Gibbie Harris shields CMS from tough decision (free version)

Plus: Understanding new health department 'directive'; Centene wants futuristic driverless shuttle in UCity; Tommy Tomlinson's writing tips; Kings Drive farmers market co-owner dies of Covid

Good morning! Today is Wednesday, January 13, 2021. You’re reading The Charlotte Ledger, an e-newsletter with local business-y news and insights for Charlotte, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is a shorter, free version of The Charlotte Ledger sent to people on our free sign-up list. The complete version for paying subscribers went out 15 minutes ago. It included:

  • The full article analyzing why health director Gibbie Harris suddenly changed course and weighed in with a recommendation on schools — including how she explains the switch. Plus complete details of Tuesday night’s crucial school board meeting and a look at what happens next.

  • The complete article analyzing the Mecklenburg County health department’s new Covid “directive” issued Tuesday afternoon — and what it means for schools, businesses and residents.

  • Our latest installment of “A Better You in 2021,” in which author and former Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson shares tips on improving your writing.

  • Details on a proposed driverless shuttle in University City.

The Ledger delivers original, thoughtful news and analysis of important local issues. Consider a paid subscription for full access and to support independent journalism for Charlotte. Details here.

As Covid cases rise, health director changes tune on making school recommendations; Kids likely to stay home for at least several weeks

Mecklenburg County health director Gibbie Harris, at a virtual news conference on Monday, said she thought CMS schools could handle students returning to classes. Just 24 hours later, hours before a crucial school board meeting, she said returning kids to school “does not make sense.”

by Cristina Bolling and Tony Mecia

For months, Mecklenburg County health director Gibbie Harris had resisted weighing in on one of the most consequential public health questions: Is it safe to open classrooms to students?

As teachers and parents fiercely debated the fate of tens of thousands of local students, Harris tried her best to stay neutral. She had said she’s not an educator, that she could speak only generally about Covid transmission and that the decision on schools was up to the nine-member Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, whose members have little background in health and who for months had requested clarity from health experts.

That all changed Tuesday afternoon, when Harris issued an advisory “directive” encouraging remote learning and telling county commissioners: “It does not make sense to bring kids back into the schools at this point.”

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Should health officials be issuing official-sounding but toothless ‘directives’?

The new “directive” issued Tuesday by the Mecklenburg County health department sounds like a stay-at-home order:

  • “Stay home. Only leave your home for essential activities such as going to work.”

  • “Do not participate in recreational activities in which you may have close contact with others.”

  • “Avoid gathering with individuals that you do not live with.”

  • “Avoid settings where people may congregate in large numbers, such as entertainment venues, airports, shopping malls, sporting events, etc.”

The directive “is effective immediately and shall remain in effect for the following three-week period,” it says.

Judging from social media, where many shared the directive — written on official health department letterhead topped with the county seal — questions quickly swirled about whether the county was entering another lockdown, and how it would be enforced.

In fact, it’s clear the directive won’t be enforced, because it does not carry the force of law.

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Tips on writing well from one of Charlotte’s best-known authors

by Tommy Tomlinson

The great crime novelist Elmore Leonard once gave his most important writing tip: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” There are some exceptions — if you happen to be, you know, resigning from a Cabinet post or something — but in general, writing is better when it sounds like talking.

So here are a few ways to make that happen:

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Tommy Tomlinson hosts the SouthBound podcast for WFAE and does regular Monday commentaries for the station. He’s also the author of the memoir THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.

Previous installments of “A Better You in 2021,” our series that helps you improve professionally and personally with the advice of local experts:

Futuristic: Centene proposes UCity autonomous shuttle

The city and health insurer Centene are working to develop an autonomous shuttle that would link a light rail station to the company’s campus that’s under construction in University City.

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David Simpson, co-owner of longtime produce market on Kings Drive, dies of Covid

Sad news for customers of the Kings Drive farmers market in Myers Park: David Simpson, one of the owners of Simpson’s Produce, which runs the market, died of Covid on Jan. 5 at age 52.

Simpson became sick with Covid a day or two after Thanksgiving and continued to worsen, his sister, Julie Simpson Pressley, told The Ledger on Tuesday. He died at Atrium Health Union in Monroe.

Simpson’s parents, Darrell and Mary Simpson, and older brother, Norman, also became sick with Covid but are recovering, Pressley said.

“David was always smiling, and he was always listening to people. Everybody loved talking to him,” Pressley said. “He took his time to make time for people, and I think that’s what made his customers love him.”

Years ago, Simpson forged a career as a real estate appraiser, but he quickly discovered he missed the family business too much and returned to Simpson’s.

“This is what his real love was,” Pressley said. “He loved the Lord first, and he loved his family very much.”

His talents were many, Pressley said, including his uncanny ability to forecast the precise day when a piece of fruit would be at its peak deliciousness.

“He’d look at it and he’d pick it up, hit it, and listen to the sound it made, and he’d say, ‘This one is ready now’ or ‘This one will be ready Wednesday,’” she said.  

David Simpson’s grandfather, Willie Simpson, started Simpson’s Produce in 1941. The entire family lives on a Union County farm together, Pressley said, and they expect to open the market back up on the first Friday in April, as they do each year.

“It’s what we do. It’s who we are,” Pressley said. “I think David would expect that.”

David Simpson is survived by his wife, Jeannette L. Simpson, and three children. —CB

Coming soon

The hype begins…

In brief

  • Big industrial/residential development announced: Developer Childress Klein announced a redevelopment of 288 acres on the Mecklenburg-Cabarrus line near Concord Mills, which it envisions as a mix of distribution and warehouse space and 700 residential units. It said in a news release that it’s a $350M project that could eventually support 2,000 jobs. No tenants have signed on to the project yet. Childress Klein filed for a rezoning for the Charlotte portion of the development. (Biz Journal)

  • Transit roadblock: The mayors of Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville said in a letter to Mayor Vi Lyles that the city’s transit plan, which calls for a sales tax increase for additional light rail lines and other improvements, is untenable because northern Mecklenburg has been passed over for transit enhancements. (David Hodges on Twitter)

  • UNC Charlotte goes virtual: Classes at UNC Charlotte will be all-remote through at least Feb. 22, the university said. (WBTV)

  • Not Music City: Charlotte ranks as the 111th best city for music, city economic development director Tracy Dodson told the City Council this week — behind Amarillo, Texas; and Wichita, Kan. She was apparently citing a 2016 study by ValuePenguin, which is owned by Charlotte-based LendingTree. (Joe Bruno and Joni Deutsch on Twitter)

  • BofA name dropped from former HQ: The 40-story Bank of America Plaza at Trade and Tryon streets has been renamed “One South at the Plaza” by new owner Cousins Properties. Bank of America, the building’s major tenant, recently vacated the space, which remains home to law firms Alston & Bird and Shumaker Loop & Kendrick. The company that leases space in the building, Trinity Partners, says One South is an “exciting and unique opportunity” for a new office tenant to have its name on a building in the center of uptown. It was the HQ of BofA predecessors NCNB and NationsBank before the Bank of America Corporate Center opened in 1992.

  • Charlotte Soccer Academy bought 1.6 acres next to its soccer complex in Pineville for $297,000, property records show.

  • ‘No Grease’ changes name for SouthPark: Barbershop chain No Grease, one of Charlotte’s largest Black-owned businesses, has expanded into SouthPark Mall, opening a shop there this month called Knights of the Razor. Asked why he didn’t call the shop No Grease like the others, the company’s co-founder said, “SouthPark is a really prestigious area and market” and that it is “the perfect place to start this brand.” (QCity Metro)

  • Vaccine guidelines: North Carolina is studying the federal government’s new recommendation this week that states allow anyone 65 and over to receive the Covid vaccine, Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday. Cooper said he was frustrated at constantly changing guidelines and that the vaccine remains in short supply. The vaccine is now available only to front-line medical workers and people ages 75+.

  • Nondiscrimination ordinances: The Orange County town of Hillsborough has become the first N.C. town to enact an ordinance to protect LGBTQ residents from discrimination. A state law expired in December that banned municipalities from passing such measures. Similar ordinances are expected to be passed in Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Durham. Charlotte leaders have shown little enthusiasm for following suit, after the HB2 controversy several years ago. The Hillsborough measure “prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression in places of public accommodation and employment.” (WFAE/N.C Public Radio)

  • Celebrity vaccine endorsers: The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has released a pro-vaccination public service ad that features former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, county commissioner Vilma Leake, N.C. Sen. Becky Carney and former Mayor Harvey Gantt getting their Covid shots. “This allows me to be more in control of my life, less fearful,” McColl says in the ad. (NCDHHS)

  • Holly birthday follow-up: We heard back from Wells Fargo regarding the widely distributed “Happy birthday Holly” email we wrote about Monday. The bank said in a statement: “An email was mistakenly sent to a large group of Wells Fargo employees on Friday, and we quickly put in place a fix. We know that Holly had the most celebrated birthday ever.” The bank said it had no information to share on where Holly and her colleague Kim work or how many employees received the misdirected email.

Programming note: Ledger editor Tony Mecia appears as a guest on 90.7 WFAE at 6:40 a.m. and 8:40 a.m. on Thursdays for a discussion of the week’s local business news in the station’s “BizWorthy” segment. Audio and transcripts are also available online.

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