The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday March 7th

Heel Talk episode six: North Carolina's plan to reopen during COVID-19

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The sixth episode of Heel Talk went live Monday morning. 

Gov. Roy Cooper announced a three-phase plan at the end of last month to push the state economy forward following the economic slowdown experienced across the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Host Evely Forte talks to Claire Perry, the City & State desk's summer editor, to break down what this state plan means for Chapel Hill and Orange County, along with how local leaders and residents are reacting to the upcoming changes. The episode was co-edited and co-produced by Meredith Radford and Evely Forte.



The transcript of Monday’s episode is available below: 

Claire Perry: It's really important to realize that they have to follow at least the recommendations set by Cooper’s order, and in Orange County, there’s definitely an inclination to have more caution than is recommended by the state’s guidance, not less. 

Evely Forte: I’m Evely Forte, from The Daily Tar Heel, and this is Heel Talk. 

EF: Hey everyone, welcome back to Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte, and here with me today is Claire Perry, the summer City-State editor at the DTH! Welcome to the show, Claire!

CP: Happy to be here!

EF: So this episode is actually the first time we’re talking about a non-University desk story on Heel Talk, which is something I’m super excited about. Starting today, we’ll highlight stories across the DTH to really diversify our coverage and bring the most pressing stories of the week to you.

EF: Today, we’re talking about what reopening looks like for Chapel Hill — specifically, how local businesses, students and residents will be impacted by the state’s three-phase plan to reopen. That three-phase plan was announced by Governor Roy Cooper at the end of last month to push the state economy forward. Before we talk about Chapel Hill specifically, Claire, could you explain what Cooper’s three-phase plan involves? 

CP: So, basically, the three-phase system allows for a gradual reopening of the state, which Cooper said is meant to balance the economic need for reopening with health and safety concerns. In the first phase, the state is still under a stay-at-home order, and retail establishments, which have been closed since the first stay at home order went into place on March 30, are able to reopen at 50 percent capacity. The first phase also allows for outside gatherings of 10 people if they are for religious or protest reasons, which Cooper said was to ensure First Amendment protections. In the second phase, the stay-at-home order will be lifted for the first time since March, but vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions, will still be encouraged to stay home. In this phase, the allowed size of gatherings should increase to greater than 10, and we’ll also see businesses like bars and dine-in restaurants begin to open in limited capacity, probably with patron limits like retail establishments have in Phase 1. Finally, in Phase 3, stay-at-home recommendations will be lifted for vulnerable populations, and capacity will increase at retail establishments, bars and restaurants. In this phase, there will still be heavy monitoring and regulation for congregate settings, which include nursing homes and prisons, and physical distancing will still be encouraged.

EF: So, Claire, what phase is the state currently in? 

CP: So, the state is in Phase 1, and has been in Phase 1 since May 8.

EF: And when should we expect North Carolina to enter the next phase of reopening?

CP: That’s a little complicated. The governor’s current executive order expires on May 22, which is this coming Friday, but he said that he will extend Phase 1 through a new order if health metrics are not where he and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, want them to be. 

EF: And what even are these health metrics?

CP: So, there are four main metrics based on CDC guidelines that Cooper and Cohen are monitoring as they consider moving through the reopening phases. The first of these is the percentage of COVID-like syndromic cases out of total ER visits. Basically, someone has a COVID-like syndromic case when they display symptoms that mirror COVID, like dry cough, fatigue or a fever, and don’t actually test positive for coronavirus. The next metric follows the percentage of positive coronavirus tests out of total tests conducted, which is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, even if you have more positive tests, it’s possible that this can be due to changes in testing capacity, which has increased a lot in North Carolina since the start of the pandemic. So, this metric is measured as a percentage to keep the testing increases in mind. The state is monitoring total laboratory confirmed cases as a third metric, but again, with increased testing, this metric is likely to go up regardless, so that percentage of positive tests out of total tests kind of works as a stabilizer. The state is monitoring hospitalizations due to COVID-19 as a final metric as they consider reopening. Cohen said in a press briefing on May 5 that she’s confident that N.C. hospitals can handle an uptake in hospitalizations, but they still monitor this metric as a sort of benchmark to see how the number of severe cases change. 

Dr. Mandy Cohen: We aren’t seeing significant downward trajectories on most metrics, largely because we were successful in the first place, preventing a sharp peak.

CP: When those four metrics stabilized to a level Cohen and Cooper were confident with, the state moved into Phase 1, and they’re going to see how these metrics react to increased nonessential movements and interactions in the next few days and decide whether or not to move from Phase 1 into Phase 2.

EF: I know in some states, like in Florida, where I am, certain counties have been temporarily excluded from the reopening plans of the state, because those counties have been COVID-19 hotspots. Do you know, Claire, if this has been the case in any North Carolina counties?

CP: So, as far as I’m aware, no counties have been excluded from reopening In North Carolina so far. The clear leader in coronavirus cases has been Mecklenburg County since the beginning of the pandemic, but larger counties like Durham, Wake and Orange have also reported a large number of cases. Although all the counties fall under the state’s executive orders, counties can choose to have stricter restraints. For example, I talked to Penny Rich, the chair of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, and she said the county may mandate a stay-at-home order past Cooper’s order if they aren’t comfortable with where the county is as far as safety when the order expires. 

Penny Rich: We are hoping that, um, the governor gives us the guidance after, uh, after next week. I assume, probably Tuesday or Wednesday, he’ll decide if he is going to hold on to Phase 1 for another two weeks or another one week. Originally, he said two to three weeks; we were hoping here that it would go to three weeks. But, we also know that he’s getting pressure from, uh, you know, um, business owners to, um, like, start opening up.

CP: Other counties fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, at least when it comes to wanting to reopen the economy. For example, Gaston County tried to reopen retail establishments before Cooper allowed the 50 percent capacity opening with his May 8 order, but the legality of overstepping the state was questionable, so it ended up being shut down. 

EF: And how about Orange County and the Town of Chapel Hill specifically? Do you have a sense as to how the county and the town have implemented the governor’s plan? 

CP: Yeah. So like I talked about, Commissioner Rich said the county commissioners may extend the stay-at-home order depending on what Cooper says about moving into Phase 2, or not, early this week. According to an interview I did with Chief Blue, of the Chapel Hill Police Department, back in April, they are enforcing the stay-at-home order, and monitoring businesses that may be in violation of the order, but everyone I’ve talked to has said that people really are following the stay-at-home order and other regulations in Chapel Hill. I know Carrboro has recently recommended that people wear masks when out and about, which goes beyond the state guidance, so municipalities are kind of taking their own spin on adding extra to the state orders. Again, it’s really important to realize that they have to follow at least the recommendations set by Cooper’s order, and in Orange County there’s definitely an inclination to have more caution than is recommended by state’s guidance, not less. 

CP: But, Commissioner Rich and Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said there may be a countywide extension of some Phase 1 regulations if county and town governments find that the governor’s Phase 1 length is not enough for safety. Hemminger said that an extension may be put in place for caution, because the effects of changing coronavirus-related procedure can take more than three weeks to surface in case data, making it difficult to measure the effects of Governor Cooper’s Phase 1 order, which is currently only two weeks long.

Mayor Hemminger: Opening up and only giving a two-week line is really difficult because you don’t have the data to confirm that. We know we’ve flattened the curve, um, and given the healthcare system time to get prepared, and to give manufacturing time to produce the gloves and the masks and more PPE, um, that’s all going to save lives in the long run. But, this virus is still pretty, pretty nasty, and it spreads and it kills. 

EF: So, last month, DTH reporter Elizabeth Egan reported on local businesses grappling with the economic impact of the pandemic, specifically how many local businesses, on Franklin Street even, like Lotsa, have had to close because of this. From your reporting, Claire, how are Orange County leaders feeling about this plan? Do they think it’s going to economically improve the situation many local business leaders are dealing with? 

CP: So, Chapel Hill and Orange County have a lot of small businesses, and I think people are justifiably worried that some of these small businesses won’t survive the pandemic. Audrey Selley wrote a piece earlier this week about how Franklin Street restaurants have adapted their practices during the pandemic, but even in an economic hotspot like Franklin, some businesses aren’t going to recover, especially because places like Franklin have such historically high turnover even in summers that didn’t include a global pandemic. I know Orange County leaders are aware of this probable closure — they’ve talked about this in meetings since the pandemic has started, and they’re worried about the impact of these closures and reduced investment in retail on the Orange County budget and tax base. I’m not an economist, but from what I’ve heard, the economic impacts of coronavirus are going to be long-lasting. It’s going to change how we work, live and consume products and services. It’s going to be really interesting to see how these changes affect the budget, which affects literally everything in local government. It’s definitely going to change life as we know it in Orange County. 

EF: How about local residents and business owners themselves? How are they feeling about the plan to gradually reopen? 

CP: Yeah, we’ve done quite a few stories about business owners in the past few weeks. I think they’re hopeful for reopening, but the impacts of this pandemic have changed how they do business, and they’re scared they might not recover. A lot of places have had to lay off staff, and are really bare-boned right now. It’s a hard spot to be in, for sure, and it’s really just going to be a matter of which businesses can outlast the reopening process long enough to see full capacity again. There’s a lot of unknowns, so we’re just going to have to keep reporting on them as these stories pan out.

EF: That’s so true Claire; there definitely are a lot of unknowns in this time. And, as you mentioned, the DTH will definitely keep covering these developments and highlight any major ones on this show. So thank you so much Claire for your time today, I really appreciate speaking to you. 

CP: Thank you so much for having me; it was fun.

EF: And so, now here are other DTH stories from this past week that you should be familiar with. 

UNC's class of 2020 celebrated Commencement weekend with a virtual watch party on May 10th. The original ceremony was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but seniors marked the event with live- streamed messages from the chancellor and performances by UNC a cappella groups.

An antiviral drug developed in partnership with UNC researchers was approved earlier this month by the FDA for emergency use authorization in COVID-19 patients. Clinical trials results from April indicate that the treatment has the potential to shorten patients' recovery time.

Takeout Central, a food delivery service owned by a UNC graduate, has partnered with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle to deliver weekly groceries to people struggling with food insecurity during the pandemic. Wes Garrison, co-founder of Takeout Central, said he saw an opportunity to help the community when the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect on March 27. 

And finally today, after the NCAA canceled all spring competition due to COVID-19, Fox College Hoops created a Twitter bracket to determine who had the best fans in college basketball. Through multiple last second victories, UNC fans came home with the title of best fans in college basketball against the field of 68 fan bases. 

This week’s episode of Heel Talk was co-edited and co-produced by Meredith Radford and myself. That’s it for this week’s episode of Heel Talk. I’m Evely Forte. I’ll see you next week. 

So, if you guys enjoyed today’s episode, please consider subscribing, rating and reviewing the episode, and sharing.

Episode transcribed by Meredith Radford.

Other DTH stories mentioned on this episode: 

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving an honest rating and review. 

@evelyaforte

@sclaire_perry

@mereditharadfor

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