County plans business panel to examine reopening
Plus: Local coronavirus cases up unevenly; Bankers working overtime on loan program; Taiwo Jaiyeoba needs a better plan for drinking coffee
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Exclusive: After focusing for weeks on ‘stay at home’ order, Mecklenburg to look at easing business restrictions
By Kerry Singe
Mecklenburg County is making plans to assemble a panel of business leaders and government officials to assess how the economy can reopen amid the uncertainty surrounding the spread of Covid-19.
The Ledger spoke Friday with two people familiar with the group being formed, which they say they have discussed with County Manager Dena Diorio this week.
“The focus is how do you balance reopening things while also keeping people safe?” said Huntersville Town Manager Anthony Roberts, who said he will serve on the committee as the North Mecklenburg County representative. “The group will be looking to determine how we can open businesses back up.”
First step: The formation of the group could be an important first step toward easing some of the restrictions the county put in place three weeks ago with its “stay at home” order. The panel could help determine what types of businesses in the county could reopen, how soon and under what circumstances. The state and federal government this week laid out guidelines exploring similar questions.
It could also mark a change in focus for the county, which until now has mainly pleaded with residents to stay home for their own safety and those of others.
Roberts said he doesn’t know of any official name for the group or who else would be asked to serve on it. “We just started talking seriously about it (Thursday),” he said.
Asked Friday afternoon about the business panel, county spokesman Danny Diehl wrote in a text to The Ledger: “Don’t have the details yet. We will let you know.”
This week, the county extended its “stay at home” order through April 29 to coincide with a similar statewide order. People have been directed to stay home except to head to essential jobs or to participate in approved activities such as shopping for groceries, exercising or helping a family member. The order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to stay at least six feet apart from others.
Many businesses remain open in industries such as construction, healthcare and manufacturing, and many office workers are working from home. But an estimated half of retailers are closed, except for essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and take-out restaurants.
State plans: Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that he would like to begin reopening businesses when there is adequate testing and sufficient data that indicates doing so is safe. He didn’t provide a timeline. It’s possible Mecklenburg could reopen on a slower schedule than elsewhere in the state, since it has double the number of confirmed cases compared with the second-highest county, Wake County.
Commissioners this week indicated they would favor a longer “stay at home” order beyond April 29, but no decision has been made on that. County health officials this week shared a forecast that coronavirus cases will peak in Mecklenburg in June and strain hospital resources at that time, though other models seem to indicate the peak will be earlier.
Matthews Mayor John Higdon said Matthews Town Manager Hazen Blodgett will serve on the business panel, which he described as a “business roundtable.” Higdon said people and businesses in Matthews have been patient and complying with the “stay at home” order but that it is time to think about how businesses can eventually reopen.
“One thing we want to discuss is how can we do a safe soft launch. As [federal adviser] Dr. [Anthony] Fauci says, don’t flip a switch and say things are normal. How can we slowly open businesses deemed nonessential, and how can we open them in a safe manner?” Higdon said.
Higdon pointed to companies deemed essential, such as Target and Lowe’s, which are still open and serving customers, as examples that can be studied. Many businesses have changed their procedures to offer curb-side or drive-through service and are limiting the number of customers to avoid crowding.
“We’ve seen some of the essential businesses create really good models for how nonessential business could be operating,” he said.
Roberts said his understanding is that the group will be looking to real-life examples of how businesses in the U.S. and globally have reacted and will rely heavily on data that the group can gather as it makes recommendations.
“We want to have some meat and real-life examples to look at,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, the Charlotte region’s main business group, didn’t reply to an email from The Ledger on Friday asking if the organization was involved in the effort. She said on Wednesday that she wasn’t aware of any such discussions.
Kerry Singe is an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter.
Coronavirus data: Local numbers rise again, unevenly
After low numbers of new cases for a week, the number of new confirmed coronavirus cases in Mecklenburg County has been at higher levels the last three days.
Weeks of talk about peaks and flattened curves have conditioned people to believe that a graph of the number of new coronavirus cases each day should look like a perfect bell curve — with an upward slope, a crest and a mirror-image downward slope.
Instead, the number of daily new cases in Mecklenburg has gone up and down, with a series of peaks and valleys. Here are the numbers of daily new confirmed cases, based on figures released by the Mecklenburg County Health Department through Friday:
New confirmed coronavirus cases in Mecklenburg were in the 18-24 range for five out of six days around Easter weekend. The numbers have been between 38 and 59 the last three days. (Source: Ledger analysis of Mecklenburg County data)
The most recent model, developed by local hospitals and the county, predicts the peak will hit in early- to mid-June. Another model, developed by the University of Washington, forecasts that North Carolina’s peak was yesterday.
Imprecise measure: Relying on the number of new confirmed daily cases is an imprecise way to understand the spread of the virus. The number of confirmed cases can rise and fall based on the availability of tests and the length of time required to complete the tests. County officials explained this week that the recent drop in confirmed cases was caused by fewer tests performed over Easter weekend, for example.
A better gauge is hospitalizations. They’re not perfect, either, because they depend on consistent and accurate reporting from hospitals. Statewide, hospitalizations have risen in recent weeks but do not seem to be surging:
Statewide hospitalizations for coronavirus are near all-time highs, but they have not been rising sharply. (Source: N.C. Department of Health and Human Services)
Countywide hospitalization data would be handy to help figure out if the severity of the threat locally is rising or falling, but the county does not announce that figure. Asked for that information on Friday, a spokesperson for the county’s Joint Information Center said it was not immediately available. — TM
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Bankers pull out the stops on loan program, industry group says
Peter Gwaltney, CEO of the N.C. Bankers Association, said he understands the frustration of small business owners who are complaining about bank glitches and delays in applying for the federal emergency loan program — which said it ran out of money this week.
In an interview with The Ledger, Gwaltney agreed that banks weren’t prepared because of the speed of the program. Banks usually take months to roll out new programs, but this one was done in just a couple weeks, with federal guidance changing all the time, he said:
This was done in just a matter of a few days. …
All the final guidance on how to do these loans did not come out until the night before the launch. Did we know what we were doing? No, because nobody told us. Bankers stayed up all night that Thursday and worked all through the weekend. …
Small businesses should be frustrated. This is a stressful time. But all we can match that with is we are on their side, we’re working literally around-the-clock and doing everything humanly possible, working as fast as humanly possible, to get loans approved and out the door.
He likened bankers to citizens in World War II who brought in pots and pans to melt down for armaments. “That’s the spirit that banks are operating under,” he said. —TM
Charlotte planning director didn’t plan on mask
Nursing home outbreaks identified: Mecklenburg County for the first time identified long-term care facilities in which two or more people tested positive for the coronavirus. The county named seven such facilities: Hunter Woods Nursing & Rehab Center, Huntersville Oaks, Pavillion Health Center, Autumn Care of Cornelius, The Social at Cotswold, Carrington Place Rehab & Living Center and The Laurels. Fifteen residents and two caregivers tested positive at The Social. The county said it will update the list of outbreaks twice a week. (WSOC)
Ballantyne rezoning: The huge proposed rezoning of 454 acres in the middle of Ballantyne is on the City Council agenda for Monday. City staff is recommending approval of the “Ballantyne Reimagined” project, with a few conditions. It would allow developer Northwood Office to build a mix of 300,000 s.f. of retail, 200 hotel rooms and 1,000 apartments in the first phase on land that’s now mostly a golf course. Because it is an online meeting, residents can submit comments of 375 words or fewer by email to email@example.com by 9 a.m. Monday.
Businesses cited: Two smoke shops and the craft chain Michaels were cited by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police this week for violating the county’s coronavirus stay-at-home order. Cloudzilla on Central Avenue and High Life on North Tryon Street were issued citations earlier this week, and an employee at Michaels on Rea Road was cited on April 8. In North Carolina, violating emergency prohibitions and restriction can be punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 60 days in jail. (Observer)
Indian Land hospital plan moving forward: Medical University of South Carolina wants to build a new hospital and medical office buildings on an 87-acre site on Lancaster Highway. The Lancaster County planning commission will take up a rezoning application on Tuesday. The new hospital plans to relocate 100 inpatient beds from MUSC’s Lancaster Medical Center. (CBJ)
‘Essential’ requests granted: An analysis of 4,000 N.C. businesses who asked the state to be deemed essential found that 85% of the time, the state said yes. Another 13% were not deemed essential by the state, but were allowed to stay open as long as they obeyed social distancing rules. One of the businesses considered “essential” is the Lazy 5 Ranch in Mooresville. (Observer)
School nurses take on a new role: The Mecklenburg County Health Department is training school nurses to help with contract tracing, or identifying who Covid-19 patients may have infected over a two-week period. The county has seven investigators who do contract tracing. (WFAE)
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