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Mecklenburg COVID-19 trends worsen. NC imposes new statewide curfew

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 12/9/2020 Catherine Muccigrosso, Joe Marusak, and Hannah Smoot, The Charlotte Observer

North Carolina will soon be under a new, modified stay-at-home order, including a 10 p.m. curfew, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday.

That announcement comes just as Mecklenburg moved into the orange zone on the state’s county-by-county COVID-19 alert system. That means the state considers Mecklenburg to have “substantial community spread.”

“I’m very worried,” state department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said. “This is a global pandemic. This virus is highly contagious and dangerous, but we can slow it down.”

The new rules aimed at limiting gatherings go into effect Friday at 5 p.m. and are scheduled to run through 5 p.m. Jan. 8.

The new executive order also increases restrictions on alcohol sales, ordering businesses to stop selling alcohol after 9 p.m. The state had previously limited alcohol sales until 11 p.m. in an order first implemented in August.

Matt Wohlfarth of Dilworth Neighborhood Grille has grown used to making quick changes and adjusting hours amid the pandemic to meet alcohol curfews and customer demands. But when he heard of Cooper’s latest moves, including the alcohol sales curfew, he said, “It’s pretty rough… We’re nowhere near out of this. I don’t think this is going to stop human behavior.”

While North Carolina retail businesses, restaurants and breweries must close by 10 p.m., the new order does not apply to grocery stores, drug stores and gas stations.

The curfew also restricts travel between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Events like live entertainment, amateur sporting events and movies must end no later than 10 p.m. under the order, but professional and collegiate sporting events are allowed to continue past that time.

“We will do more if the trends do not improve,” Cooper warned. “The stakes are dire.”

North Carolina’s Phase 3 order for coronavirus restrictions was set to expire at 5 p.m. Dec. 4 but was extended to Dec. 11 when a stricter mask mandate was announced Nov. 23.

“You are safer at home and slowing the spread of the virus,” Cooper said.

Previous peak in Meck

The county-by-county alert system uses a combination of case rate, positivity rate and hospital impact within a county. In the last two weeks, Mecklenburg’s coronavirus trends have skyrocketed, far outpacing the county’s previous peak COVID-19 levels.

The metrics used to categorize counties are divided into three tiers of community spread: Yellow being significant. Orange is substantial. Red is critical.

County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said she is not surprised Mecklenburg has moved into the orange zone.

“We are concerned, have been concerned, about the trajectory of all our metrics and the spread of virus in our community,” Harris said in a statement Tuesday.

Mecklenburg County first surpassed its previous peak, measured in daily reported COVID-19 cases, on Nov. 22 with 534 cases. On Sunday, state numbers show Mecklenburg hit a record 784 cases reported in a single day.

Other coronavirus metrics have spiked too. The county’s positivity rate among residents is at its highest level in four months. And coronavirus hospitalizations in the county have also surpassed the previous peak.

Vaccine expected soon

Despite the new curfew, state leaders emphasized Tuesday that the first vaccines to fight COVID-19 could arrive soon.

“We are so close to having a vaccine,” Cohen said Tuesday. “… We could have a vaccine in North Carolina as early as next week.”

The state expects to receive nearly 85,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the first shipment, Cohen said.

Still, distribution of vaccines won’t mean North Carolinians can ignore social distancing and mask requirements. Both the Pfizer and Modern vaccines require two doses, and it could be months before many people in North Carolina get access to the vaccines, health experts have said.

On Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Services released a list of the 11 hospital organizations that would receive the earliest shipment of coronavirus vaccines from the state. That list includes Charlotte’s largest hospital system, Atrium Health.

Those 11 facilities will get an early shipment of vaccines, before FDA approval. Immediately after FDA approval of a vaccine, another 50 N.C. hospitals or more will get vaccine doses, Cohen said.

Atrium, along with competitor Novant Health, has been preparing for the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine in recent weeks with the announcement both hospital systems would have the ultra-cold refrigerators needed to store the Pfizer vaccine.

Atrium does not yet know how many doses of the vaccine it will receive in the early shipments, but that number could be in the “low thousands,” Atrium’s Dr. Lewis McCurdy told reporters Tuesday.

Revenue already declining

While vaccines are pending, businesses continue to grapple with the personal and economic fallout of the pandemic.

At Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, Wohlfarth said revenue has been declining since around Thanksgiving and there are no Christmas parties booked this year. Now, alcohol sales will stop two hours earlier. “It’s going to crush the bartenders,” he said.

Wohlfarth said the biggest thing needed is enforcement and financial help for small businesses.

“I think the bottom line is we’re in some severe trouble if the government doesn’t come to the rescue,” he said.

The grill will continue to serve to-go orders after the 9 p.m. curfew.

‘Caught off guard’

Diandra Savage, assistant manager at Sports One Bar & Lounge on North College Street in uptown, said the new 9 p.m. alcohol sales limit and 10 p.m. closing was a surprise to her.

“I was a little caught off guard,” she said.

The sports bar and grill opens at 5 p.m. daily, and earlier on Saturday and Sunday. Customers have already adjusted to earlier closing time of 11 p.m, but she fears the bar “may lose some of our late-night customers.”

Savage said saving jobs is top priority for management now, and leaders will meet Wednesday to discuss how to make that happen.

Devastating layoffs

But around Charlotte and the state, many restaurants, breweries and other businesses have been forced to close temporarily over health and safety concerns.

Lost & Found owner Orlando Botero II said on social media Monday that the West Bland Street bar will be closed indefinitely because of the pandemic and the “burden” of operation restrictions.

“We are devastated to have to lay off our staff once again especially before the holidays,” Botero said. “This all could not have come at a worse time and this is truly heartbreaking.”

Restaurants around Charlotte and across the state were ordered to close March 17. Since being allowed to reopen May 22, restaurants have been operating at 50% capacity and follow changing regulations alcohol sales curfews, no bar seating and requiring customers to wear masks at all times other than while eating or drinking.

Botero said it’s been frustrating to have lines to get in to his bar “due to harsh capacity changes,” and was equally annoyed at repeatedly having to ask customers to wear masks when not drinking.

“It has been more challenging than we expected,” he said. “This decision (to close for now) was not easy, being threatened by the state to be put in jail or have my liquor license taken are very serious things to consider, and unfortunately not worth the risk.”

Nikki Frost, manager of The Casual Pint in the Rivergate shopping center in Steele Creek, said this week that another dining room shutdown would be a struggle.

She said business was “choppy” for the craft beer market business during the spring shutdown. It added online ordering for food, beer and gift cards, as well as delivery through third-party services like UberEats.

“In the hospitality business when no one wants you to be hospitable right now, it’s super tough,” Frost said. The store has a covered and open patio with heaters, and business is back to about 40 to 50% pre-COVID-19.

Expecting worse

Not every business was taken aback by Cooper’s latest order.

“We were expecting a lot worse,” Paul Kreins, owner of Victory Lanes Events and Entertainment Center in Mooresville said.

Earlier in the pandemic, Kreins criticized Cooper for ordering his type of events business closed, even though Kreins said his bowling center operates in a huge space and had many COVID-19 preventive measures in place.

“We’re pretty pleased with this announcement,” he said, adding that Cooper’s new orders would curtail only two hours of alcohol sales at his center on Friday and Saturday nights.

Large family and church gatherings, and establishments that claim to be restaurants but are really bars that pack in crowds, have always been the problem, he said.

Earlier restrictions

Cooper had extended Phase 3 coronavirus restrictions twice since it began Oct. 2 as the state struggled to get a handle on rising COVID-19 cases.

He tightened the mask mandate the day before Thanksgiving Day, requiring just about everyone to wear a mask in public or when they are with people who live outside their home. That includes businesses requiring workers and customers to wear a face covering.

Diners must wear a mask at restaurants unless they are actively drinking or eating. People are also required to wear a mask while exercising at fitness centers.

Retailers with more than 15,000 square feet of interior space also must designate an employee at each entrance to enforce mask compliance and monitor store capacity limits. Businesses and individuals not following the face-covering requirement could face fines of up to $1,000.

The state’s three-phased reopening plan was announced in the spring as non-essential businesses were temporarily closed in March when the COVID-19 pandemic began.


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