North Carolina will wait a little longer to reopen following an announcement by Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday, April 23.
Cooper extended his March 25 executive order, which closed schools, limited travel and closed non-essential businesses until March 8 – pending the state’s ability to meet three metrics related to the spread of COVID-19.
Cooper’s original executive order dealing with the virus was scheduled to expire on April 29.
“We now know more about what a new normal will look like,” Cooper said. “Last week we laid out some steps on the path forward… We need more testing, more tracing and for our trends to start to head in the right direction.”
Cooper added that his office has worked with the NC Department of Health and Human Services as well as multiple federal agencies and determined that the state is not ready to ease the current COVID-19 measures.
“Our state is not ready to ease restrictions yet,” Cooper said. “That is why I am extending my executive order closing non-essential businesses until at least May 8. The health and safety of North Carolinians must be our top priority.”
Cooper laid out a plan to ease the state back into a fully open economy, with restrictions being repealed in three phases.
In phase one of Cooper’s plan, which could be implemented as early as May 9 if the state can meet its testing and case tracing goals, retail businesses that were previously deemed non-essential would be allowed to reopen and restrictions on citizen travel would also be removed.
Businesses that reopen would have to implement increased cleaning and sanitation protocols, meet consumer social distancing guidelines and perform symptom screening for employees. Businesses specifically mentioned in Cooper’s plan included book stores, sporting goods stores, clothing stores and home goods stores.
Phase one of the plan would continue to limit gatherings to 10 people or less, promote social distancing of at least six feet and continue strict restrictions for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Restaurants and bars would remain closed to dine-in customers in phase one, which Cooper’s plan notes could remain in effect for 2-3 weeks before moving to phase two.
Phase two, which could be implemented as early as May 22, would allow restaurants, houses of worship, personal care services and other businesses that can meet social distancing requirements to reopen at limited capacity if the state continues to meet its preset testing and case tracing goals. It would also increase the number of people allowed at public gatherings, although the number of people was not specifically named in the plan.
Phase three of Cooper’s three-part plan will come 4-6 weeks after the implementation of phase two. In phase three, houses of worship, restaurants, entertainment venues and other businesses can increase their capacity. Phase three would also lessen the restrictions for vulnerable populations.
Local planning underway
The Highlands Chamber of Commerce has been working with business owners, the town board of commissioners and county leadership to plan for what the economy will look like when businesses are allowed to reopen.
The Chamber partnered with Berkeley Young, of Young Strategies, to host two online meetings in the past 10 days. The purpose of those meetings was to discuss an economic recovery strategy for Highlands.
“We need to focus during the next two months to stabilize for some businesses, as some visitors begin wading into the water,” Young said.
He emphasized that reopening isn’t an all-or-nothing scenario and that getting back to business must be done in a responsible way in order to maintain social distancing and prevent overcrowding.
According to Highlands Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kaye McHan, the Chamber’s leadership group is going to use the next two weeks leading up to May 8 to complete its planning for a “slow and steady recovery.”
“The Chamber will follow up with the next step meetings involving town leaders, hospital leaders, police, community leaders and each business sector to complete safety requests for the protection of our residents, businesses and visitors,” McHan said.
Schools to remain closed
On Friday, Cooper held a second briefing to announce that all public schools in North Carolina will remain closed through the end of the 2019-20 school year.
Cooper had previously closed schools through May 15 in hopes that the COVID-19 response would allow facilities to reopen for the final month of instruction. Instead, students will continue to be taught via remote learning.
Macon County Schools Superintendent Chris Baldwin noted that the school district will continue to offer instructional material to students and parents with hopes that some “end of the year student activities” might be possible.
“None of us have been properly prepared for the circumstances that we find ourselves facing,” Baldwin said. “Our school system is not designed as a ‘remote learning’ school system. We pride ourselves on building strong positive relationships with students and families and through these relationships providing individualized, in person instruction.”
Baldwin recognized parents for their dedication to their children’s education in what have been uncertain times since school buildings closed in March.
“Our parents are under tremendous pressure with their jobs, as well as now having to become teachers,” Baldwin said. “I know that many of you are teaching your classes and then teaching your own children another completely different lesson. These are challenging times to say the least. I am in awe of how our students, and parents, have faced this unprecedented crisis.”
There has been no decision made regarding the potential cancellation of graduation ceremonies or other end of year events in Macon County.