Alamance County officials 'puzzled' by Gov. Cooper's comments about Ace Speedway event

ALTAMAHAW, N.C. (WTVD) -- Alamance County officials said they were puzzled by comments that Gov. Roy Cooper made during a news conference Tuesday about last weekend's opening day event at Ace Speedway.

According to a news release from Alamance County officials, 2,550 people attended Saturday's event at the speedway -- 50 percent of the property's fire capacity. Fans packed into the bleachers and many did not wear face masks.

When asked about the event at the Tuesday afternoon media briefing, Cooper said, "It is dangerous and reckless to draw a crowd, and I hope and pray that no one gets sick or even dies from that gathering that occurred this weekend," Cooper said. "We are deeply concerned about that kind of activity."

However, Alamance County officials and speedway representatives said they had reached out to Cooper's office and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services multiple times looking for guidance on the event.

In the release, the county said local officials, a representative for the speedway and a representative for NCDHHS had a conference call on May 11, during which they discussed how Ace Speedway could safely operate in Phase 2. At the time, the NCDHHS representative said it wasn't clear what capacity would be safe, but it would likely be between 25 and 50 percent of fire code. The three organizations put together a list of guidelines for the speedway, which the speedway representative said he intended to follow.

However, at that time, the state had not yet made the decision to scale back some of the allowances for Phase 2. While similar entertainment venues such as movie theatres and bowling alleys were originally slated to reopen, state health leaders decided not to allow these businesses to open until Phase 3 of reopening -- at least five weeks after the start of phase 2.

In an emailed response, North Carolina Department of Health and Human services said it "strongly encouraged" Ace Speedway to plan an event without spectators or wait until the details of Phase 2 had been announced.

When Cooper released his new Safer at Home order on May 20 with the additional restrictions in place, Alamance officials said they held another conference call with ACE Speedway and NCDHHS. At the time, according to Alamance County, the NCDHHS representative said he couldn't advise whether Ace Speedway would be able to open as scheduled on Saturday, but he would ask a member of the governor's staff to respond.

"Alamance County has yet to hear directly from anyone with the Governor's staff, NCDHHS, or anyone else in State government," the county wrote in the news release.

However, NCDHHS officials said that isn't true. In a news email, the agency said in a document shared May 20, officials wrote, "Per Governor Executive Order 141, spectator attendance cannot exceed 25 participants."

Additionally, NCDHHS said during a May 23 call, health leaders "repeatedly" said Ace Speedway needed to adhere to the 25-spectator limit.

"Other tracks and NASCAR have partnered with NCDHHS and held successful events without fans and without defying the Executive Order," NCDHHS wrote in its emailed response.

During Tuesday's news conference, Cooper commended NASCAR for pulling off the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte while following strict social distancing guidelines. Alamance County said the speedway employed similar measures in the pit -- keeping 10 feet of distance between each car and recommending masks for all people working in the pit.

The facility also said it provided multiple hand-sanitizer stations, clearly marked 6-foot delineations for lines and high-traffic areas, labeled one-way traffic arrows for restrooms, and made frequent public announcements to remind spectators to social distance and wash their hands.

Cooper said the impact of the event is not just on those who attend, but those who live in the community because the crowd may come from other counties or states. "It ought to be very concerning to them that this occurred," Cooper said.

Cooper said he encouraged spectators and the speedway not to participate in further events to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19.

"We would just encourage people not to participate in that kind of activity because it can be dangerous to you and your family and anyone else you may come into contact with," Cooper said. "It is a completely reckless way to operate."

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In a Facebook post Sunday, the Speedway said it would thoroughly clean the facility before the next scheduled race Friday. It is not clear at this time whether Ace Speedway intends to limit the crowd to 25 spectators.

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