After directive confusion, most businesses shrug 🤷‍♂️

Museums and county's aquatic center are closing temporarily, and CMS is expected to go all-virtual today. But most businesses appear unaffected by health department directive.

Many businesses scrambled to understand Gibbie Harris’ Covid directive. Then they went back to work like before.

GAME ON: Some recreational spots closed on Wednesday because of a new non-binding Covid directive from the Mecklenburg County Health Department, but the YMCA of Greater Charlotte is keeping its programs running, including athletic teams.

by Tony Mecia and Cristina Bolling

Across Charlotte on Wednesday morning, business leaders in many different industries awoke with the task of interpreting a fresh set of Covid instructions from the county health department. They quickly convened meetings and phoned their employment lawyers and industry groups for advice.

They sought to answer a common question: What does this mean?

By the end of the day, the results from health director Gibbie Harris’ non-binding directive issued Tuesday afternoon were becoming more clear: A few spots, including some arts and recreational facilities, would shut down temporarily.

But in conversations with business leaders all over the city, it’s clear that many other establishments are poised to continue as before — following health and safety procedures and actual binding state orders that until this week were presumed to be the best available advice for stemming the spread of a disease that has just kept on spreading.

At a morning news conference, Harris characterized the directive as “recommendations” — to avoid large gatherings and to stay home whenever possible — and said that “people have to make their own decision about this.” She said she was “glad” to see the “angst and concern about the directive,” since she wanted people to take it seriously.

[Paying Ledger subscribers received a special update on Harris’ remarks yesterday morning: “Health director clarifies new Covid directive”🔒]

It’s unknowable, of course, how much Harris’ directive and ensuing closures will slow the spread of the virus. Health officials have said they have been most concerned about private gatherings in homes during the colder winter months. There’s little evidence that some of the places that agreed to close — like swimming pools, museums and schools — have been hubs of virus transmission.

Some of the spots that are closing include:

  • Museums: At least six Charlotte museums announced three-week closures on Wednesday. They included the Mint Museum, Discovery Place, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Levine Museum of the New South, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture and the McColl Center for Art & Innovation.

  • The Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center will be closed today through Feb. 3, according to the receptionist who answered the phone on Wednesday. Harris said she would be talking with county colleagues to determine if other county recreational facilities should close.

  • The Cornwell Center at Myers Park Baptist Church said in an email late Wednesday that it will stay closed for “in-person fitness, wellness, and group exercise” until Feb. 1.

Other updates:

  • Private schools:

    • Charlotte Area Independent Schools, which includes Charlotte Latin, Charlotte Country Day and Providence Day School, were closed to students and staff on Wednesday. Providence Day planned to keep most students and staff home through Jan. 22, having only transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first graders reporting to classrooms until then.

    • The Mecklenburg Area Catholic School System adhered to its regular schedule on Wednesday and is continuing to monitor school-by-school Covid cases and using its metrics to decide when to shift into virtual learning, diocese officials said.

    • After going virtual Wednesday, Charlotte Christian School said it plans to resume in-person classes for elementary and middle school students today, and high school students will return next week.

  • The YMCA of Greater Charlotte is “maintaining operations as normal for the time being,” said spokeswoman Heather Briganti. “We are confident in our stringent safety and cleaning measures, and are proud that YMCA health and wellness facilities across the state have a strong track record for safety.”

  • Central Piedmont Community College said it would shift some career and technical classes back to in-person instruction starting today.

Scenes from Covid directive confusion

Across Mecklenburg County, businesses tried to figure out what the health department’s new “directive” meant for them. Here are some examples of how that played out:

Retailers wonder if it’s a stay-at-home order

Andy Ellen, president of the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, said he took two or three phone calls Wednesday morning from businesses trying to make sense of the directive.

“They wanted to make sure this was not an official stay-at-home order. They were trying to navigate that part of it. … A lot of it was people saying, ‘I saw this, and I just want to make sure I’m reading this correctly.’” Ellen said he interpreted the directive as a “strong reminder that we aren’t out of this yet.”

Restaurant owner hears workers’ worry: ‘Are we going to have to close down?’

Paul Bell, owner of Lebowski’s Neighborhood Grill and Providence Road Sundries, called Tuesday’s directive “really misleading,” and a further frustration during a time when he’s continuing to lose money on his two restaurants every month.

“It’s more negative, rather than concentrating on the positive, and letting people go back to work and support their families while being safe at the same time,” he said. “Our restaurants are clean, we have half the seats out, and everybody’s masked up and following all the protocols. Luckily, we’ve had no cases in the restaurant and if somebody has it in their family, they’re out a week or two.”

Bell said his staff are always constantly worried that they’re one government mandate away from losing their jobs. “It’s just an overall fear. I’ll see our staff in the parking lot and they’re asking, ‘Are we going to have to close down?’”

Employment lawyer offers advice amid ‘significant confusion’

Meredith Jeffries of the law firm Alexander Ricks sent the following note to clients on Wednesday afternoon:

For those of us in Mecklenburg County, employers were scrambling [Tuesday] night upon the issuance of an immediately effective “Directive” from the county’s Public Health Director suggesting that all schools and non-essential businesses should be fully virtual for the next three weeks.

This Directive is merely a recommendation with no legal impact to your businesses, but because it came without notice and read like a “stay at home order,” it caused significant confusion and closings. The Public Health Director has now clarified that the Directive is non-binding and unenforceable and merely reflected her recommendations as to best practices to turn the tide on the Covid-19 spike in our county.

If your business is vigilantly following Governor Cooper’s Modified Stay at Home Order and the CDC guidance for businesses, as well as guidelines imposed by any licensing or regulatory authorities specific to your industry, this Directive does not require modifications to your COVID-19 practices and protocols.

Big CMS school board meeting this morning

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education meets at 10:30 a.m. today and is expected to delay the district’s scheduled Jan. 19 return to classrooms. (You can watch the meeting on the board’s Facebook page.) The board announced today’s emergency meeting Tuesday night during its regularly scheduled meeting (with thousands of parents and teachers watching online and expecting a verdict on reopening), and it’s expected that the board will delay students’ return to in-person learning by at least three weeks, as The Ledger reported Tuesday night.

On Tuesday, CMS superintendent Earnest Winston and his staff gave board members a presentation showing that the district’s facilities, staff and transportation department were ready for reopening. But Tuesday’s directive by Harris — made less than two hours before the CMS board meeting was set to begin — threw a wrench in any hope of opening schools next week.

Gibbie Harris in her own words: school recommendations

In a Q&A with reporters on Wednesday, health director Gibbie Harris elaborated on the reasons behind her new recommendation for all-virtual learning. [The Ledger on Wednesday morning included a similar Q&A on her recommendations regarding businesses. We sent that to our community of paying subscribers 🔒.]

The full news conference is available on Mecklenburg County’s Facebook page.

Q: Some of the private schools are concerned [and] confused. Should they continue? I understand it’s not a mandate, but do you feel like schools should operate right now in person? [Robin Kanady, Fox 46]

Harris: What we are saying in this directive is that any gathering of individuals in our community right now puts people at risk. That includes schools, restaurants, bars, even places of work, places of worship. And so as much we can avoid those gatherings, the quicker we can get the situation in our community in a better place than it is right now.

We know that a number of private schools have been operating successfully since the fall. They have worked closely with us. They have done the contact tracing, the isolation and the quarantining that is needed and in most cases are not seeing the spread in the school. It’s just cases from outside.

Unfortunately, with the current situation we have in our community, people are being exposed outside of the school system and have the ability to bring the virus into the schools.

The schools will have to make their own decisions about this. As I mentioned, it is not a mandate or an order. We are asking them to think very carefully about their situation and to make decisions based on what they believe is best for their school, for the students, for their faculty and for our community.

We will not make that decision for them. We are recommending that people avoid gatherings of any kind at this point in time.

Q. Leading up to the directive, did you speak with any member of the CMS board? If so, what did you say, and who did you talk to? [Claire Donnelly, WFAE]

Harris: We have been in regular conversation with the administration of the school system. We have not had specific conversations with school board members. We have been having conversations with administration as late as Monday and again on Tuesday before the directive went out.

Q. Who specifically were you talking to before the directive came out, and what did you say? [Claire Donnelly, WFAE]

Harris: We’ve had conversations with some of the assistant superintendents and some of the staff that work in the health areas within the schools. And I had conversations Monday evening and again on Tuesday with the superintendent himself.

Our conversation with them was that with the current environment in our community, we did not support bringing the students back into school at this point in time. We felt like we needed a cooling period in the entire community before we should do that. We did let them know as they were moving forward with their plans to bring children back on the 19th that we did not recommend that they bring back more than what was in the setting in December, if they decided to bring children back at all.

[Tuesday], I did inform the superintendent as well as [CMS school performance officer] Kathy Elling that we were going to issue the directive [Tuesday] afternoon.

I do want to emphasize that the timing of the directive was not related in any way to the fact there was a CMS board meeting [Tuesday]. Our data report came out [Tuesday]. We released that [Tuesday] morning. We had the death [Tuesday, of a 22-year-old with underlying health conditions]. Those are the things that were driving the decision to put the directive out, not any one entity in our community. …

Q. On Monday, at a news conference in response to a question, you sounded as though you were not opposed to having schools reopen, and you echoed what you have said since the start of the pandemic. You said the health department helps schools in the decisions they want to make. CMS leadership now clearly appears ready logistically to have students return, but then 24 hours later, you put out a directive that advises against that.

My question is, what changed in that 24-hour period, and what is the specific scientific, data-based understanding for that posture, given that a lot of studies and the experience of private schools and other local public districts where schools are open are not showing schools to be a significant source of community spread? [Tony Mecia, Charlotte Ledger]

Harris: What changed between Monday and Tuesday? Not much changed, from my perspective. Our recommendation to the school system when we talked to them on Monday was that they not reopen. But if they reopened — and I’m hoping this is what I said on Monday — if they reopened, we did not recommend that they open all schools, which is what they had planned to do, that they not open more than what they had open in December.

When we put the directive out, the intent was that any environment where we are seeing significant numbers of people coming together is not a good situation for our community right now. We do not want to look like Los Angeles, where the numbers are just not manageable at all. …

You have heard from our hospitals on Monday that they are seeing larger numbers of exposures needing to isolate and quarantine their staff. Those exposures aren’t necessarily coming from within the hospital. They’re coming from out in the community.

We are seeing the same things in schools….

The intent is to limit the amount of exposure across the board in our community as much as possible. Each entity at this point is going to have to make the decision on how they contribute to that limiting factor.

Q: Do studies say that students are safer in school? [Tony Mecia, Charlotte Ledger]

Harris: Studies do not determine whether they are safer in school or at home. What some of the studies studies show is that especially in our younger age groups that there is less likely transmission in those environments than there are in other environments in our community.

Right now, because of the level of virus we have in our community, we are recommending limiting as much as possible exposure to others that you do not live with.

Jeep Bryant, president of the Arts & Science Council, resigns

The Arts & Science Council announced Wednesday that its president, Jeep Bryant, will step down effective Jan. 29. Bryant has led the arts non-profit since July 2019, during a stormy time for arts groups, with voters striking down a quarter-cent sales tax in November 2019 that would have boosted arts funding and then the pandemic which heightened financial woes for the arts.

The ASC board expects to name an interim president next week, and “a new strategic visioning process for the organization has just begun and will continue,” the group said Wednesday in a statement. The ASC provides funding, training and consulting to arts groups.

The Ledger asked Bryant on Wednesday about his future plans:

I haven’t decided on the next step. I hope to find new ways to make meaningful contributions to Charlotte. I came home to begin to repay my debt to my hometown that I love. The work at ASC was a good start on the repayment but there is much more to do.


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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN AdvisoryReporting intern: David Griffith