By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – The ever-shifting COVID-19 landscape is giving leaders at all levels of government the runaround. The Buncombe County Commissioners met three hours in a budget work session and a regular meeting May 19. Then, May 21, after Governor Roy Cooper issued Executive Order 141 outlining Phase 2 of the state’s reopening strategy, they met another three-and-a-half hours and agreed to hold a press briefing May 22 announcing their response. By the time this article hits the streets, the perfect storm caused by scheduling mass re-openings and effectuating exemptions during Memorial Day Weekend may require more meetings.
As previous statewide COVID-19 orders did, EO141 allowed local jurisdictions to draft stricter rules, provided they were “founded in fact and reasonably tailored to limit the threat presented.” Furthermore, municipalities within the county would not be bound by any additional orders adopted by the board of commissioners. For example, Woodfin, Black Mountain, Montreat, and Biltmore Forest have opted out of the county’s stricter facemask requirements.
Major changes adopted by the state include allowing on-premises dining at restaurants, provided half the fire code capacity is not exceeded and parties remain six feet apart. Self-serve situations, like buffets, will remain closed, but Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Fletcher Tove said he has been working with local buffet owners, and he believes they will be able to make necessary adjustments. Bars will not be allowed to open for sit-down service unless they are part of a restaurant and following social-distancing guidelines. They may still offer beverages via drive-thru, carryout, and delivery.
Personal care, grooming, and tattoo businesses may reopen, provided they do not exceed 50% of the fire code capacity and people and parties stay six feet apart. Retail businesses were opened with the last orders, with instructions to provide acrylic shields and floor markers at points of sale, etc. Businesses are still required to post signage, screen workers, disinfect regularly and follow other guidelines provided by the state.
Indoor and outdoor pools are also allowed to operate at 50% capacity because chlorine and other treatments are believed to effectively kill the virus. Parks, trails, and beaches were opened, conditionally, but playgrounds will remain closed. Daycare was opened for all, not just children of essential workers, and day and overnight camps are once again permissible, with restrictions. Tove said the county would go along with state guidelines for summer camps, but with reservation. Staff was encouraging camp leaders to be wise, as no virus is enough of a problem “in good years.”
For mass gatherings, drive-in events are now allowed as long as people remain in cars parked six feet apart. While intimate venues must remain shut, premises that seat at least 500 may have spectators, following guidance. Whereas former orders capped mass gatherings at 10, up to 25 persons may now congregate outdoors. All of the above notwithstanding, the free exercise of all First Amendment rights was re-affirmed.
Out of deference to the number of livelihoods affected, the county lifted its ban on leisure travel by persons residing outside the 828 area code. Aligning better with state guidelines, lodging facilities with over 10 units may now book 50% of their units, and those with fewer may operate at full capacity. Rooms will have to remain vacant for 24 hours after guests depart and be sanitized in accordance with state guidelines.
The commissioners met while leaders and lawyers were still trying to interpret the orders, so Parks and Recreation Director Josh O’Conner recommended erring on the side of caution. He explained the leagues and other organizations with which the county partners for organized sports had widely-varying ideas about what was needed to reopen safely. Not only did liabilities loom, O’Conner was too understaffed to maintain the restrooms in accordance with state standards, and what workers he had were all tapped-out doing other things. O’Conner asked to be allowed to return once the dust settled.
Places that remain closed under both the state and county orders include nightclubs, movie theaters, museums, bowling alleys, amusement parks, arcades, skating rinks, bingo parlors, gaming establishments, exercise facilities, gyms, fitness studios, martial arts facilities, dance studios, trampoline and rock-climbing facilities, roller skating rinks, ice skating rinks, and basketball courts.
At the time of this writing, 98,222 persons in the United States had reportedly succumbed to COVID-19, and North Carolina had reported 778 fatalities. Buncombe County reported 262 lab-confirmed cases, 11 deaths, and outbreaks in four long-term care facilities: Aston Park had 24 cases; Carolina Pines, 2; Deerfield, 5; and Stonecreek, 2. The state’s ban on visits to nursing homes remains in effect.
Official communications indicate the governor will likely advance the state to Phase 3 of its stay-home orders in 4-6 weeks. Thresholds for criteria used to “inform decisions” were not elaborated. Statistics of interest include tallies of possible cases, confirmed cases, positive tests, and hospitalizations over the last 14 days The state also wishes to more than double its current testing rate to 5,000-7,000 tests per day, hire 250-500 more contract tracers and deploy digital tracing technology, and maintain in reserve a 30-day supply of PPE for hospital workers.
Phase 3, the final phase, is expected to ease restrictions on vulnerable populations, “continue rigorous restrictions on nursing homes and other congregant cares settings,” allow restaurants and bars to operate at greater capacity, and increase the density of groups now allowed to assemble. Mind-bendingly, one publication reports, “We have slowed the rate of acceleration”