 29, the first full day the officers began monitoring the waterways, they turned around 12 boats.
“The majority of the reasoning for them turning around is because they did not realize that they could not escort people from out of town,” Currituck County Chief Deputy Jeff Walker said. “But make no mistake about it ― if we find a local shuttling people over for the purpose of defying the order, we will charge them.”
‘I’ve Seen Some Really Testy Exchanges’
Deringer said officers at the bridges are only checking the license of the driver, unless they have reason to believe the passengers don’t possess valid IDs or reentry permits. Those reasons include luggage visible in the back seat or multiple people in one car who don’t appear to be related.
But this current system has led some residents to suspect that more people are accessing the Outer Banks than law enforcement and county officials realize.
In turn, this suspicion has ignited fierce debates on social media.
Mandy Haage Fuller moderates a 19,000-member private Facebook group called OBX Locals. She said she’s directed all discussion related to the coronavirus to a separate private Facebook group called Outer Banks COVID-19 Community.
“Not so much in OBX Locals, but in groups that are a mix of tourists and non-resident property owners and locals, I’ve seen some really testy exchanges,” Fuller said.
Dare County has a year-round population of roughly 35,000. During tourist season, that number can balloon to more than 200,000.
One reason that Dare County has been so firm about keeping outsiders out is that there is only one hospital in the county ― The Outer Banks Hospital ― and a handful of urgent care practices. County Manager Bobby Outten said the hospital has approximately 20 beds. It does not have an intensive care unit.
“We were told that anyone that had to be ventilated would have to be moved to another hospital depending on where bed space was,” Outten said. (Vidant Health spokesperson Brian Wudkwych declined to confirm the exact number of hospital beds at the Outer Banks Hospital.)
The combination of limited health care options and an influx of out-of-staters has sparked fear and anger among some residents.
On March 21, Dare County Commissioner Steve House, posting in Outer Banks COVID-19 Community, cited “several reports of people being accosted both verbally and physically” because they were believed to be visitors or non-resident property owners.
House wrote that one of those reports came from the wife of a Coast Guard member stationed on the Outer Banks. Wilson, the deputy sheriff captain, confirmed that report to HuffPost and said the woman was in the parking lot of a pharmacy when someone saw her out-of-state license plate and began cursing at her and telling her to “get out.”
On March 24, Dare County released a statement asking people to use social media to spread facts about the virus and not to engage in divisive and negative behavior.
“Every person in Dare County is facing the uncertainty of this unprecedented crisis,” the statement read. “Now is the time for heightened compassion and kindness. We truly are all in this together. There is no place for hate, ill will or labeling.”
Outten said the county is not planning to evacuate visitors and non-resident property owners currently on the islands.
“I’m not sure how we would pick and choose who to evacuate,” the county manager said. “It’s either everybody or nobody.”
Any further decisions regarding the bridge closures are being made by the Dare County Control Group, which includes county commissioners, town mayors and law enforcement personnel.
On Tuesday, a group of six non-resident homeowners filed a federal lawsuit against Dare County for denying them access to their properties. The suit asks that the county immediately allow access for all property owners.
For now, the officers will remain at the bridges, checking the IDs of drivers and, occasionally, their trunks as well.
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