GREENSBORO, N.C. — Editor's note: The video in this story is from May 28, when officials responded to a crowded event at Ace Speedway.
Despite a request from Governor Roy Cooper's office to not hold an event with more than 25 people, Ace Speedway welcomed patrons to a race on Saturday night.
A sign outside of Ace Speedway read that Saturday night's race was a "peaceful protest of injustice and inequality everywhere."
WFMY News 2 reached out for comment from the Alamance County Sheriff's Office. A public information officer for the department said, "We understand ACE Speedway has posted signage that the event is a peaceful protest. The Sheriff is aware and will evaluate the merits of this claim."
On Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office sent a letter to Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson encouraging him to enforce his executive order at ACE Speedway.
According to the rules of phase 2 of reopening North Carolina, outside gatherings should include no more than 25 people and social distancing should be practiced. On opening night at the speedway, hundreds of people were allowed entry and not many seemed to be wearing masks nor socially distant.
Citing the First Amendment of the constitution, the right to peaceably assemble, Johnson said he would not stop crowds from attending races.
In the letter, William McKinney, counsel to the governor’s office said, “ACE Speedway has continuously and flagrantly violated the plain and unambiguous language of the phase 2 order.”
The letter said the violation is a health risk to those in Alamance County and throughout the state.
According to the letter, there were reports that ACE Speedway allowed more than 2,250 people at its track on May 23. Shortly after the event, Gov. Cooper said it was “dangerous and reckless.”
After speaking with the governor’s office, Johnson asked ACE speedway to cancel future events while the state is in phase 2 of reopening, the letter said. On May 30, the speedway held another event and allowed more than 25 people to attend who were not keeping distance or wearing face coverings, according to the letter. Alamance County law enforcement officials again did not enforce the phase 2 order.
McKinney said in the letter that enforcing the order at the speedway is “critical because Burlington, which is in Alamance County, has one of the highest average daily growth rates of coronavirus deaths in the country.” Restricting mass gatherings at places like ACE speedway could slow the spread, the letter said.
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The governor’s office “formally and specifically” requested that the Alamance County Commission and Sheriff Johnson take steps to require ACE Speedway to comply with the phase 2 order.
McKinney said in the letter that enforcing the order may have drawn concern that the constitution may have been violated but assured that the order was drafted with legal counsel to ensure that the order did not infringe on anyone’s constitutional rights. McKinney also said the events at ACE Speedway are commercial events that don’t fall under the First Amendment.
The letter said if Johnson does not enforce the phase 2 order, Gov. Cooper’s office will “take further action to protect the health and safety of the people of Alamance County and North Carolina.”
Johnson spoke to WFMY News 2 reporter Amanda Ferguson Friday. He said the phase 2 executive order wasn’t clear to him. Johnson said he tried to get clarification about the order but didn't get a response until Thursday night. He said while he disagrees, he will issue a citation if Ace Speedway has more than 25 people at its venue.
“Last night we got this letter trying to clarify what was meant in Executive Order 141. As a result, I met with my staff along with the county manager, county commission, and county attorney, they advised me it would be best to go on and write a citation if there were over 25 people at the race. I also talked to Mr. Turner’s attorney and advised him of what our intentions are. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t feel like we’re doing the right thing because of the previous order not being clear. We’re going to go on and issue a citation if there are over 25 people there,” Johnson said.
ACE Speedway had a race scheduled for Friday night, according to its Facebook page., but later announced the race would be postponed to Saturday due to weather.
Allowing more than 25 people inside the venue would mean Ace Speedway would be in violation of public health restriction and prohibitions under Executive Order 141, which is enforced through GS 14-288.20A subsection 2.
The amount of the fine Ace Speedway could receive if it violates the order is up to a judge. The speedway would receive the fine each time the rule is broken.