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Orange County officials aim to quell late-night crowds with new order

The bartender with a mask on talks to a customer at Might As Well Bar & Grill on West Franklin Street on Sunday, June 7, 2020. Might As Well is one of the several bars in Chapel Hill re-opening with some changes during this phase of COVID-19 recovery.

If you want a late-night bite in Chapel Hill these days, you'll need to make it at home or order it to go. Since July 10, Orange County restaurants have been prohibited from serving dine-in alcohol or food orders from 10 p.m to 5 a.m., as per a declaration added to the county's state of emergency order.

Town leaders said the order came as a response to concerns from residents, local law enforcement and University officials regarding crowds gathering at local restaurants in downtown Chapel Hill. 

"A lot of comments"

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said she crafted the amendment with Mayor Lydia Lavelle of Carrboro, Mayor Jenn Weaver of Hillsborough and Penny Rich, chairperson of the Board of Orange County Commissioners. 

“We were getting a lot of comments from our residents and our staff saying there were a lot of people hanging out in these establishments on Franklin Street,” Hemminger said. “We knew the governor had not allowed bars to continue, so we started calling restaurants.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s May 20 executive order moved the state into Phase 2 of reopening and stated that restaurants could open as long as they did not exceed 50 percent of the capacity for the building and set up tables to maintain a 6-foot social distance. Under the order, bars are not allowed to open.

The order defines bars as “establishments that are not eating establishments or restaurants, that have a permit to sell alcoholic beverages for onsite consumption" and "are principally engaged in the business of selling alcoholic beverages for onsite consumption.”

A business that calls itself a bar, but makes 30 percent of its revenue from food and has a kitchen and inside dining area is classified as a restaurant, according to state laws. 

Rich said law enforcement asked for an order so they could shut down restaurants operating as bars at night. 

“Law enforcement asked us to create this policy in the order because the way the order was before, they couldn’t go into the restaurants,” Rich said. “There was nothing in Orange County that allowed them to do that.”

Todd McGee, the community relations director for Orange County, wrote in an email that while he can't confirm whether cases are related to specific restaurants, the number of confirmed cases in Orange County have doubled over the past month. 

“We had received reports that people were gathering in restaurants and staying for long periods of time without observing social distancing or wearing masks and that the restaurants were not enforcing reduced capacity inside the facility,” he wrote. 

Some UNC students have posted concerns on social media about crowds at multiple establishments in downtown Chapel Hill throughout the summer. One such establishment included Might as Well Bar & Grill, which has previously functioned as both a restaurant and a late-night bar and club for students. 

Richard Sanchez, the general manager of Might as Well, said he was aware of the negative feedback online. 

Before the order set by the county, the restaurant was still learning how to best abide by the regulations set by the state, he said. 

“We did our best to abide by state and county regulations,” he said. “It was a little tough, and it was a bit of a learning curve, but we did our best to get through it.”

In a different email, McGee confirmed that COVID-positive individuals visited Might as Well.

“We have heard cases where COVID positive individuals said they visited MAW, but we have not linked any outbreak specifically to MAW being the cause or source for the outbreak,” he wrote in the email. 

The amendment states it was created upon UNC administration’s requests that “local officials take action to address the influx of large numbers of students who will increase the stress on local health care infrastructure in the event of a surge in COVID cases.”

Penny Rich said UNC leaders, specifically Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, took part in discussions surrounding this amendment. 

“We thought long and hard about this,” Rich said. “We talked to law enforcement, we talked to the University and Chancellor Guskiewicz was involved with the conversation with the mayor.”

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Chapel Hill Mayor Pro Tem Michael Parker said what is most important is making sure Orange County residents’ health is a priority, including students and faculty returning to the area. 

“It’s our goal as elected leaders in this community to try to keep our community safe,” he said. “Clearly the most pressing threat that our community has right now is COVID-19, so yes, we want to make it harder for the disease to spread in our community.”

According to McGee, the sudden influx of returning students could create the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak in the county. 

“The 18-24 age group accounts for 22% of the cases in Orange County,” McGee said. “Across the nation, this age group has seen an explosion in cases in some states that have relaxed restrictive measures.”

Parker said it is essential for all community members, including UNC students, to follow the “Three Ws” the governor has highlighted.

“I think that we are all very mindful of the fact that we could see an additional 10 or 20,000 or more folks coming into the Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Orange County community,” Parker said. “We want to make sure that they are safe and that they don’t take actions that would jeopardize the health and safety of our broader community.”


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