Update: Mecklenburg County enacted a “shelter in place” order effective March 26 at 8 a.m. through April 16. See our full story here.
By Greg Barnes
Gov. Roy Cooper and leaders of cities and counties throughout North Carolina have declared states of emergency to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Bars and restaurants have been ordered to close. Large gatherings have been prohibited.
Could an order to “shelter in place” be next?
It’s already happened in San Francisco and more than half a dozen counties in California and at least one in Colorado. Other cities and counties throughout the nation are considering the drastic measure, including Wake and Mecklenburg counties, as COVID-19 cases continue to multiply.
In Wake County, Emergency Operations Center Manager Darshan Patel said officials have spoken to their counterparts in San Francisco in an effort to better understand what a shelter-in-place order would mean for Wake County residents, how it would be implemented, and the lessons learned from the Bay Area.
Patel called a shelter-in-place order “always something that is on the table, but it is one of the last options.”
“We never take lightly restricting people’s movement,” Patel said. “While it’s on the table, it takes a lot of deliberation to put something like that in there.”
In San Francisco, the order restricts residents from leaving their homes, except for “essential” activities, for at least three weeks. The city reported 51 positive cases of the virus and no deaths as of 10 a.m. Thursday.
Patel said the objective of a shelter-in-place order for Wake County would be to curb the rapid community spread of the virus. As of this morning, Wake County had 22 cases of COVID-19.
Patel said an order would be made in Wake County only if the virus begins to spread rapidly from person to person. So far, that hasn’t happened, but officials announced today that a community-acquired case has been reported in Wilson County and that more are almost certain to follow throughout the state.
Under North Carolina law, Patel said, a statewide shelter-in-place order could be made by the governor or locally by county health directors, heads of county boards of commissioners or by city council leaders.
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told WRAL-TV today that she is not recommending shelter in place right now.
“I’m not saying we might not ever get to that,” but that’s not something we’re thinking about, Cohen told WRAL reporter Laura Leslie.
Much to be weighed
A decision to issue a shelter-in-place order would not be made based solely on the number of people affected, Patel said, but on the “methodology of the exposure” based on “sustained community transmission.”
If the time comes for Wake County to issue the order, Patel said, officials prefer that it be countywide so that everyone who is involved in it is under the same restrictions and the same leadership.
Efforts to reach Gibbie Harris, the public health director for Mecklenburg County, were unsuccessful. Harris would be responsible for issuing the order there.
A spokesman for Mecklenburg County provided a statement saying “at this time, the public health order does not direct individuals to ‘shelter in place.’ If a shelter in place order was issued it would be in close consultation with state and local government officials.”
The Charlotte Observer reported Tuesday that Harris told the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners that the county could soon be under a shelter-in-place order if the community spread of coronavirus escalates rapidly.
“We may be moving in that direction more quickly than we like,” the Observer quoted Harris as telling the board.
San Francisco’s order
In San Francisco, nonessential businesses and governmental agencies have been ordered to close, and activity in the heart of the city has slowed considerably.
A brother of the author of this story had flown from New York to San Francisco on Monday night, just hours before the shelter-in-place order took effect at midnight.
Richard Barnes, a freelance photographer now on assignment for National Geographic, spent part of Thursday driving around San Francisco.
As he drove down Market Street, he said people were still outdoors — a skateboarder, a homeless person, a few cars and some people out strolling — but nothing like it normally would be.
As he drove farther, no cars awaited him at the entrance to the normally congested Bay Bridge. A homeless man appeared to be sleeping near the entrance, next to a sign that read: “Very small amount of cars.”
Barnes divides his time between homes in New York and San Francisco. He said he returned to San Francisco because he felt safer there. He said people are taking the shelter order seriously.
Barnes said a former colleague brought his own plate and silverware after reluctantly agreeing to meet for lunch. He said they ate sitting about 10 feet apart.
A North Carolina statute specifies who can make a quarantine order and the justifications for doing so.
“The State Health Director and a local health director are empowered to exercise quarantine and isolation authority,” the statute reads. “Quarantine and isolation authority shall be exercised only when and so long as the public health is endangered, all other reasonable means for correcting the problem have been exhausted, and no less restrictive alternative exists.
“When quarantine or isolation limits the freedom of movement of a person or animal or of access to a person or animal whose freedom of movement is limited, the period of limited freedom of movement or access shall not exceed 30 calendar days.”
Barnes’ son, who works for the city, gave him a ride one day but made him sit in the back seat.
“People are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Barnes said. “There is a sense of humor about it, but there is also a sense of urgency. If this worked in other countries, why not do it here?”
Hours earlier on Thursday, China reported no new cases of the coronavirus for the first time since the pandemic began. In South Korea, the outbreak has slowed considerably, and there is hope that infections there may have peaked.