Fears rise of new business shutdowns

Plus: How North Carolina's Covid numbers stack up against other states'; N.C.'s top health official on why cases are increasing

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As busy time of year approaches, Latino owners face new uncertainties as Covid numbers increase; ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen’

Editor’s note: This article is part of a collaborative series examining Covid-19’s economic effect on black and Latino communities in Charlotte. The series is produced through a collaboration among WFAE, The Charlotte Ledger, Q City Metro and La Noticia. It is supported by funds from Facebook, the N.C. Local News Lab Fund, Google and WFAE members.

By Maria Ramirez Uribe

Manolo Betancur started working at his father-in-law’s bakery in 2005. A Colombian native, Betancur had no experience baking “pan dulce,” but over the years he learned how to make this sweet bread and other Mexican baked goods. He eventually bought the business now known as Manolo’s Bakery in 2011.

Located in a strip mall on Central Avenue, the bakery features a mural of “El Chapulin Colorado,” a popular Mexican comedic superhero, wearing a mask, welcoming customers and reminding them “heroes wear masks.” 

Betancur has been strictly following health guidelines in the bakery during the coronavirus pandemic to keep both his customers and employees safe. He says he’s lost clients who refuse to wear masks or aren’t willing to wait outside as the bakery has an eight-person limit.

“We take all regulations very seriously,” Betancur said. “We follow the law, no one here comes in without a mask. If you don’t have one, we will give you one.” 

Manolo Betancur, owner of Manolo’s Bakery in east Charlotte, fears rising Covid-19 cases could lead to another shutdown just as his busiest season, the holidays, begins. (Photo by Maria Ramirez Uribe)

The bakery’s floor is marked with stickers to ensure all customers stay six feet away from each other, and employees who have any symptoms or might have come in contact with the virus are required to stay home.

North Carolina set records for the highest number of daily cases three times in the last week. Hospitalizations and the test positivity rate also have been rising, and states around the country have announced new limits on business activity.

These upward trends are not only alarming health officials but also local Latino business owners in the food industry who fear, as the coronavirus pandemic worsens, their businesses could take a hit.

A new study from Stanford University found transmission of the virus is higher in minority and lower-income communities and the spaces they work and shop in.

David Grusky, the study’s co-author, said in a press release that these numbers aren’t only disproportionate because of higher preexisting conditions or unequal access to healthcare, as previously assumed. 

Grusky said, in part, that “the places that employ minority and low-income people are often smaller and more crowded.”

Because of this, Grusky says limiting the amount of people in these smaller businesses could help mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

“We have a responsibility to build reopening plans that eliminate — or at least reduce — the disparities that current practices are creating,” he said.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Betancur provided food services to a local school, catered events and sold baked goods at his store. Betancur said he’s afraid the rise in cases could lead to another shutdown, forcing him to once again close his doors as he had to do in March. 

“We were doing well until Covid-19 arrived on March 14 of this year,” Betancur said. “I will never forget that date. Around 60% of my business dropped.”

Betancur landed a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, and he was hired by churches and charities to make food for homeless shelters, which got him through the lean months of the shutdown.

Now, he’s worried about the future. The holidays are typically his busiest season.

“The best season for a bakery is between Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year and Rosca de Reyes,” Betancur said, referring to a cake that is often the centerpiece of the Hispanic Día de los Reyes celebration that signals the end of the Christmas season. 

Betancur said without a pandemic, he would have around 15 catering contracts and multiple orders for cakes and other baked goods by now. 

“We don’t even have one,” he said. 

Eunice Marcano, owner of Arepas Grill on Old Pineville Road in southwest Charlotte, is feeling fear creep back as cases rise in North Carolina. Much like Betancur, sales at her Venezuelan restaurant usually peak in the winter season as Latino families order dishes that remind them of their home countries to have at their holiday gatherings. 

“It worries me, because I’m positive and I try to think positive, but honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Marcano said. 

Marcano hasn’t received any orders for the holiday season. In a normal year, she said by Nov. 10 she would have already started getting calls. 

Eunice Mercano opened Arepas Grill almost 10 years ago and says the restaurant is “all my savings, all my effort, my work. Everything I brought from my country I invested into this.” She says she’s noticed fewer customers coming to her Venezuelan restaurant over the past few weeks.

Fewer customers: Not only have the usual holiday orders been down, but both Marcano and Betancur have noticed regular foot traffic has also slowed over the past few weeks. 

Like Betancur, Marcano has been strict with following health guidelines. All surfaces are constantly cleaned as customers come in and out of the restaurant, and every morning an outside cleaning service disinfects the place.

She says all employees wear masks and gloves, and those who work in the kitchen limit their interactions with customers. 

Marcano has noticed fewer people visiting her restaurant in the past two weeks, and other business owners are telling her the same thing. She’s not sure if this is because of an increase in cases or if people are choosing to limit their outings. 

“Maybe people aren’t thinking as much about going out to eat,” Marcano said. “Maybe they’re thinking, ‘Let’s go out, but let’s go shopping instead.’” 

Betancur has also seen fewer customers coming into Manolo’s Bakery this month. He attributed the drop in sales the first week in November to a lack of celebrations for Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, another important date for Latino bakeries affected by the coronavirus pandemic.  

“There’s been fewer sales,” he said. “And if there’s fewer sales, it’s because fewer people are coming, and that worries me.”

Maria Ramirez Uribe is part of a team covering the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impact on black and Latino communities in Charlotte as part of a collaboration with The Charlotte Ledger, La Noticia and Q City Metro.

How N.C. stacks up on Covid

Is this starting to feel like mid-March all over again?

States are starting to clamp down and close businesses. Articles about “spikes” in cases dominate the news. Are we headed for another lockdown? How worrisome is the Covid data in North Carolina, anyway?

In the last week, at least five states have banned indoor dining at restaurants, and others are embracing new restrictions. North Carolina last week limited indoor gatherings at homes to 10 people, down from 25.

The states with the highest number of recent per-capita confirmed Covid cases have tended to be in the Midwest and West. North Carolina ranks #40 nationally for the average number of new cases per capita in the last 7 days, according to an analysis by The New York Times. North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa are at the top of the list.

North Carolina is toward the bottom in rankings of states by the number of per-capita Covid cases in the last week.

But the numbers that North Carolina’s health officials track are trending upward, too. The state hit new records for confirmed daily cases three times in the last week — though the number of cases by itself is a poor measure for the spread of Covid, since it depends on who is being tested and how many tests are being administered. But with other figures rising, such as hospitalizations and percentage of positive tests, health officials say the virus seems to be spreading more quickly than it did previously.

Confirmed cases rising: The recent numbers of positive Covid cases have been hitting new highs in North Carolina lately. (Actual new daily cases in green; 7-day average in yellow.) (Source: N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.)

  • North Carolina: It’s unclear if state officials are contemplating further restrictions in North Carolina. When asked that kind of question at news conferences, Gov. Roy Cooper and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen tend to say they are watching the data closely and are hopeful the state won’t have to move backward, the way other states that reopened too quickly have done. Cooper’s current executive order runs through Dec. 4, but he could change it at any time.

  • Mecklenburg: It’s also possible that Mecklenburg County officials could seek to impose local rules further restricting businesses. But the county typically wants Mecklenburg County’s towns to agree to those limits, too, and some have objected to the county’s requests. Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla told The Ledger on Monday he has heard of no movement by the county to add additional limits. —TM

What’s behind North Carolina’s rise in Covid cases?

At a news conference last week, North Carolina’s top health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, addressed the recent rise in Covid cases in North Carolina. She called having more than 3,000 a day a “troubling milestone” and described other numbers, such as the percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations, as “inching up.”

Rural increases: Twice as many Covid cases in the state, Cohen said, are coming from rural areas compared with urban and suburban areas. The majority of the new cases are in whites under the age of 49, she said.

A reporter noted that there seem to be few confirmed cases in schools and asked what is behind the statewide increase. Cohen’s response:

Our schools are not driving our infections. You can see and follow along with us on our dashboard. We post when there are clusters of cases in our school systems. You can see there are not very many. Of course, we have virus here, and there is going to be virus in our schools occasionally. But that is not what is driving our infections.

What we see as driving our infections are when people are not following the “3 W’s” — when you’re not wearing a mask and you’re not social distancing. Often, those can be in informal social gatherings, in religious settings and others. It’s why the governor took the step this week to reduce our gathering limit indoors from 25 down back to 10.

We hope that that will get at some of these issues that we are seeing in our data, but there’s work to do across the board. In every situation, we need to be vigilant.

We are watching what’s happening around the country, and we are seeing a number of our states really struggle, particularly in the Midwest and starting again in the South. They are running out of hospital capacity. They are really spiking in their cases. We don’t want to see that happen here in North Carolina, and if we work hard, we won’t.


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