Each morning between 2 and 4 a.m. or so, our six-week-old grunts and groans under the tyranny of his swaddle. Usually a few moments pass when Laura and I are both awake, blinking in the darkness, wondering how close he is to breaking free.
Soon we find him in the bassinet, baring arms and somewhat satisfied, as if to serve warning that there’s no Velcro in the world that can keep him wrapped.
I had him in my arms this week when I saw news of another sort of struggle for independence, as images started to come in from friends in Raleigh documenting the Reopen NC protest.
It was similar to others around the country. In Michigan, they clogged streets. In Wisconsin, they went to the state parks. In Ohio, they banged on glass. Here in North Carolina, they pressed their palms against the steering wheel at once to let out one big, long honk.
In each state the call was clear: They’re done with the coronavirus shutdown, even if coronavirus isn’t done with them.
You knew this was coming. On every long ride, someone has to be the first to ask if we’re there yet. For many of us, their horns this week pierced the quiet stupor that came with finally accepting we have a long way to go.
In the streets and on their Facebook page, though, the members of Reopen NC contend that a stay-at-home order is unconstitutional, and that citing people who protest such an order makes the police something like the gestapo, and makes Governor Cooper a tyrant, and makes us all less safe.
If you know someone who’s sick or who’s died from the virus, it’s understandable if such a scene would make you angry. Same goes for doctors and nurses and anyone else putting in overtime. And let’s be clear: We’re not there yet. Not even with the most generous models are we past the point where a full reopening now would do anything but cause another spike and way, way too many deaths.
But underneath the bluster and horns and noise, the protesters are driven by something we all can recognize: They want to be free of all this. The layoffs and the financial worries. The forced family separation. And no matter where you stand and how much you disagree, if you look down at your cracked and dry knuckles, you can understand the impulse.
Even the most patient people are fidgety. Cooper’s office seemed to respond to that by offering an early idea of what a relaxation of the stay-at-home order might look like.
Last week 5.2 million people filed for unemployment, taking the total number to 22 million since governments started implementing restrictions. In any other circumstance, we would be racing to save the economy. But on the other hand, in the same week 17 bodies were found piled in a New Jersey nursing home that was “overwhelmed by the amount of people who were expiring,” a police chief told the New York Times.
It’s an uneasy equation, being a capitalist country made of beating, caring hearts.
I’ve spent a few days this week trying to gauge where people in Charlotte fall on the scale of stay-at-home to reopen. I’ve talked to Democrats and Republicans, people who are wealthy and those on the cusp of losing everything. Nobody I talked to is ready to scrap everything and try to return to a new normal yet. We don’t know enough. We don’t understand enough about who’s dying. But it’s clear that people are seeking out the statistics and stories that make them more comfortable, or that better support their choice of camp.
The conversation is coming far too soon for many people, and yet too late for others. What’s essential for some people will never be essential for others. And as content as one person might be with waiting, someone else is looking out the window wishing we were there.
Two weeks ago, Mecklenburg County’s healthcare leaders offered a stern warning that we might need 3,000 extra beds. Last week, they told us that because of our social distancing measures, that number was more like 600. This week, they said we likely wouldn’t need any, if we continued to stay at home.
It was a reason to celebrate for some, but a reason to doubt numbers for others.
If we’ve learned anything from our past by now, though, it should be that of-the-moment information is imperfect at best, and deeply flawed at worst.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people from the northeast moved to North Carolina in waves, following the belief that the air here would cure them of consumption. Two places in particular drew crowds: Asheville, in the mountains, and Pinehurst, in the Sandhills. The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald spent the summers of 1935 and 1936 at the Grove Park Inn after suffering from tuberculosis. And Boston businessman James Walker Tufts built Pinehurst resort exclusively for people who wanted a warmer climate but didn’t want to move to Florida. “At Pinehurst you simply breathe sweet air and drink pure water and walk under the blue sky and meet pleasant people,” Dr. Edward Hale, the U.S. Senate chaplain wrote in the 1800s.
Of course, we learned over the years that while fresh air is nice, it can’t cure tuberculosis.
Another story that took a little longer to prove wrong was that of the 1918 flu in Charlotte. At the time, media reports and the mayor suggested the numbers were far lower than they actually were. We only learned this because of a staggering story from The Charlotte Observer that ran this past Sunday, in which writer Mark Washburn uncovered 102-year-old lies. By lining up public statements with death certificates, Washburn found that officials underreported the number of people who died from the virus by half — and they did it for the sake of the economy, in particular the the Christmas shopping season.
The story should’ve served as a cold blast for anyone who might want to reopen.
One person who lived in Charlotte in 1918 was a young soldier from Milwaukee named Walter McCrory. He was stationed at Camp Greene, the former Army installation on the west side built to train infantrymen for World War I. In 1918, Camp Greene had some 60,000 troops, about double the population of Charlotte at the time.
According to the family story, when Walter arrived at Camp Greene he filled out paperwork to say he was a pharmacist. But someone misread it aloud as “farmer,” so they assigned him to take care of the horses at the mounting station down a dirt road that would later become Remount Road.
He was there, working with the horses, when the 1918 flu hit the camp. Walter McCrory didn’t catch the flu. But later in life, when he revisited the site with his grandson, Pat, he remembered it as a terrifying time.
Pat McCrory, of course, went on to become Charlotte’s mayor and North Carolina’s governor.
“He’s lucky he made it out of Camp Greene,” McCrory told me this week.
On his radio show on WBT, McCrory stays in partisan character: He’s opinionated and can turn daily issues into black-and-white, with-me-or-against-me commentary. But in a half-hour phone call with me Wednesday, McCrory talked about the gray areas.
He said he wouldn’t criticize Cooper or the administration for their response to COVID. He said he’d still like to see more data. Specifically, he’d like to know more information about those who’ve died from the virus, what percentage had underlying health concerns, and how many cases are in nursing homes.
McCrory is no stranger to protests in Raleigh. His administration was the focal point of Dr. William Barber’s Moral Monday campaign.
I asked him if he agreed with the Reopen NC protesters that a stay-at-home order was akin to tyranny, and he said, “There’s a cause and effect on every decision we make.”
He compared Cooper’s order to the few times he watched forecast models for hurricanes wheeling toward North Carolina, and how he had to consider mandatory evacuation orders.
“There was a European model and a USA model and damn, in all the years I was governor, it seems like the European model was always right,” he said. “(It’s like) evacuating an island in an anticipation of a hurricane that might never come. In the middle of travel and tourism season. And when it doesn’t come, you’ve wrecked people’s livelihood. But you’ve made it in the best interest of those people.”
On Wednesday morning, I went to Orchard Trace condominiums to see my friend Greg Jackson while he gave out breakfast. This time last year, I spent several weeks here reporting a story about him and the nonprofit organization he founded to help the kids in his neighborhood, Heal Charlotte.
Wednesday was chilly, so when I got there he had a black hoodie on over his head and he blew into his hands while he waited for a delivery. In the past year, Greg’s been through some things, including the death of one of the teens in the program. He was a spiritual person before I met him, but now even more so. He recites Bible verses and talks about God’s plan.
To some, freedom is as simple as having an armrest between you and another person at a ballgame. To a growing number of others these days, though, it’s a door without an eviction notice, or a morning meal. To Greg, freedom is in handing it over to a higher power.
He said his phone’s been ringing constantly with people saying they’re worried about being kicked out of apartments or motels. An executive order from Cooper technically prevents evictions, but not the worry, he says. Still, when I asked him whether he thought the state should reopen, he said, “Hell no. We’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
Heal Charlotte’s after-school programs are on hold because of the virus. No more train rides to Uptown theaters or museums. Greg can’t sit still, though, so he created a meal program for the families in his complex.
The program offers a window into the COVID economy in our city. Heal Charlotte received a grant from the Foundation For the Carolinas and the United Way to pay for the meals. Greg called his friend and chef Greg Collier, the James Beard Award semifinalist, to ask if he could supply the dishes.
This spring was supposed to be a celebratory time for Collier and his wife, Subrina, as they opened Leah & Louise in Camp North End. But the week they were scheduled to open in mid-March, the virus took off and restaurants were shut down and most of the service industry was out of work.
Collier priced out the cost for labor only — no profit for him — and brought in his team to make 100 breakfasts a day, five days a week, for the people connected to Heal Charlotte. Soon, Sweet Lew’s Barbecue will be serving dinners in a similar arrangement.
As I stood there Wednesday, a man came up to ask for breakfast. He works as a cook at a restaurant in Belmont and says his hours have been reduced.
“Got four (hours) yesterday,” he told Greg Jackson. “It’s not bad. It’ll be alright.”
“Yeah, it’ll come back some day,” Jackson told him, and then he handed him two boxes.
Pancakes and potatoes, a charity from a charity from a charity. Hardly a long-term solution. Hardly a plan. Hardly freedom. But, for the moment, filling.