By Leslee Kulba
The coronavirus permeated the last meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners, and it is difficult to see how the proverbial masses would have let leadership get away with anything less. In a room representative of the social-distancing and self-quarantining of the time, Chair Brownie Newman asked for support for changes to the agenda. He asked to remove from consideration the declaration of a state of emergency, because that item had been scheduled two weeks ago, but, in light of alarming global statistics, Newman didn’t hesitate to make the declaration last Thursday.
Also, since the commissioners are postponing any discussion of items likely to draw large crowds, he asked that a discussion of possible changes to the local hotel occupancy tax be postponed. An update from the Sports Commission was postponed for the same reason.
Proceedings began with an update on the virus by Interim Public Health Director Jennifer Mullendore. At the time, only 3,500 cases had been confirmed in the country, 40 in the state, and only one in Buncombe County.
The infected person, she said, was visiting from out of state. He had been given his quarantine orders, taught how to monitor his condition, and told how to reach out to appropriate authorities should things make a turn for the worse. Mullendore said the person’s close contacts had been notified and given similar instructions. Anybody who hadn’t heard from county staff on the matter was not considered to be a close contact, so no further action would be necessary.
Testing had just gotten off the ground, with fewer than 200 tests administered, half of which were at pop-up drive-throughs, one at Biltmore Church in Arden and the other at UNC Asheville. Due to limited supplies, tests were only being made available to persons exhibiting symptoms; that is, fever, coughing, and/or difficulty breathing. Mullendore said persons with those symptoms should contact their healthcare provider, but if they had none, they should go to a community testing site or an urgent care facility. They could also call the state hotline or speak to somebody in the county’s Communicable Disease Program.
The county’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Fletcher Tove told how executive orders from Governor Roy Cooper had closed all schools and prohibited sit-down service in restaurants and bars. Two days after the meeting, a news release from the county ordered the closing of, “gyms and fitness centers (include: martial arts studios, cross-fit gyms, dance studios) indoor pools, spas (spas include: massage facilities, medical spas, nail salons, beauty parlors, hair dressers, even one chair salons, barber shops) and tattoo parlors, movie theaters, live performance venues, and arcades (including bowling alleys, indoor recreation centers, climbing gyms, trampoline parks, escape rooms).”
Praise was lavished on the county’s emergency operations center.
Commissioner Anthony Penland, a former president of the North Carolina State Firefighters Association, has been helping train staff. He expressed gratitude for the long hours staff is putting in and their willingness to rise to the occasion. Penland said as he prays every day the coronavirus will go away, he prays every day to sustain county workers. He was happy to hear Buncombe’s Unified Command System was now, “ahead of the curve.” Even after the meeting, Commissioner Joe Belcher was talking about how amazing the center was. Newman asked if the noon briefings posted to Facebook Live would continue, and Tove said they would, but in a virtual format that would be available through more social media options. Newman said he had been hearing good feedback about their “substantive and informative” content.
The commissioners also approved taking $500,000 from the fund balance to help with emergency expenses. Already, the county had spent $130,000 on things like masks and gowns, carryout containers for school meals, and training contracts. County Manager Avril Pinder said needs for those items would be ongoing, but the county might also need to invest in indigent housing or quarantine facilities.
Penland asked if $500,000 would be enough, and Pinder said the county is monitoring the “burn rate” and trying to spend fast up-front and come back if needed. Newman said the county was now in terra incognita.
Government might be called upon to perform unforeseen functions, and safety should not be jeopardized by constraining things by precedent. He invited every department to not hesitate to ask the commissioners for help. They may convene additional meetings if necessary.
Other special actions included adding to the list of deputy finance directors, so authorizations may proceed if something should happen to the director and his lone deputy. The amount of cash allowed on-hand in each office was increased in order to decrease the number of trips to financial institutions, and changes, which required commissioner approval, were made to help the public conduct business with the register of deeds via phone or online.