An Alamance County judge has granted the state of North Carolina a temporary restraining order against Ace Speedway in Altamahaw that limits its attendance to 25 fans in accordance to the current pandemic response and reopening phase.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Tom Lambeth granted the restraining order having hearing arguments from attorneys representing both the state and Ace Speedway track operators Robert and Jason Turner.
“Based on all of the materials I’ve reviewed and the arguments of counsel the appropriate ruling is, I am going to grant a temporary restraining order,” Judge Lambeth said. “I’m going to restrain and adjoin Ace Speedway and any of the entities associated with it from holding any races until we can have another hearing in this matter.”
The next hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for June 19 at 9:30 a.m.
Ace Speedway has operated in defiance of the current reopening restrictions for three consecutive weeks, hosting an average of 2,000 fans each week packed shoulder-to-shoulder in its grandstands without masks.
The state ordered the county to order a citation for the offense, but Sheriff Terry S. Johnson refused under the conviction that it was unconstitutional.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper indicated the state would have to act if Johnson would not, filing the restraining order on Monday night. That order required the track to notify the public any immediate events were canceled until further notice by 5 p.m. on Tuesday.
That order was also ignored by the track, leading to the emergency court hearing on Thursday morning.
Judge Lambeth took just short of an hour to review all presented documentation and arguments and ultimately concluded that there is an “imminent health hazard” in both Alamance County and North Carolina.
Before reading his ruling, Lambeth thanked both counsels for their diligence and thoroughness, and issued an understanding of the challenges federal, state and local leaders face in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think our government leaders, federally and locally have had enormous challenges in trying to deal with something we’ve never dealt with in our lifetimes — a global pandemic of this nature that has never happened in a hundred years,” Lambeth said. “It’s stressing our whole society.
“I imagine Gov. Cooper and Sec. Cohen are very stressed every day as this evolves and moves in making the delicate balance between a true public health emergency and the economics of having an open society and people trying to earn a living and support their families, and there’s an awful lot of stress around that…
“It really makes me sad how sort of contentious some of this is becoming among people in our society,” the judge said. “You know, we are all American. I keep shaking my head sometimes because we’ve got such an us versus them mentality in our nation right now that is so regrettable.”
Lambeth acknowledged that citizens are getting “quarantine fatigue” but said “we aren’t there yet” regarding a complete reopening of businesses.
Robert and Jason Turner were not present for the hearing.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services lawyers opened the hearing by listing the state restrictions violated by Ace Speedway.
Ace Speedway has retained Chuck Kitchen as its defense council. Kitchen was the attorney that sued Gov. Cooper on behalf of gyms wanting to reopen during the second phase.
Kitchen argued that Ace Speedway has been advised by local officials on the safety measures needed, and presented documentation of those procedures to Judge Lambeth. Kitchen argued that the state does not have the police power to shutter the speedway, only to place restrictions, while arguing that the 25 person limit made it impossible to successfully operate a business.
Kitchen argued that Charlotte Motor Speedway’s NASCAR races were also in defiance if Ace Speedway was — citing the residents in the suites overlooking the track and the participants in the garage.
It’s worth noting, of course, that NASCAR races have taken place under strict, state approved guidelines that include physical distancing requirements, masks, frequent sanitizing and grandstands closed to attending fans.
The state lawyer says the Charlotte Motor Speedway races were approved because they were regulated in coordination with the NCDHHS. Gov. Cooper and director Dr. Mandy Cohen have frequently requested Ace Speedway coordinate with the state to develop its own pandemic response strategy.
Those overtures have been repeatedly ignored by the Turners and Ace Speedway.
The most recent event held at the Speedway, headlined by the CARS Tour Late Model Stocks on Saturday night, was held under the self-described guise of a peaceful protest against inequality and injustice everywhere.
The argument from the operating family has been that if protestors could march in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the racetrack could host paying customers under the pretense of a peaceful protest against government health regulations.
Peaceful protests are protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitutions, while for profit businesses are regulated by the states in accordance with the Tenth Amendment.
“It was irresponsible for them to keep operating in the way they were doing with thousands of people shoulder to shoulder, no face coverings, and so we want to take this action so folks know we need to take this seriously, particularly in a week when we are seeing our trends go in the wrong direction” Dr. Mandy Cohen said in a press conference held Tuesday afternoon.
In that same press conference Gov. Roy Cooper added: “This particular speedway knows that the order is in existence and has flagrantly violated the order and put their customers in danger as well as anybody who comes in contact with their customers.”
The track acknowledged the restraining order with a Thursday Facebook post.
“Due to (the restraining order) placed on Ace Speedway, Thursday open practice has been cancelled. Also our June 13th and June 19th Events have been cancelled. We want to thank everyone for their unwavering support. We will resume our season as soon as possible. Private Track rentals will still be scheduled by appointment only so that we can maintain 25 people or less.
“Thank you to our local officials who have stood by their beliefs. Thank you to our fans, our employees, our sponsors and our race teams who have expressed their support through the good and the bad. Continue to stick with us, this does not mean 2020 is over, just on hold.”
Gov. Cooper appointed Lambeth to Superior Court judge in 2017 from the Alamance County District Court.
The complete session can be viewed below.