North Carolina is almost a week into phase one of reopening, with phase two on the horizon for next week. So, how are we doing so far?
Phase one — which keeps the stay-at-home order in place but expands the acceptable reasons residents can leave the home, and allows shops and state parks to reopen, among other changes — is expected to last about two weeks and expire on May 22. But officials could change that date in order to control the spread of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus that has infected at least 2,283 Mecklenburg County residents and killed 63 since March.
Moving to phase two — which would allow restaurants, hair salons, barbershops, and gyms to open at reduced capacity — depends on phase one going well.
So far, the reviews are mixed. People aren’t wearing face coverings as much as officials would like. There were still dozens of 3-1-1 complaints about large gatherings and social distancing violations over the weekend. People are filing back into newly reopened parks.
To determine when we’re ready to move forward, the state is looking at a number of metrics, including a decrease in the percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations. Additionally, the state wants to test at least 5,000 to 7,000 residents per day.
Examining trends and ensuring the state is moving in the right direction, takes more than a few days.
“Right now, we feel we are where we need to be,” county health director Gibbie Harris said at a business roundtable meeting May 11, referring to the metrics and staying on track for phase two.
There are other areas of Charlotte life we can explore to see how we’re doing so far. Are individuals wearing face coverings? Are people practicing social distancing at parks and on greenways? How are business owners responding?
Essentially, is Charlotte still taking coronavirus seriously?
Face coverings are lacking:
Not enough people are wearing face coverings in public, county manager Dena Diorio and other business leaders said during the roundtable call this week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state of North Carolina recommend that everyone wear a face covering when they’re outside the home and in settings where social distancing is harder to practice — like a grocery store.
But not all residents are following these guidelines. The Charmeck Joint Information Center said this is one area of concern during phase one.
During the call with business leaders, Diorio spoke anecdotally of a trip to SouthPark mall, where most businesses remained closed. Foot traffic was low, and “not really very many” wore masks, Diorio said.
Diorio discussed a possible “no mask, no service” policy with the group, meaning businesses would turn away customers who don’t wear a face covering.
Some businesses already require masks:
For example, Costco requires customers to wear a face covering over the mouth and nose at stores nationwide.
But the policy led to some backlash and a push to boycott the retailer. Andy Ellen, president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, told the business roundtable this week that small businesses don’t necessarily want to alienate customers by mandating masks.
K|LA Boutique in Park Road Shopping Center requires all shoppers to wear a mask. If they don’t have one, they can purchase one, employee Reema Patel says. Additionally, only three shoppers are allowed in the store at once.
Many retailers are opening slowly and cautiously:
A good number of retailers decided to stay closed to in-store shopping regardless of restrictions loosening.
Only about 25 shops out of SouthPark mall’s 150-plus are open as of May 13, including Belk, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Foot Locker.
After CMPD shut down Park Road Books’ curbside pickup program a couple of weeks ago, the book store was able to restart that operation in phase one. But owner Sally Brewster decided to stay closed to in-store shopping.
“We don’t think it’s safe yet,” she says. Sales are down somewhere between 40 and 60 percent, Brewster says, but the financial sacrifice of staying closed is worth it to keep her staff safe.
“I’ll do it for my employees because the store does not exist without them.”
Bartique in NoDa is waiting an extra week to open, officially reopening this Friday, May 15. It will be open for appointment only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then open for walk-ins from 1 to 7 p.m.
East Boulevard’s Paper Skyscraper opened a few days ahead of other retailers in phase one because it sells books and educational materials, which was allowed under the state’s order. (Paper Skyscraper was closed when the county’s order was in place in April, because the county’s order was tighter on things like books and educational materials.)
While owner Bill Godwin says the store doesn’t plan on implementing a “no mask, no service” policy, there are free disposable masks available at the store’s entry. The store’s staffers ask customers to wear one if they’re not doing so already.
This is a similar policy in place at Moxie Mercantile, where customers are asked to wear masks and use hand sanitizer when entering its two locations in Davidson and Plaza Midwood. Additionally, only three customers are allowed in at a time.
All stores have capacity restrictions in place under the state’s reopening plan. Right now, retailers can only be open at 50 percent capacity.
Some shops like Onward Reserve in Park Road Shopping Center are going cashless as an additional preventative measure.
Parks are filling up again:
Crowding has been an issue in parks since the stay-home order began two months ago. The county closed parking lots for local parks from April 8 to 29 as a way to discourage gathering.
With gates open, attendance is up. From April 29 to May 3, county parks saw approximately 246,153 people — an average of nearly 50,000 people a day. This is up from the last time the county took a full week count from March 30 to April 5, when parks saw 207,858 people or about 30,000 people a day.
According to the county’s mobility tracking data, there has been a slight decrease in social distancing in Mecklenburg County from April 26 to May 10. “Despite this downward trend, social distancing remains significantly higher than before the Stay at Home Order became effective on March 26,” the county reported.
On Monday afternoon, Freedom Park’s parking lot was busier than previous weeks, but individuals were mostly spread out inside.
Some weren’t practicing social distancing — like a group of people kicking around a soccer ball — but most were.
“We’re learning on the fly,” says Brian Cox, at-large parks commissioner. “We’re hoping people will do what the governor’s office is telling them to do.”