By North Carolina Health News staff
Senate wants to open bars outdoors as hospitalizations rise
The state Senate approved a proposal that would allow bars to open in outdoor spaces at half their capacity or for no more than 100 people despite the governor’s safer-at-home order prohibiting such action due to concerns of spreading coronavirus.
The bill, which drew support from senators in both parties, has not been voted on by the House yet. In addition to bars, restaurants, breweries and wineries, many of which have opened partially, also would be allowed to offer outdoor service on sidewalks and streets at their full capacity if local municipalities approve.
Gov. Roy Cooper was asked about the potential legislation at a briefing with the media on Thursday, a day when the number of people in the hospital with coronavirus rose to 702. There were 784 more lab-confirmed cases between Wednesday and Thursday morning, bringing the total number of cases to 25,412. In North Carolina, there have been 827 COVID-19 deaths reported.
“We’re six days into phase two, and on a day when we’re seeing some of our highest numbers of hospitalizations and death, the Senate wants to open bars,” Cooper responded. “These decisions are difficult, but they are made with daily briefings from doctors and health care experts. This legislation would mean that even if there was a surge of COVID-19 that would overwhelm our hospitals, that bars still stay open.”
Cooper acknowledged the financial toll that his orders and the coronavirus pandemic have had on businesses and families, not only in North Carolina but across the country.
As of Thursday, 620,000 people in North Carolina were receiving unemployment benefits, claims that totaled around $3 billion, according to the governor.
On Friday, restaurants across the state were allowed to open at half capacity under social distancing measures and strict cleaning rules.
The number of lab-confirmed cases was increasing, in part due to more testing, and the hospitalizations were level, but not declining, leading Cooper to dial back his initial reopening plan. This meant that bars, gyms and theaters were excluded from opening in phase two.
The North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association has threatened to sue over the exclusion of bars in this reopening phase.
“Virtually all stand-alone bars in North Carolina are independently owned and operated,” Zack Medford, NCBATA founder, said in a statement on the organization’s website. “The safety of our guests and our employees is our No. 1 priority, and we have the most to lose from increased cases in our community. We take this virus very seriously, but we also know that if there is a safe way to open restaurants with bars, then there is a safe way to open stand-alone bars and taverns as well.”
Cooper said he hoped the House vote would take a different path than the Senate. “I believe there will be a time when we can open bars, but that time is not now,” Cooper said.
The order excluding bars from opening expires on June 26, but Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, stressed that a surge in positive coronavirus cases and people needing hospitalization could require different measures.
“It is concerning and exactly why we need to take modest steps forward and to watch these numbers,” Cohen said about the increase. “Are we going to go up and hold in the low seven hundreds or are we going to continue to increase? So we’re going to be watching that number really closely.”
Cohen expressed her concerns about taking an approach that could fling the door open to further viral spread by accelerating the reopening of businesses that could pose a higher risk for transmission of COVID-19.
“We need to take slow steps and we need to protect each other,” Cohen said. “I think we continue to be on that right path, but we have to take the cautious steps that we are taking, …which is why it’s concerning to hear about us rushing forward on some additional activities.”
Cooper said he and his team are willing to work with lawmakers, though in the middle of an election year, partisan divides have become more pronounced in recent weeks.
Sen. Rick Gunn, a Republican from Alamance County, sponsored the bill, which was a rewrite of a bill that would have overhauled the state’s ABC system. The bill was presented in the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday and then sent to the full Senate Thursday and sent it to the House for approval.
“My bill treats restaurants and bars the same, and it follows the lead of other jurisdictions by allowing safe outdoor seating options,” Gunn said in a statement posted to Medium by Senator Berger Press Shop. “This is a lifeline to a dying industry.”
Legislation, Cooper stressed, would not provide the flexibility that state and local health leaders might need to protect communities in the event of a surge.
“When you have legislation that is passed and fixing a certain situation at a certain time, it’s very difficult to go back and undo and unwind legislation,” Cooper added. “This is an unprecedented time. We haven’t seen anything like this. We have been successful in flattening the curve and that’s why we felt it was positive to go into phase two, but we didn’t want to go and open everything back up for concern of numbers going up in a quick way. This is why bars were closed.”
Cooper questioned whether the legislation as currently written limits the law to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Legislation in this area can hurt the public health,” Cooper said. — Anne Blythe
Children’s nutrition program and preventing utility shutoffs
As upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic lingers in North Carolina, state officials are looking for ways to extend nutrition programs for children, as well as prevent utility shut-offs while hundreds of thousands of people are out of work.
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters at a briefing on Thursday, that she was seeking more federal aid to extend a children’s nutrition program after the school year officially ends in June.
Families of nearly 900,000 children in North Carolina who receive lunch free or at a reduced price during the school year have received about $350 per child to buy groceries and put food on the table since school was shut down by the governor’s order.
“This program was authorized through the end of the traditional school year calendar,” Cohen said, “but we know the need for our children won’t end at that point.”
Extending the program through the summer would help families of nearly half of North Carolina school children with about $250 in additional support for each child.
Cohen said she sent a letter to the North Carolina congressional delegation urging them to support the extension of the program through the summer months.
On May 31, an executive order signed by Gov. Roy Cooper to prohibit utility shut-offs will expire.
Cooper said he was working with the utilities and would have an update soon about what happens after his order expires. — Anne Blythe
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday morning:
- 827 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 25,412 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 708 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
- 14,954 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious.
- More than 375,000 tests have been completed thus far, though not all labs report their negative results to the state, so the actual number of completed COVID-19 tests is likely higher.
- Most of the cases (44 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 18 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 83 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
- 146 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
- There are 3,366 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 818 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.
NC poet laureate joins COVID information campaign
Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina’s poet laureate, is working with the state Department of Health and Human Services as part of an effort to reach out to historically marginalized communities during the pandemic.
Green, the first African American poet laureate in North Carolina, has recorded a video message posted to youtube.
“Knowledge is powerful,” Shelton Green said. “Learn and know the facts about COVID-19, its risks, and how you can protect yourselves. Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. But instead, it offers a new way of building community.”
The campaign comes in a state where communities of color are among the harder hit with serious complications from COVID-19.
Though African Americans make up an estimated 22 percent of North Carolina’s population, as of Monday, they represented 31 percent of the state’s total laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases. Thirty-five percent of the deaths have been African American men and women.
Latino residents represent 9.6 percent of North Carolina’s population and 35 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The state has partnered with Shelton Green and other influential leaders among African American and Hispanic communities to help distribute messages about testing, the signs and symptoms of the virus, and precautions that people can take to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Radio One, which has a market in urban areas and communities of color, is slated to air messages from such people as former Congresswoman Eva Clayton, faith leader Reverend Prince R. Rivers and physician Roxie Wells.
Along with the poet laureate, videos available to share on social media and elsewhere have been made with Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, a family medicine specialist at Duke Health and member of the NCDHHS COVID-19 Response Historically Marginalized Populations workgroup and JacQuetta Foushee, a Winston-Salem psychiatrist.
Michelle Laws, assistant director of the state Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services and co-lead of the NCDHHS COVID-19 response team focused on historically marginalized populations, said in a statement that long-standing disparate outcomes in the communities of color should be highlighted and addressed.
“In addition to the actions we are taking to reverse these trends, we need to be sure that our communities of color are getting the information they need to protect themselves and their loved ones,” Laws said. “I am so appreciative to partner with these prominent and trusted leaders.” — Anne Blythe
CVS to open 55 testing sites in NC
North Carolinians will soon be able to get tested for COVID-19 at 55 drive-thru locations at CVS pharmacies across the state.
The effort is part of CVS Health’s commitment to set up 1,000 testing sites across the country, and help process as many as 1.5 million tests per month.
“CVS Health has been at the forefront of helping our nation scale-up COVID-19 testing capabilities, and we’re proud to meet our goal of establishing 1,000 testing sites in communities across the country,” Larry J. Merlo, CVS Health president and CEO, said in a statement. “Opening access to testing in more locations using our drive-thru window represents an important milestone in our response to the pandemic. We remain grateful for the daily efforts and sacrifices of our front-line colleagues who make the continued expansion of our testing possible.”
People seeking a test must register ahead of time.
For a list of the test sites, check here and on the state Department of Health and Human Services dashboard.
Gov. Roy Cooper said the sites will help with the state’s efforts to get more testing done in underserved communities. — Anne Blythe
Lee County testing site targets poultry workers but pulls in rest of the community
A loose coalition of health care providers, county officials and the National Guard joined forces over the past two days to test about 500 residents in Lee County.
In tents set up at Deep Bottom Elementary School in Sanford, 19 National Guard members, along with providers from Piedmont Health, a local community health clinic and Lee County Health Department officials took drive-thru test-takers through rain and heat. Burlington-based LabCorp will be running all the tests, which will take several days to come back.
Misty Drake, chief operating officer for Piedmont Health, said the Lee County Health Department, put out the word.
“They said, ‘Hey, we’re partnering with a bunch of folks to offer tests and show up’ and they showed up,” Drake said.
Initially, the event was to be focused on employees of a nearby poultry processing plant, Pilgrim’s Pride, where one worker recently died as a result of COVID-19. But the testing partners wanted to have the testing clinic set up in a neutral place to make it more accessible to the community.
At an earlier testing event in Siler City, Piedmont partnered with a similar coalition to test, 356 workers and family members were tested on the site of the Mountaire Farms processing plant there. Seventy four people received positive results.
“It was on their property, right,” Drake said. “So we were kind of limited in terms of who could actually come in and get tested. It wasn’t open really to the community.”
Drake said they had been seeing a lot of poultry plant workers at Piedmont’s Moncure clinic, so they anticipated a surge of workers at their Lee County testing site.
“I’ve been surprised at the number of retired people,” Drake said. “I’ve been surprised with the number of elderly individuals, residents that have come to get tested, young folks with their kids. I mean, we’ve had a carload of six people, four adults and two kids. So it’s just been a variety of different people.” – Rose Hoban