In the two weeks since March 26, when Buncombe County first issued its “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, many residents have asked when the community might return to some semblance of life before the disease. At a press conference on April 8, Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman offered an answer of sorts: whenever a new order, set to take effect when the previous order expires at 6 a.m. on Thursday, April 9, is repealed, replaced or rescinded.
“We look forward to the day when we can begin to reopen more businesses, to reopen our public schools, to restore traditional services within our houses of worship and resume public gatherings,” Newman said. “But the focus for the time being must be on limiting the spread of COVID-19. The more effective we are as a community at suppressing COVID-19, the more feasible it will become to restore public activities in the future.”
Fletcher Tove, the county’s emergency preparedness coordinator, explained that the new mandate was largely aligned with Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide Executive Order 121. Buncombe’s language remains stronger than the state’s by limiting essential businesses to those explicitly defined by the order, preventing all lodgings from renting for leisure travel and prohibiting all mass gatherings instead of just groups of more than 10.
However, Tove noted that the updated county order would loosen restrictions on several industries that had previously been deemed nonessential. Lawn care and landscaping, auto sales and real estate businesses, he said, will now be allowed to operate as long as employees follow the social distancing guidelines that apply to all activities throughout the county.
Additionally, as Jewish and Christian communities prepare to celebrate their holy days of Passover and Easter, Tove clarified that houses of worship are now permitted to offer drive-in services but cannot pass items, including collection plates or Communion hosts, between vehicles. “We understand that this may sound extreme and cause drastic departures from traditional ceremony, but we ask everyone to keep the bigger picture in mind and remember that we are doing this to protect our community and those most at risk,” he said.
Buncombe County’s full order, as well as interpretive guidance further explaining its restrictions, is available on the county website.
Cooper prepares new orders for care facilities, essential retail
Unlike Buncombe County, Cooper’s administration hasn’t yet confirmed that North Carolina will extend its statewide stay-home order beyond the current expiration date of Wednesday, April 29. At an April 8 press conference, however, the state’s chief executive outlined three new orders aimed to lessen the impact of COVID-19.
The first order, signed prior to the press conference, authorizes state officials to waive existing regulations on hospital bed numbers and health worker certification. Cooper said the move would speed up the state health system’s efforts to increase capacity in anticipation of a surge of COVID-19 patients.
Cooper noted that two further orders were under development to mandate additional precautions for workers and clientele at essential businesses. One would apply to long-term care facilities and require employees to wear surgical masks when interacting with patients, among other actions; the other would require essential retail stores, including groceries, to institute social distancing measures such as one-way aisles and customer capacity limits. The governor did not specify when the first order would take effect but suggested the second could be enacted as soon as April 9.
In other news
- The N.C. Forest Service has issued a ban on open burning, effective until further notice, for 32 Western North Carolina counties, including Buncombe. The ban aims to reduce the risk of wildfires, thus preserving first-responder capacity for COVID-19.
- Buncombe County and the city of Asheville launched Community Connect, a new online platform that provides household information to first responders. Community members can share their household’s size, special needs and medical conditions to help first responders take needed actions in the event of an emergency.
- A report issued April 7 by the Carolina Small Business Development Fund estimates that 1.4 million employees of North Carolina businesses employing fewer than 100 people are at “high economic risk” due to COVID-19. Nearly 142,000 small businesses, the report says, could close or lay off workers.
- A group of statewide civil rights organizations, including the ACLU of North Carolina, Forward Justice and Emancipate NC, sued North Carolina to demand more aggressive action to prevent COVID-19 outbreak in state prisons. At an April 8 press conference, Erik Hooks, secretary of the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said he wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the lawsuit but that his facilities were taking appropriate measures to contain the spread of the disease. Buncombe County’s criminal justice system has cut its jail population by nearly 40% to reduce the risk.