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SMITHFIELD — Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the state of North Carolina is encouraging — and sometimes mandating — gatherings of no more than 50 people.
The Johnston County Sheriff’s Office is among those receiving the advisories and directives, Sheriff Steve Bizzell told County Commissioners during a special meeting last week. “We’re getting orders from Raleigh — I am as sheriff — that talk about the restaurants closing and the churches that can’t assemble and pray with no more than 50 people,” he said. “I’m getting orders from the governor that says you can’t have a funeral with more than 50 folks in attendance.”
The orders and advisories delivered from Raleigh don’t always sit well with him, the sheriff said. “Down here, where the rubber meets the road, the people got to be fed, they’ve got to have food, they’ve got to have government services,” he said. “We’ve got to bury the dead.”
The sheriff told commissioners, including restaurant owner Tony Braswell, that his deputies will not be the county’s crowd police. “I’m not going to your restaurant, Mr. Braswell, and tell you that you can’t have folks in there buying food,” Bizzell said. “I’m not going to Parrish Funeral Home (in Selma) and tell them they can’t bury the dead. And I’m not going to the Baptist church or any other church and tell them they can’t assemble and pray.
“If there’s a time in our nation and our state and our county that we need prayer, it’s today.”
Bizzell said Johnstonians are following advisories on gatherings without a heavy hand from law enforcement. “Yesterday, we had 567 folks to walk into this courthouse,” he said. “Normally, that would be about 1,800.”
On Tuesday, the number of courthouse visitors fell to 342, down from a normal high of 1,500, Bizzell said. “So I think the people are heeding the warnings,” he said. “I think they are policing themselves.”
Bizzell said he doesn’t know what the future holds for the coronavirus in Johnston County. “I just hope and pray we don’t have a case in the jail,” he said.
But Bizzell was at those meetings over the weekend when county government began mobilizing its response to the virus, and he’s confident Johnston can meet the challenge. “For the people out there in Micro or Meadow or wherever in Johnston County, I want them to rest assured that the people in Smithfield have got your back,” he said.