Small businesses are the cornerstone of any community — they provide economic independence, build a sense of unity and provide unique services that chains and corporations often fail to. They serve the needs of their community and foster togetherness.
Beyond being a college town, Chapel Hill is well-known for the locally-owned restaurants, bars and boutiques that are staples for students and tourists alike.
However, COVID-19 has changed the playing field for local businesses, and Gov. Roy Cooper’s new executive order to loosen COVID-19 guidelines raises concerns about the role these businesses play in battling the spread of coronavirus within their communities.
Across the country, locally-owned businesses have faced fines or citations for failure to adhere to COVID-19 regulations, ranging from not wearing masks to exceeding acceptable occupancy and violating curfews.
Every state's rules are different, but N.C. businesses are not immune to these citations. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department found that several businesses that received citations for violating health orders also received COVID-19 relief grants.
How is this allowed to happen?
Perhaps most notably, sheriff's offices across the state have taken it upon themselves to not enforce the governor’s order regarding masks, social distancing and curfews. This means that when citizens decide to report businesses for violations, officers may not investigate or take action, allowing the violations to continue.
Furthermore, small businesses are self-operated in a way that chain restaurants and stores are not. Employers make their own rules for staff without being held to any national standards for COVID-19 precautions.
Small businesses have a responsibility to the community in curbing the spread of COVID-19. As we know, coronavirus spreads rapidly in large group settings — like bars and restaurants. For owners of these facilities, ensuring basic public health measures is not only necessary for employee health, but for the health of the community where they reside.
When local business owners decide to ignore this responsibility and ignore COVID-19 guidelines, it sends an upsetting message: that public health, the well-being of customers and the safety of staff are not a priority.
No matter how cliché it sounds, we are all in this together, and that means doing what is right and putting in the work to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.
I think it’s imperative for small businesses to not only encourage mask-wearing and social distancing as much as possible, but to also know their limits. With occupancy expanding up to 30 percent for indoor spaces, bars and restaurants are now able to host up to 250 people at a given time. Although permitted under the new executive order, this high threshold can result in overcrowding and increased spread of the virus.
The UNC community can see the impacts of this executive order on Franklin Street, where bars and restaurants made up much of the nightlife for students before the pandemic. Given that UNC students have disregarded public health by attending parties and rushing Franklin Street, the greater occupancy of bars is a valid and pressing concern as we move forward.
Several Franklin Street bars and restaurants have realized their responsibility of preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Chapel Hill. Several bar owners have shared concerns over the expanded capacity, and plan to continue offering limited seating and to-go mixed drinks.
It is essential that this community responsibility goes both ways. Blame does not just fall on businesses who do not strictly enforce COVID-19 guidelines, but also on the community members who refuse to abide by public health mandates.
Just as local businesses should practice public health guidelines, community members should uplift and support businesses through these difficult times. Chapel Hill wouldn't be the college town it is today without small businesses generating a sense of community and providing congenial spaces for members to live and work.
When it comes to combating COVID-19, business owners and consumers alike must work together to create healthier and safer communities.
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