A rogue Gaston County commissioner is causing confusion in his community and running the risk of provoking residents to endanger others, not to mention break state law.

Tracy Philbeck seems to be enjoying the limelight. Along with the county’s other commissioners, he signed an order Wednesday saying that Gaston County is ready to reopen for business “once the governor lifts the statewide restrictions that are still binding upon the individuals and businesses throughout North Carolina.”

Hard to find fault with that. Everybody’s eager for life to get back to some semblance of normal, and the economy everywhere is reeling. Gov. Cooper has extended the state’s stay-at-home order through at least this Friday, spelling out what sounds like a good plan for a gradual reopening when testing, trends, data and availability of resources indicate that it will be reasonably safe. But Philbeck, despite having signed the order, went public the same day encouraging businesses in Gaston to open at 5 that evening.

His rhetoric was all too familiar. “Truly the cure may be worse than the disease for a great majority of our citizens,” he said. Of the governor’s cautious approach, which has surely spared the state from much worse ravages from the pandemic, he said, “If we continue to go down this path, it will literally be a point of no return.”

On a Facebook Live session, Philbeck said the county’s official position is to obey Cooper’s order. But, wink, wink, nod, nod, he went on to say that businesses ought to be able to open, and if they do, he and his wife will come.

What are people supposed to think, when Philbeck supports the county’s official stance, the governor’s orders and state law out of one side of his mouth, while, out of the other side, encouraging people to flout them? Confusion reigns. After Philbeck’s urging, a tattoo parlor and a restaurant announced on social media that they would reopen at 5:30 p.m. that day. Wiser heads — maybe a lawyer — must have prevailed, because, within hours, they said forget that.

Philbeck had an answer ready during his Facebook show for any criticism along those lines: “If you see a reporter say it’s confusing, it’s absolutely fake news.” Yeah. Right.

Worse, what happens if some business does reopen despite the statewide order? County commissioners have the power to say foolish things, but they do not have the power to nullify an order of the governor. If someone violated the stay-at-home order, that person would be committing a crime, and local law enforcement would be responsible for enforcing the law.

Worst of all, defying the governor’s reasonable order risks spreading COVID-19 and endangering the health of others. There are reasons for his order. The virus is highly contagious, and people who carry it may show no symptoms. Those who are reckless can unknowingly infect those trying to be careful.

One of Philbeck’s pronouncements was that “people,” not government, are “the bearers of knowledge.” That’s highly questionable, since people in government are more likely to have access to sound scientific and public health knowledge. Then there’s the fact that Philbeck himself is part of government, and that’s why people pay attention to him.

Nerves are frayed. People want help. This virus isn’t going completely away anytime soon. Philbeck and grandstanders like him aren’t helping matters.

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