Buncombe responds to COVID-19: March 19

Deserted Haywood Street
NOTHING DOING: Haywood Street in downtown Asheville was deserted on March 19 as Buncombe County issued a declaration closing "gyms, fitness centers and exercise facilities, indoor pools, spas, movie theaters, live performance venues and arcades" until further notice. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Buncombe declares new business restrictions

On March 19, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman issued a supplemental declaration — an update to the local state of emergency declaration announced March 12 — designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Buncombe County.

The revised declaration restricts gatherings to 10 people or less, a stronger mandate than the current statewide prohibition of gatherings of over 100 people. Newman said the rule does not apply to medical facilities, airports, transit stations, shopping malls, offices, factories or childcare centers.

The mandate also requires gyms, fitness centers and exercise facilities, indoor pools, spas, movie theaters, live performance venues and arcades to close until further notice. Newman clarified that grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, hardware markets, gas stations, farmers markets and food distribution sites would still be allowed to operate.

While Newman did not indicate when the declaration would be lifted, he said that a press briefing and announcement would be made when Buncombe County health officials deemed it appropriate.

First case of N.C. community spread reported in Wilson County

While Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, Buncombe County’s interim health director, said that there is still only one known case of COVID-19 associated with Buncombe County, county health officials are gearing up for a new phase of the pandemic. During a March 19 press conference, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen announced that the state had 97 confirmed cases of the disease, including one instance of community transmission in Wilson County.

Community transmission or spread, Mullendore explained, means that the individual who contracted the disease did not travel to a highly impacted area and had no known contact with another person confirmed to have COVID-19.

“At the start of this outbreak, as with any outbreak, our efforts focused on containment of disease. We want to know who has the illness and how they got it. We isolate those with illness and quarantine their close contacts. These efforts help delay the spread of infection and give us time to prepare for the next phase of response,” Mullendore said. “Now that we know that we have community spread in the state, we need to continue our efforts to reduce the impact of infection on the general public and the health care system.”

As the virus continues to make its way through the state, Mullendore said, testing for people experiencing mild illness will become less important. Instead, public health officials will turn toward ensuring that health care providers have adequate medical supplies and capacity to manage patients.

Mullendore said that 246 tests had been conducted since the county opened two drive-through testing sites on March 17. Between those tests and the efforts of Mission Health and other health care providers, she said, more than 500 people have been tested in Buncombe County over the last several days.

“We expect that with this increase in testing, additional cases will be identified locally in the coming days,” Mullendore added.

ART buses to offer fare-free service, implement new public health measures

The city of Asheville announced March 19 that beginning Friday, March 20, the city’s public transit system would offer fare-free service. According to a press release from the city, the measure is meant to reduce the chance of COVID-19 transmission by limiting contact between drivers and riders through the handling of money and bus passes.

Riders are also being asked to enter and exit city buses using the rear door only, unless they need to use the wheelchair ramp, to increase their distance from drivers. The press release notes that hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed on each bus and at the bus station; buses will undergo at least daily sanitation “focusing on disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.”

Asheville Parking Services also temporarily suspended enforcement of the city’s on-street parking meters and fees at parking garages through Sunday, April 5. At that time, the city will determine whether to extend the fee suspension.


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