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By Melba Newsome

The first major impact of the coronavirus on the Charlotte-area happened when someone 2,000 miles away got the virus. Immediately after the Hornets’ come-from-behind victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday night, the NBA announced it was suspending the entire season indefinitely after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Charlotte Hornets center and players union VP Bismack Biyombo said once one NBA player tested positive, the league had no choice but to cancel the season.

“We’re around each other so much; if one guy has it, God knows how fast that can spread around,” Biyombo said. “We play with the same ball, we sweat and we touch each other.” Biyombo is a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has studied the Ebola epidemic in his home country. He recalled how fast and far the disease spread and believes the same thing is likely to happen with the coronavirus.

The end to the Hornets’ season was the first in a series of events with which government officials, businesses, health care professionals and institutions struggled to keep pace last week. For more than a week after the state’s first case was confirmed in Wake County, Charlotte seemed to be out of the line of fire. But health officials who predicted it was only a matter of time were proven right Thursday when two people in the Charlotte-area tested positive for COVID-19 — one in Mecklenburg and another in Cabarrus county.

Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris during a press briefing on Monday evening. She told reporters that she signed an order restricting gatherings of 50 or more on Monday afternoon. Screenshot courtesy Mecklenburg County Government.

During the press conference on Friday, Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris reported that their efforts have been hampered by the state policy of sending the county only three tests at a time. “We have not been able to do sufficient testing to do active surveillance which is what we typically do with a communicable disease,” Harris said.

Call before arriving

Harris also asked people to contact their doctor before showing up at facilities for care. “Please don’t just show up asking for a test, or even if you feel like you may be infected, without calling ahead,” she said. She also says if you are 65 years old or older you should continue to limit interaction with large groups.

Novant Health set up triage tents outside of their emergency room to treat the potential influx of patients they will see. They will be used for screening of the virus with patients experiencing respiratory symptoms.

President Trump declared a national emergency around the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, opening the door for the federal government to offer some funding for state and local governments working to stem the spread of illness. Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency earlier in the week, making the state eligible for federal emergency funding.

On Saturday, Mecklenburg County health officials identified a new case of COVID-19 in someone who recently traveled from the United Kingdom. “I would emphasize that at this point in time we do not have any evidence that community spread is occurring here,” Harris said in a statement. Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.

Cooper and state health officials urged people not to congregate in groups of 100 or more, resulting in widespread cancellation of events across the state. But many groups tried to find workarounds.

While Broadway shows had already shut down until April 12, many of Charlotte’s arts leaders had planned to move ahead with their show. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center venues added hand sanitizing stations to public areas, canceled post-show stage door visits and autographs, and moved scheduled performances or events to a later date in the spring.

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools took several proactive steps to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. The district canceled all school-based events, suspended interscholastic athletics and practices and performances and moved Spring Break up a week.

At UNC Charlotte, more than 100 people elected to self-quarantine before the University moved all classes online. Queen’s University, Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) and Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) followed suit and extended their respective spring breaks until March 27.

Swiftly moving events overtake plans

These ad-hoc policies came to a screeching halt on Saturday. With the number of North Carolina COVID-19 cases at 24, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order banning gatherings of more than 100 people. He also directed K-12 public schools across the state to close for two weeks, starting Monday, March 16.

On Sunday, Mecklenburg County declared a state of emergency after two more residents tested “presumptively positive for COVID-19,” bringing the number of county residents to four. Both people in Sunday’s new cases are being isolated at home and their family members are being quarantined, county public health director Harris said in a statement. Officials said the county is still investigating if the two new cases are related to travel.

By Monday evening, there were seven presumptive cases in Charlotte.

As of Friday at noon, 1,629 cases of coronavirus have been reported in the U.S. and 41 deaths from the disease, according to the CDC. By Monday noon, those numbers were 3,487 cases with 68 deaths. Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in many changes for Charlotteans, triggering a cascade of precautionary changes affecting the region’s travel, employers and major institutions. Many employers, including Wells Fargo, have directed employees to work from home. Starting next month, American Airlines, the dominant carrier at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, will cut domestic flights by 7.5 percent and international flights by 10 percent.

Megachurches moved their worship services online. Annual St. Patrick’s Day events including the Bar Crawl, National Whitewater Center Green River Revival and Celtic Festival were all canceled, as well as the Charlotte African-American Festival and CPCC’s Sensoria festival. Michael Bublé’s sold-out concert at Spectrum Center was canceled and the Carowinds amusement park postponed its spring opening until April 3.

The Mexico vs. Czech Republic men’s soccer match scheduled for March 26 at Bank of America Stadium has been canceled. In addition to the Hornets, the Checkers and the Independence are awaiting news of when or if they will play again.

Melba Newsome

Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer with more than 20 years' experience reporting on news and features. Her feature credits in many prominent publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg...