Could closing the parks come next?

Plus: How Mecklenburg's cases stack up nationally; Tim Newman back in jail; Drive-thru confessional on Providence Road

‘Our parks were packed’ this weekend, county health director says; Leaders to evaluate ‘extra levels of restriction’

Four Mile Creek Greenway near Piper Glen in south Charlotte on Sunday. County leaders worry that Mecklenburg’s parks are getting too crowded and could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.

Even though it might seem that almost everybody in Charlotte is largely staying home and away from each other during the coronavirus threat, Mecklenburg County’s health director said Sunday that “there are still a lot of people who are not taking it seriously.”

As evidence, health director Gibbie Harris pointed to local parks, which she said this weekend were so “packed with people” that “social distancing was not even an option.”

And she floated the idea of additional, unspecified restrictions and stepped-up enforcement to combat the spread of the virus: “We need to have that conversation with the leaders in this community and make sure everyone is on the same page before those decisions get made.”

Closing parks because they are becoming too crowded as the weather turns nice would mark a dramatic escalation in the county’s fight against the spread of the virus. The number of confirmed cases in Mecklenburg has risen to 315, including, officials said Sunday, the county’s first death: a 60-year-old patient with underlying health conditions.

Harris didn’t mention any parks in particular, but the ones most likely to be teeming with people are those close to uptown — like the Rail Trail and Freedom Park — where nearby neighborhoods are denser than in outlying areas. One Reddit user said of the Rail Trail on Sunday: “I’m walking on the side and they are running within a meter of me breathing hard and spitting, coughing, etc. I need to walk elsewhere.” In an article about Freedom Park a little over a week ago, The Observer reported that it was “heavily populated … but with enough space between bodies to respect the six-feet-apart guidelines.”

A quick Ledger check of south Charlotte parks on a gorgeous afternoon Sunday found them popular but not overcrowded. At Davie Park on Pineville-Matthews Road, about a dozen people were doing a boot camp on a soccer field while spread at least 6 feet apart, while three boys played soccer and a group of four people chatted as their dogs sniffed each other. At the Four Mile Creek Greenway by Piper Glen, there were occasional bike-riders and dog-walkers, but it hardly seemed crowded.

In other parts of the country, parks are closing to combat the spread of the coronavirus:

  • South Carolina closed its state parks on Saturday. North Carolina has closed at least 20 state parks and recreation areas, The Observer reported last week.

  • Several national parks, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton, have closed.

  • Municipalities around the country, including Asheville and Greenville, S.C., have closed parks, too.

No debate? A decision to close parks could come with no public input or even a debate among public officials. Last week’s “stay at home” order, for example, was not voted on by commissioners but rather was proclaimed by county commission chairman George Dunlap and Mayor Vi Lyles.

In addition, county officials have not always disclosed the moves they are considering before they make them. At a news conference last Monday, a reporter asked County Manager Dena Diorio point blank if the county was considering a “stay at home” order. Diorio said: “We continue to evaluate the epidemiology on the ground. … This is a fluid situation. When we are ready to make those changes — or if we are ready to make those changes — we will certainly let you know.”

About 24 hours later, the county rolled out a detailed 13-page “stay at home” order.

Ledger’s take: For people cooped up all day and trying to do the right thing — which is the vast majority of Mecklenburg residents — parks are an important resource. Of course we want to stop the transmission of this virus, but the county should examine alternatives before deciding on a blanket, pre-emptive closure. California, for instance, closed parking lots to state parks but allowed walk-ins, which cut down on overcrowding. There might be other creative solutions available, even if they are more complicated than an outright ban. In addition, not all county parks are overcrowded — even when the weather is nice — so any solution should acknowledge that difference.

In her own words

Excerpted remarks by county health director Gibbie Harris at a news conference on Sunday:

On compliance with the “stay at home” order:

I’m grateful to the stores that are essential and remain open. I know there are individuals in our community who are doing their part, and I want to thank them sincerely.

However, our parks were packed with people. Social distancing was not even an option. Sandbars on the lakes are crowded. These are presenting situations where we see individuals exposed in ways that are against our “stay at home” order.

On how going to parks violates the “stay at home” order:

They’re allowed to go out and exercise, but we have emphasized that people need to be six feet apart. Social distancing is critical in this situation. In the parks, there were way more people — you couldn’t social distance even if you wanted to.

On what future steps might be:

We have not had those conversations yet. We recognize the fact that the weather is incredible and that everybody wants to be outside. We were hoping to see better compliance with the “stay at home” order than we have seen. I would imagine those will be conversations we will be having over the next week. …

There are extra levels of restrictions that can be applied if that becomes necessary. It’s possible that we would need to look at enforcement in a different way than we are at this point in time. …

I do believe there are individuals and businesses who are taking this very seriously and doing some incredible work to make sure they are helping be a part of the solution.

Based on what we saw [Saturday] with the parks, with the lakes, with the sandbars and other types of situations, there are still a lot of people who are not taking it seriously.

Coronavirus cases: How does Charlotte stack up?

The New York Times this weekend examined the rates of confirmed coronavirus cases in various U.S. cities, which raises the question: Where does Charlotte fit in?

If all you do is read the daily articles that report on the “jump” or “surge” in cases in Mecklenburg, you can be forgiven for thinking Charlotte is going to be the next Wuhan or Italy. If you look at the numbers here versus elsewhere, though, you’ll see that parallel is not supported by the evidence. We’re doing better than some places (New York, New Orleans, Atlanta) but not as well as others (Raleigh, Salt Lake City, Cleveland). Statewide, North Carolina’s numbers look better than average.

Let’s take a look at the data. Here’s a chart from the Times with the U.S. cities with the highest rates of confirmed cases, as of Friday:

The figures on the right are the number of confirmed cases per 1,000 residents.

The Ledger pulled the numbers for Mecklenburg County and compared them to 10 other counties with similar populations, as of Sunday morning:

Mecklenburg’s rate of 0.27 confirmed cases per 1,000 residents is higher than the counties with Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh, but lower than Atlanta and Rockville, Md.

Data from Johns Hopkins seems to show that for North Carolina, the curve is starting to flatten…

… and if you look at the number of confirmed cases the state is adding daily, you’ll see that the daily growth rate has been 21% or less for the last five days. The week before that, the state had five straight days in which the number of confirmed cases increased by 40-60% each day. (That’s still more than 100 new cases a day, but the increase is slower on a percentage basis than it was a week ago.)

In addition, the raw number of confirmed cases so far in North Carolina is encouraging, relative to elsewhere. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, North Carolina ranks #18 nationwide in the number of confirmed cases. But in population, according to the census bureau, North Carolina is #9. So that is better than you’d expect.

To be sure, there are plenty of caveats, as there always are when you’re working with incomplete data: Confirmed cases are only a fraction of total cases, it’s possible Charlotte is farther behind other cities, maybe our testing bottlenecks are worse than elsewhere and so on. And it doesn’t mean the situation here won’t get bad, or that more people won’t die. It does mean our situation at the moment is not unique — and it’s not as bad as many other cities.

Maybe that’s comforting, maybe it’s not.

Today’s supporting sponsors are T.R. Lawing Realty:

… and Industrial Handling Solutions:

Drive-through confessional at St. Gabe’s

Fr. Gabriel Carvajal-Salazar of St. Gabriel Catholic Church on Providence Road says business at the church’s drive-through confessional in its parking lot has been brisk. There are a few differences: “Well, you have to speak louder,” he says. “People tend to be at some distance. … This is a new experience. People come freely, even people who have not come to confession for a long time.” He says his message to people is: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t panic. What can we do? Pray, make a good confession and follow the instructions from the authorities.”

In brief:

  • Back to work: Here’s a headline Wells Fargo PR types can’t be happy with, regarding former CEO Dick Kovacevich: “‘Some may even die, I don't know’: Former Wells Fargo CEO wants people to go back to work and ‘see what happens’” (Business Insider)

  • One visitor for expectant moms: Novant Health announced that starting this morning at 6 a.m., all laboring mothers may have only one visitor with them. Previously, they were able to have a partner and a “birth support person.” It’s a move to limit people in hospitals. (Novant)

  • ‘Stay at home’ clarifications: Mecklenburg County clarified over the weekend that real estate agents are not allowed to show houses unless they are already under contract, auto sales are non-essential businesses and should be closed (although repair shops are OK) and that “basketball pick-up games, tennis and other games that involve the use of shared equipment and space are not allowed.” (Mecklenburg County)

  • Back to jail: Tim Newman, the former CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, was being held in a Columbia, S.C., jail on Sunday night with no bond, according to jail records. The Ledger reported this month (subscriber-only) that he was in jails in Columbia and then Charlotte related to probation violations connected with harassment allegations from several police departments in North and South Carolina. Columbia jail records show he’s there on charges of second-degree harassment.

  • Change in focus: EatWorkPlay, the Charlotte company that local charities say owes them money after holding fundraising events, is now getting into the business of selling masks and plastic gloves under the name Social Distancing Essentials. Reached by phone by Charlotte Agenda’s Emma Way, founder Davon Bailey said, “I’m actually in the middle of something, can I call you back?” before hanging up. (Agenda)

  • More layoffs: Uniform and linen rental company Alsco has laid off 101 workers at two Charlotte locations, according to a layoff notice filed with the state. They are listed as temporary layoffs.

  • Cheap gas: Several gas stations in the Charlotte area are selling gas for less than $1.50 a gallon, according to the price-tracking site GasBuddy. The lowest price Sunday was $1.45 at the Costco on Tyvola Road, followed by two stations on Wilkinson Boulevard.

  • Pre-coronavirus jobless rate stable: North Carolina’s unemployment rate stayed steady at 3.6% in February, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday. That’s the same rate as January and lower than the 4.1% from a year earlier. There were nearly 183,000 people unemployed in February, before the effects of the coronavirus hit.

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

Editor: Tony Mecia; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire